Move over canary in the coal mine. Amphibians are an understated climate bellwether deserving of the spotlight in my current artist residency. Now two-thirds of the way through my post at the Richards-Zawacki Herpetology Lab at the University of Pittsburgh (or RZL), there’s plenty to share about how I’m using art and STEAM education to communicate plight of amphibians, such as habitat loss and disease.
One of my favorite works-in-progress is the painting above. This small study was inspired by the lab’s research on a fungal pathogen nicknamed Bd, which causes the often fatal disease chytridiomycosis or chytrid. Chytrid is threatening frog populations globally at an alarming rate and in many cases is causing extinctions. The issue is becoming so pervasive it’s getting picked up by mainstream media. For example, researchers at RZL recently had an article of the topic published in Science, which in turn was reported on by The New York Times, The Atlantic and others.
Diving this deep into herpetology as the subject of an entire body of artwork has only been possible by embedding myself in the lab, interacting with the researchers as they “do science” (such as Veronica Saenz, above, who is researching how climate change affects Bd). One of the most useful experiences has been participating in lab meetings where scientific articles are discussed and presentations are rehearsed. Four months in, I’m proud to say I’m now capable of getting through a lab meeting without having to use the dictionary app on my phone.
Other paintings I’m working on focus on habit loss and fragmentation, last-ditch conservation practices, and, as shown in the teaser above, a nod to local species that includes visualizations of their calls (spectrograms) and flora of their native habitats.
Once again, folks in the lab provided the inspiration for this painting. I stumbled across spectrograms of frog calls while sharing desk space with a member of the lab who was reviewing audio clips from his laptop. I couldn’t help but ask what he was working on. When he showed me his screen, the spectrograms immediately reminded me of an ikat pattern, a perfect visual to add to one of my canvases.
As with my residency at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, this project also has involved more than creation of my own work. For example, this go around I’ve tried to connect other professionals interested in working across disciplinary lines in hopes of sparking new collaborations. And so I recently gathered over 40 artists, scientists, museum administrators and educators at my studio for a drawing session and mingling.
The idea for the event took shape after I noticed a pattern among the friends I’ve met during my cross-disciplinary projects – scientists sheepishly confessing they love to make art, and more and more artists concentrating on climate change and science as the subject of their work. It seemed worthwhile to bring them together to exchange business cards while laughing about non-dominant hand and blind contour drawings. Although the latter two exercises broke the ice, the most engaging exercise was putting everyone in pairs to recreate a single drawing together. That sounds easy, but only one person was doing the drawing and he/she could not see what was being drawn. The second person orally instructed the first on how to make the drawing. Everyone in the room was smiling ear-to-ear (well, except for the sleeping baby).
There’s plenty more from this residency in the works that I’ll share in the coming weeks – adventures in educational outreach, my foray into steel sculpture and plans for an exhibition in June. Stay tuned.