Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

The magical Strandbeests – art comes alive

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Strandbeest by Theo Jansen

strandbeest_jansen_drawing

The kinetic sculptures of Theo Jansen are unlike anything else in the world. They seem to defy category, they are art and machine, but also works of theater on a grand scale. And although they are are not sentient beings, they seem to have a life all their own, and people connect with them.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, is featuring the first major American exhibition of Jansen’s work, before it travels on to Chicago and San Francisco. In a statement on his website, Jansen says he is trying to create “new forms of life” with his sculptures, and seeing them in action makes you think he might actually get there.

Part of the magic of these creatures is that they are self-propelled, and their limbs seem to move like those of animals or insects, and yet their movements are unique to themselves. It is truly like seeing a new species, and it makes us think about what it means to be “alive.” Designed to walk on the beach, some of his creations can detect when they are walking on wet sand, and thus avoid going into the water. There is a kind of artificial intelligence here. How much “intelligence” is necessary before we say that something is alive? Computers have far more artificial intelligence than the strandbeests, and yet because they move around like giant animals, we somehow relate to them more as intelligent beings, we want them to be alive.

From a purely visual standpoint, it amazes me how “natural” these creatures appear, both in their structure and movements. Despite the fact that they are entirely built from human-made materials (PVC pipes, plastic bottles), they seem like creatures that could occur naturally in the world. And yet some of their parts are purely mechanical — no animal uses a wheel and piston to propel their legs.

Here is a short documentary on Jansen and his art:

In the film, Jansen says, “To make my animals, I try to make a new nature, I don’t want to copy the existing nature, but it’s hard to avoid that.” He finds that when he designs the working parts of his creatures, he inevitably winds up with elements like those of living creatures — bones, muscles, legs — because that is the most efficient way to propel an object over uneven ground. He thinks of his creatures as going through their own evolution as he perfects them, much the way nature itself has gone through evolution over a much longer period of time.

The exhibit will run from September 19, 2015 through January 3, 2016 at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Here is a TED Talk by the artist:


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And here is a lecture by the artist at the University of Michigan in 2008.

 

Creating your own natural world

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Toca nature

I like to cover a wide variety of art forms on this blog, including electronic arts. Computer games have come a long way in the last twenty years, and now cover a wide variety of themes and subject matter, including nature.

Swedish game developer Toca Boca is known for creative and immersive games that foster open play. Their latest app is called Toca Nature, and it lets the user create their own virtual world of mountains, trees, plants, and animals. I tried it out for the first time today, and found it an engaging experience.

The graphics are simple and stylized, but the 3D environment allows for real-time exploration of your world. Much of the fun comes from flying over the hills and valleys you created, watching rabbits, bears and other creatures eat, sleep, and explore. You can also collect food to feed the animals and watch them grow. There is a camera to take snapshots as you explore.

Toca Nature

Toca Nature

The animation can be a bit awkward at times, with animals not always walking solidly on the ground, often passing right through trees and plants. And I found myself wishing for a little more to do in my newly-constructed world.

Still, as an immersive environment that lets children play with nature in a different way, it’s a fun and appealing experience. And if it makes kids want to go out and look for a real fox in the wild, so much the better.

 

Inspired by orchids – Bianca Ana Chavez

Friday, June 20th, 2014

Art © by Bianca Ana Chavez

Here at The Untended Garden, we feature works both old and new, but this summer I’ll be highlighting contemporary artists who explore nature in their work.

Bianca Ana Chavez is a painter from California who has been inspired by nature all her life. She is currently living in Chiapas, a tropical region in the southernmost part of Mexico that is rich in biodiversity. The area boasts over 700 species of orchids, many of which are in danger from deforestation and poaching.

Working in a local plant shop, Bianca would draw the orchids and plants in her free time, and ended up painting an orchid mural around the outside of the store. She became inspired to study botanical art, and moved to Seattle to pursue a certificate in Natural Science Illustration. Studying at the University of Washington, she traipsed through the woods drawing moss and cicadas, and learning more about the small wonders of nature.

Returning to Mexico, she helped convert the plant shop into an art space inspired by nature, where visitors could draw, take workshops, and hear concerts surrounded by the beautiful flora. The name of the shop is Orchideafilia, which translates to “a love for orchids.”

Below (and above), you can see the mural in progress outside Orchideafilia.

Art © by Bianca Ana Chavez

A student taking one of her workshops at the art space:

Art © by Bianca Ana Chavez

More artwork by Bianca Ana Chavez:

Art © by Bianca Ana Chavez

Art © by Bianca Ana Chavez

Art © by Bianca Ana Chavez

Art © by Bianca Ana Chavez

Art © by Bianca Ana Chavez

You can see more of Bianca’s artwork at her website.

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Zebra finches rock the house

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot

Springtime is often heralded by the music of birds, but not usually playing electric guitars.

Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, has an exhibit through April 13th called from here to ear, that brings art and nature together quite literally. French artist and musician Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has created an environmental soundscape in which 70 zebra finches interact with electric guitars set up throughout the room. Visitors walk through the big open space and become part of the ever-changing environment.

