My habit of embedding myself where you wouldn’t expect to find an artist has most recently led me to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, where I’ve been serving as an artist in residence since July. I’ve taken a deep dive into learning about human relationships with plants, and that is the very subject of my upcoming exhibition of residency artworks at Phipps opening on January 11, 2019 (and save the date for the closing reception and artist talk on March 7).
I’ve spent hours in the greenhouses asking questions about the ways plants serve people. The scientists, horticulturists, educators and more were happy to indulge my inquiries, since they love any opportunity to gab about nature.
With my sketchbook in hand, I jotted notes about the intricate ways plants provide for us, protect us and delight us. These powerful gifts often go unnoticed, although examples of their vast contributions to human welfare are everywhere – from the clothes on your back to the wood forming your home. And so I started making paintings of the best examples. I translated those paintings into the repeating patterns below and now I’m in the process of adding the human element.
This week I’m overlaying each of the six botanical patterns with the silhouette of someone from southwestern PA whose work embodies the human/plant connection, from a food security advocate to a nature-inspired material scientist. Each painting is a celebration of plants that serve our human interests and an individual harnessing that botanical benefit. I hope, come January, it will inspire or deepen your biophilia, or love of nature.
With each day that passes with the new leader at the helm of the United States, I grow more fearful of what lies ahead for my child and for many others. The alarming statements, executive orders, and appointments have cast a wide net that leaves almost no American unaffected. Some days the breadth of challenges seem too immense to tackle. Then, the words of Wendell Berry shake me out of our my stupor:
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
The issue that I’ve been the most absorbed by over the past year is climate change, which is also regrettably out of favor with the new administration. Because the threat of climate change is so pervasive, urgent, and increasingly politicized, it requires support from people of all professions – scientists to philosophers, educators to entrepreneurs, policy makers to painters. It’s personally given me fresh direction and purpose in my work. And now, with my six-month artist residency at a top-five natural history museum completed, I have outcomes to share that demonstrate that artists and scientists belong side-by-side to tell the story of our impact on this planet and to make a call to action.
In my personal experience, scientists’ hard work is often buried in paid subscription publications and are only decipherable to their peers anyway. What a missed opportunity. If the research was easy to access and understand, you might care about integrative taxonomy, bird phenology, and the Anthropecene. It might even change your behavior (to your great benefit). The missed opportunity is what shaped the mission of my artist residency at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH), which was to make dense science relatable to a broad audience to pique curiosity about nature and foster environmental stewardship.
During my residency, I spent more than 500 hours digging through thousands of specimens and creating artwork that painted a picture of nature conservation. One of the topics I quickly gravitated toward was bird conservation and the museum’s work at Powdermill Avian Research Center in partnership with BirdSafe Pittsburgh. Together these entities “work to research and reduce bird mortality in the Steel City” (it’s estimated that up to one billion birds die in the US every year from colliding with windows).
I created and exhibited six mixed-media paintings that each captures a local bird species heavily impacted by window collisions (details and prices for these works are available here). Each portrait is framed by a silk-screened design of both Mountain Laurel (PA’s state flower) and the iconic Pennsylvania keystone symbol. Below the paintings are replicas of the museum’s specimen tags – one for each bird of the same species added to the museum’s collection due to a window strike since 2014.
This residency was a learning experience beyond my wildest imagination. My greater understanding of science and people’s enthusiasm for conservation and collaboration has solidified this direction in my work for the foreseeable future.
As scientists continue to make the Anthropocene a common concept, and the public gains access to more scientific research (for example, research funded by NASA is now available to all for free), I hope other creatives will be inspired to visualize it through their work. This, of course, will broaden our collective understanding of climate change, but it will also encourage people to connect with science and nature through art. Or better said by Oscar Wilde,
“No better way is there to learn to love Nature than to understand Art. It dignifies every flower of the field. And, the boy who sees the thing of beauty which a bird on the wing becomes when transferred to wood or canvas will probably not throw the customary stone.”
