An artist-in-residence paints a picture of nature conservation

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.

Artist-in-residence Ashley Cecil's workspace at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Caption: My workspace at the museum.

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.

Pittsburgh artist Ashley Cecil holding bird specimens. 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).

Mixed media paintings of a Magnolia Warbler and Common Yellowthroat by Pittsburgh artist Ashley Cecil 2016 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.

Ashley_Cecil_bird_conservation_painting_with_specimen_tag Akin to artworks from the Arts and Crafts movement, my paintings are meant to endear you to nature, to these threatened creatures, and to inspire you to get involved with BirdSafe Pittsburgh’s local citizen scientist program or a national program.

Students participating in one of Ashley Cecil's art and science workshops
Caption: Students in one of the three art and science workshops I facilitated during CMNH summer camps.

Clearly, producing the original artwork was a big part of my residency, but I was also: 1. Teaching art and science workshops to museum summer camp students;

Carnegie Museum of Natural History visitors color in a mural by Ashley Cecil 2. Designing and installing within the museum a coloring mural illustrating birds of conservation concern for thousands of visitors to collaboratively fill in;

Scarf and coloring poster 3. Putting birds, botany, and science on products that spread the love of nature to wardrobes and kids crafts rooms alike;

Sample handmade products
Caption: Details of four handmade products inspired by bird conservation and made by fellow Pittsburgh artists.

4. Organizing four other local artists to launch additional hand-crafted items that promote an appreciation for nature;

Ashley Cecil draws and writes on the glass of taxidermy cases in Bird Hall at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
Caption: My drawing of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker and a quote by Joel Sartore – “Conjuring a world without birds is a thing I don’t dare imagine, like the death of a child. Their fate is our own.”

5. Merging words of some of history’s most inspiring writers and poets with my avian drawings on the glass cases of Bird Hall;

Sketchbook studies of nursing mammals
Caption: Sketchbook studies of nursing mammals.

6. Uniting furry mothers with human mothers with a wallpaper of nursing mammals for the museum’s breastfeeding area (this will be installed in time for Mother’s Day 2017);

Ashley Cecil holds a bird specimen over a bird-safe window film sample
Caption: A sample window film.

7. Contemplating how my artwork could be translated into patterns for window films to prevent birds from flying into glass;

Four Pittsburgh artist meet with Ashley Cecil at the Carnegie Museum
Caption: Fellow Pittsburgh artists, Kirsten Lowe-Rebel, Gillian Preston, and Allison Glancey met at the museum to learn about BirdSafe Pittsburgh.

8. Hosting visits with people of all industries and backgrounds to show them what comes of an artist being set loose in a natural history museum.

CMNH artist-in-residence Ashley Cecil is interviewed on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live
Caption: My interview on CBS’s Pittsburgh Today Live.

9. And finally, using my work to spread the word about the museum’s research and conservation efforts far and wide – Residency-related artworks and events were featured more than 20 times through online, print, TV, and radio media, including Carnegie Magazine, KDKA’s Pittsburgh Today Live, NextPittsburgh, Pittsburgh Magazine, the Post-Gazette, TechVibe Radio, and TribLive.

Scientists conducting field research
Caption: CMNH scientists banding wild birds and collecting data.

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.

A child concentrates on coloring birds of conservation concern 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.”


Vote to support art and citizen science workshops for urban youth

A small action on your part can have a big impact in Pittsburgh – vote with a like to support my collaboration with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania to offer art and citizen science workshops to urban youth – Voting has closed.

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Good news! I’m joining forces with another outstanding nature conservation organization to offer art and science programming for youth this spring, and you can help make it happen. The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania and I are in the running for a “100 Days of US” grant through the Sprout Fund to support a series of workshops that fuse hands-on art activities with citizen science.

Watch our proposal video to learn more. Then, cast your vote today with a like in the upper righthand corner of the page – Voting has closed.

Your vote gets us one step closer to providing children with hands-on learning and direct interaction with nature to help them develop their own works of art that will tangibly be used as conservation tools in their own communities.

And, they’ll get to interact with live birds. You don’t want to rob a child of the opportunity of getting up close and personal with a live bird, do you?


Upcoming events, art and handmade goods from an artist residency in natural history

The election week was tough, to say the least. What’s an artist to do? Keep making work that connects people to nature and to science that demonstrates the need for environmental stewardship, because there’s never been a more pressing time to give our attention to findings that institutions such as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History are revealing about the health of our planet.

Since July, I’ve been making original artwork and related products inspired by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where I’m working as an artist-in-residence. At two upcoming events, that work will be on public view and available for purchase. If you’re in Pittsburgh, I’ve got my fingers crossed that you can join me at both. If you’re elsewhere, links are included to connect you remotely.

And with that, here are the details…


boxheartshow-headerEXHIBITION OPENING: EMERGENT PATTERNS
Nov. 19, 5 – 8PM, Boxheart Gallery (4523 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15224)
Join me for this public reception featuring original artworks resulting from my residency. My work will be exhibited alongside paintings by fellow nature artists Augustina Droze and Deirdre Murphy. Not in Pittsburgh? Send an email to request images and details of the artworks.

 

ha-header-v2HANDMADE ARCADE
Dec. 3, 11AM – 7PM, David Lawrence Convention Center
At this internationally renowned arts and craft show of 150+ makers, four local artists and I will be launching our BirdSafe Pittsburgh-inspired products, varying from an infinity scarf to blown glass jewelry. Purchasing these products helps us to financially support the museum’s bird conservation efforts. Buy your favorite individual items from each artist, or buy the entire set of seven products prior to Handmade Arcade and pick them up at the event. Not in Pittsburgh? My products are available online now. The other artists will also be selling their creations directly on their websites in the coming weeks. Visit Broken Plates, KloRebel, Strawberryluna and WorkerBird.

The grand idea of all of this that the artwork will:

  1. Endear people to creatures impacted by urbanization,
  2. Financially support conservation research, and
  3. Get folks directly involved in citizen science programs (like NestWatch and BirdSafe Pittsburgh).

And because this is just the beginning, I would love to hear your thoughts on how art can enhance and support science. How am I doing and how could this be better?


Art for the birds

Wood Thrush painting
Original artwork used to develop a textile pattern.

 

No really, this is about art that supports bird conservation.

About two months into my artist residency at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH), ideas for artwork that I would translate into a new infinity scarf AND a coloring poster got my wheels turning about other Pittsburgh artists who also might like to make natural science-inspired products. After all, why should I have all the fun?

bird conservation inspired textile pattern
The finished textile pattern being printed on fabric for scarves.

 

Thank goodness it wasn’t one of those ideas that only makes sense in my head, validated by the fact that FOUR fantastic makers enthusiastically raised their hands to make new products visually related to a bird conservation program closely connected to CMNH – BirdSafe Pittsburgh.

In partnership with several local organizations, BirdSafe Pittsburgh is “working to research and reduce bird mortality in the Steel City.” What’s the problem? It’s estimated that up to one billion birds die each year in the US from colliding with windows, which is one of the leading causes of human-induced deaths among birds.

Yes, that’s utterly depressing, but I’m getting to the warm-fuzzy part. Between now and this year’s Handmade Arcade, the boss ladies listed below and I are in production mode making our goods, which will be launched at Handmade Arcade. These items, varying from blown-glass jewelry to a silk-screen print, will be available individually and as a complete set (if you can’t make it to Handmade Arcade, you will be able to order the individual products on our respective websites).

BirdSafe Pittsburgh-inspired coloring mural
My BirdSafe Pittsburgh-inspired coloring poster.

 

Our put-a-bird-on-it-collaboration will help birds in two ways:

1) A portion of our sales will be donated to support the aforementioned conservation efforts. For example, our contribution will help pay to fly wild birds through a flight tunnel that tests the effectiveness of bird-friend window prototypes, and rehabilitation of stunned birds at a local wildlife center.