During that project, there were several conversations with scientists and museum staff that set off fireworks of creative inspiration in my head (hopefully I wasn’t giving blank stares while struggling to mentally dog-ear those ideas and keep up with the conversation). My experience at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) was especially fruitful. However, the two months allocated for the project were just a tease. I wanted more.
Presumably because my interactions with folks at CMNH were mutually enjoyable (or at the very least tolerable), and because my work complements their mission of “increas[ing] scientific and public understanding of the natural world and human cultures,” museum staff and I started planning and fundraising for a longer and more in-depth adaptation of the 2015 project specific to CMNH. Long story short, we found funding, and a few weeks ago I became an artist in residence for six months of making work inspired by the museum’s physical and intellectual assets.
In case all of the above left you scratching your head, here’s a Q&A outlining the nuts and bolts of this residency:
What exactly are you doing? Creating 2D artwork that 1. Depicts the museum’s specimen collections, and 2. Visualizes scientific research conducted by CMNH scientists about our natural world. This also includes exhibiting some of the artwork in CMNH galleries of thematic relevance; adapting these art+science ideas for museum summer camp workshops that I’ll facilitate for kids and teens; exhibiting the work outside of the museum at Boxheart Gallery (November 15, 2016 to January 6, 2017), the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (October 14, 2016 to January 8, 2017), and other venues still in the works.
When and where will I find you in action? On Tuesdays and Wednesdays now through the end of 2016, I will be at the museum working either in a studio behind the scenes, or in a museum gallery where visitors can watch me work and ask questions (and pose for selfies, of course). Some variations in this schedule are unavoidable, so get in touch for my most up-to-date whereabouts, and follow the day-to-day goings on via the hashtag #artofCMNH on Instagram and Twitter. And, like last year, I would be thrilled to schedule a date with you at the museum so you can experience firsthand what an artist set loose in a natural history museum looks like.
Why? I want to make dense science relatable to a broad audience to pique curiosity about nature and foster environmental stewardship. Also, it’s personal. My son will be 39 when, as Bill McKibben predicts, “we’ll have more than reached the zenith of our economy and civilization.” Therefore I feel firmly compelled to ensure resources such as CMNH are valued and utilized to their utmost potential to safeguard the planet he’ll inherit and inhabit. I’ve honed in on a natural history museum in particular because such institutions play a unique role in the future of our planet. They collectively house astounding quantities of specimens from the natural world that are a goldmine of data for people who need to know about our planet’s past in order to preserve its future. They also are one of the best places to cultivate an appreciation for studying nature (seriously, name one child you know who doesn’t love dinosaurs).
Why should I care? Because you love drinking clean water. You love breathing fresh air. You love living in or visiting cities precariously positioned on rising coastlines. Nature is increasingly made vulnerable by the strain of our existence, and that affects us all. My hope is that this residency and the resulting work will shed additional light on the importance of our involvement in caring for this big beautiful sphere we’re spinning around on.
What do you know about science? Well, let me put it this way, I passed my high school biology class because my teacher, who was also my soccer coach, was less likely to make me run extra laps if I didn’t fail in his classroom. I’m pretty sure that was the last natural science class I ever took. However, determination is a powerful thing. So, I keep a dictionary app close at hand while studying research articles written by CMNH scientists on subjects including “Long-term climate impacts on breeding bird phenology in Pennsylvania, USA.” I’m also taking a DIY approach to filling in gaps in my science education with online courses (the broad topic for this month is genetics). My high school biology teacher would be proud.
Maybe, just maybe, this residency will be another needed case study of how art and science go together like peanut butter and jelly (or maybe like adenine and thymine?). I hope you’ll follow adventure on the social intertubes and/or in person. You’ll also get updates here about the scheduled exhibitions, presentations, workshops, and more. Until then, back to making #artofCMNH.