2) We’ll be signing interested shoppers up for the BirdSafe Pittsburgh citizen science program, which entails monitoring your home for window collisions and reporting your findings, and/or walking designated routes throughout Pittsburgh looking for birds that have collided with windows (dead birds are brought to the museum to be added to their collection; captured live birds can be taken to the Animal Rescue League’s wildlife center to be rehabilitated and released). If you’re so inclined, go ahead and sign up now. Here’s a national program and the Pittsburgh-specific one.

And with that, I’d like to introduce my creative cohorts making art for the birds with me (and tagging the process via #artforthebirds on the social interwebs):

WorkerBirdKim Fox of WorkerBird

 

strawberrylunaAllison Glancey of strawberryluna

 

KLoRebelKirsten Lowe-Rebel of KLoRebel

 

Broken PlatesGillan Preston of Broken Plates

 

It’s such an honor to work with these talented women and the BirdSafe Pittsburgh program coordinator, Matt Webb. There’s hardly a more blissful combination of things I love than art and ornithology. Ahhh!

Now, onto sewing scarves…


An avian pet portrait (yours could be next)

Do you know what will give you a sense of invincibility when it comes to painting pet portraits? Nailing a commission to capture 37 dogs on a single canvas. That gig from way back in 2007 required multiple dog handlers and a spreadsheet to track each dog’s distinct markings and relative size. So when a long-time follower of my work recently contacted me about painting his wife’s two Indian Ringneck Parrots as a surprise birthday gift, I reflected back on the 35 Pomeranians, 1 Yorkie and 1 mutt, and thought to myself, “I’ve got this.”

This new commission was especially exciting because it was the first pet-specific commission I had received since delving into my textile pattern-centric style of work – a perfect fit, if you ask me.

The client sent me photos of the interior of their home where the painting would hang, including the wallpaper, decorative plates, and curtains. I wanted the pattern in the background of my painting to “fit” in the space as you would expect in a top-notch William Morris drawing room.

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As with all of my commissions, I first sent the client this rough digital mock-up of the painting (hey, no jokes about my awful Photoshopping – I said it was rough).

Once we agreed on a creative direction, I got started painting on the 18″ x 24″ board (for those of you who love all the minute details, here’s a step-by-step explanation of how I create a painting).

Ringneck Parrots on Blue

And here’s the finished piece. I’ve never been so happy with gold leaf in my work – it must be the stark contrast of gold on top of the dark blues in the background (note to self). I also was in love with the red-ish orange African Tulip Tree blooms – they might become a regular in my painted flower repertoire. And, fortunately, my client’s wife was in love with the birds.

Clearly this client has set a high bar for birthday gift-giving. If you want to up your own game, let’s talk about how I can help you score serious brownie points with a commission for your special someone. Get in touch at ashley at ashleycecil.com.


My BYOB tour of Pittsburgh – that’s “B” for botany, birds, and bugs!

One Mission. Two Months. 12+ Paintings. Hundreds of new friends (with 2, 4, and 8+ legs). Thousands to thank.

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Self-directed residencies are like cooking classes (stay with me) – they have a habit of leaving you exhausted, proud, and wanting to do more without always appreciating the work that everyone around you put in to make it possible.  Thank you to the organizations, businesses, friends, family and broader Pittsburgh community for making it possible for me.

For those playing a bit of catch up, my summer artist residency project was fairly simple: 1. Suffocate myself with birds, bugs, and botany, and 2. translate it each day into a pattern, print, or fine art work . I’m happy to report that both objectives were successfully met, plus loads of additional perks. Here are a few highlights:

1. Meeting scientists – Spending my days with ornithologists and entomologists selecting behind-the-scenes bird and insect specimens made for a huge boost in my creative output. Hearing these experts talk about their work and studying their collections flooded my brain with ideas for the paintings that lay ahead. And as word spread about my project, other scientists introduced themselves, which led to opportunities such as touring the amphibian and reptile collections at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Who knows, exotic frogs and reptiles might soon make an appearance in my work.

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A tray of Red-legged Honey Creeper specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
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Carnegie Museum of Natural History entomologist John Rawlins poses with a Brahmin Moth. He jokingly calls this his “mad scientist” face.

 

2. Lunching in good company – I didn’t think there would be such a response to the open invitation for people to come join me for lunch wherever I was painting on a given day. Yet, nearly everyday in July and August an artist, interior designer, retail shop owner, scientist, or just about anyone you can imagine accompanied me for my afternoon break to learn more about the residency.

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I made all of my lunch dates pose for an obligatory photo, including these two – illustrators Molly Thompson and Gregg Valley.

 

3. Painting from floral arrangements made specifically for my artwork – Stephanie Kirby of Blue Daisy Floral Designs hosted me at her beautiful shop to paint her signature arrangements. She took my paintings-in-progress-patterns when I arrived and used them as the basis to create custom arrangements. It was such a fun collaboration! Another perk was installing enlarged prints of my artwork in Stephanie’s bridal consult room – check them out if you are in the area.

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Stephanie Kirby’s floral handiwork and my painting of her bouquet. The painting is a work in progress.
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Painting from fresh floral arrangements after installing my work in Stephanie’s bridal consult room.

 

4. Makin’ the news – Fortunately, this project garnered some media attention. I was interviewed on CBS’s Pittsburgh Today Live, and Alexandra Oliver wrote an article about my work for Pittsburgh Articulate.

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On the set of Pittsburgh Today Live with host Brenda Waters.

 

5. Befriending budding artists and scientists – One thing I didn’t see coming was the fact that my residency schedule overlapped with peak summer camp season. Between the hours of 10am and 2pm-ish, I was regularly surrounded by swarms of curious elementary students.  Questions flowed like the juice boxes, but the sticky fingers were worth it because of the many endearing conversations I had similar to this synopsis of a chat with six year old Nora – Her: What are you doing? Me: Painting a moth. Her: That’s really good. Me: Thank you! Her: [long thoughtful pause] Do you want to be friends? Me: Of course!

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6. Getting better at what I do. On my last day at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I decided to be a glutton for punishment and paint a Brahmin Moth. After an entire day of painting nothing but this single mind-numbingly detailed specimen, I sat back, looked at the fruits of my labor and thought, “I think it’s fair to say I’ve become a better painter.” Practice makes perfect.

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A real Brahmin Moth specimen and my own painted version of it. The painting is a work in progress.

 

What’s next? There’s talk of a show of all of the finished paintings – stay tuned for details. In the meanwhile, mark these bigger events on your calendar where you can buy prints of my residency paintings, as well as scarves, pillows and other products printed with these works:

Ashley_Cecil-2015_residency_artwork
All 12 of the paintings from my residency together. Several are still works in progress.

If you’re hungry for more visual eye-candy from this project, I regularly posted photos from the project to my Instagram and Twitter accounts.


Blue Jays on Gray

Blue Jays on Gray
24″x24″ acrylic, oil and 22k gold on canvas
Email ashley.cecil@gmail.com for purchase inquiries.
See all artwork available for sale.

Although the Blue Jays in this painting were fairly laborious to paint, the circular design around the outside of the image was much easier to create than those in other paintings in this series. The more organic pattern meant I didn’t have to worry about symmetry. That’s comforting since this is one painting of a pair; the second one has the same design.

I’m off to New York this weekend to attend Surtex, “the global B2B marketplace for original art & design—where artists, agents and licensors connect with manufacturers and retailers to create the next best-selling products in every category imaginable.” Maybe I’ll have an epiphany about what product these paintings can adorn. Wish me luck.


Painting in progress, January 11, 2012

Mock up of painting of birds, flora, spider and patterns

Don’t get excited. This isn’t a finished painting. It’s a Photoshop sketch I pieced together with one of my paintings-in-progress (the background of the purple, black and white textile design is my actual painting thus far) and images of three birds, one spider and the circular design. The latter will be in 22k gold leaf, just like the painting I posted last week, while the birds and spider will be painted in oil. All the critters will be rendered at their actual size, which for the Eurasian Eagle Owl means a whopping 23-30  inches. After staring at it for a while, I feel like I’ve set the bar a little high for myself. But I like a challenge!