Here is a peek behind the scenes at this fascinating exhibit:

The point is not only to create evocative musical sounds, but to make the visitor think about the ways in which we perceive sound, how we interact with nature, and how nature reacts to our own fabricated world. Below is an interview with the artist, who has made creative sound exhibits all over the world.

The exhibit requires tickets on weekends (which are sold out) but not on weekdays. More information at the Peabody Essex Museum website.

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A Celebration of Flight

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

A Celebration of Flight

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of A Celebration of Flight by IBEX Puppetry, directed by Heather Henson. Featuring a blend of puppetry, movement and music, it was an inspiring spectacle that beautifully depicted the natural world through the life-cycle of a crane.

The performance followed the young bird as it hatched from an egg, discovered the world, and learned to fly, while meeting various other creatures along the way (fish, dragonflies, turtles, birds.) The ending featured a gigantic white crane that flew majestically across the stage. A thundering percussive soundtrack and soaring vocal performance added to the magic.

The setting for this visual and musical feast was an outdoor amphitheater on the gorgeous campus of Swarthmore College, as part of the Puppeteers of America national festival. Surrounded by towering trees and lush greenery, with the audience seated on the ground, the connection with nature was even more profound. I even saw a real hawk soaring high overhead, as though joining in the spectacle.

At various points in the performance, children in the audience were invited to participate by waving their own paper birds and fish in the air. At the end they were all invited down to the stage to join the performance in a joyous finale that brought tears to my eyes. It was a celebration like no other – a true blending of art and nature, reaching towards a deeper understanding of both.

A Celebration of Flight

Majestic crane puppet flies over the audience

A Celebration of Flight

A Celebration of Flight

Photographs don’t do justice to the puppets, because their movement was what made them so magical. Below is a video trailer of the show performed indoors, which will give you a better sense of the overall production.

Learn more about IBEX Puppetry at their website or Facebook page.

The amazing whale photographs of Bryant Austin

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Beautiful Whales book coverPhotographing whales is no easy task, but Bryant Austin has developed a unique method to create giant detailed portraits of these huge and enigmatic creatures.

Bryant had worked as an underwater photographer and marine biologist for many years, but new inspiration literally tapped him on the shoulder one day in the form of a 45-ton humpback whale. This close encounter, described eloquently in the video below, led him to quit his job and sell everything he owned in order to begin a new artistic journey — to capture images that convey the amazing experience of meeting a whale up close.

But simply enlarging a regular photo wasn’t enough, it could never capture the full detail of these creatures. So he invented his own technique. These giant photographs, currently on display at the Museum of Monterey in California, are created by taking a series of 5-foot-wide photos using a 50 megapixel camera, which he then pieces together to create the whole image. But before he can even take the photos, he spends up to three months getting to know a group of whales so they feel safe enough to approach him on their own terms. The results are truly spectacular.

Photographs by Bryant Austin

Photographs by Bryant Austin on display

Life size photograph of a minke whale

Life size photograph of a minke whale

Bryant hopes that his work will help call attention to the plight of these creatures and inspire people to want to help them. Here is an interview about his work and his journey as an artist.

He also has a new book of his photographs, which includes fold-out pages to help convey the detail in these images. Below is a video where he talks about the new book.

You can read more about his current exhibit at the Museum of Monterey in California here.

You can see many of Bryant’s photographs in this recent article from Wired.

You can learn a lot more about Bryant Austin at his website.

Premier Automne – First Autumn

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Premier Automne, directed by Carlos De Carvalho and Aude Danset

Premier Automne, directed by Carlos De Carvalho and Aude Danset

Premier Automne is a brilliantly animated short film directed by Carlos De Carvalho and Aude Danset, produced by Je Regarde. It is stunningly beautiful, and explores nature both visually and thematically. But I don’t want to summarize the story if you haven’t seen it yet, because the discovery and mystery of each moment is what makes it so compelling.

Watch for yourself, and then I will share some thoughts below. (Watch on Vimeo for a larger picture, it’s worth it.)

There are so many ways to look at this film. As a simple human drama, it’s the story of two people eternally set apart from each other by the laws of nature. And yet they are both lonely, are both drawn to one other. Both inhabit a world completely foreign to the other, and frightening as well, even as it seems perfectly natural to them.

There is an overtone of death throughout the film, echoed in the darkness that surrounds their world, and yet there is also life below the surface, waiting to spring forth. In most stories, the protagonists manage to overcome their problem in the end, but this film is much more open-ended.

Life and death, summer and winter, boy and girl. There is a lot to think about here. How do you interpret this film?

For those of you who like to go behind the scenes, here is a link to the production blog, and here is a video about the making of the film.

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Drawing the natural world

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Tablet and insect

A few weeks ago I attended a NESCBWI workshop on drawing animals, which took place at the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab at the Rhode Island School of Design. The lab is an amazing place, a huge room filled with preserved animals, insects, fish, fossils, seeds, stones — a virtual survey of the natural world. For this particular event there were also several live animals brought in, including a huge tortoise, a ferret, and a parrot.

Most of the afternoon was spent drawing, and people wandered freely about, drawing whichever animals interested them. The entire room, with its ceiling-high glass cabinets and boxes of specimens, had the feeling of a 19th Century naturalist’s study, and one could imagine Darwin walking through the door at any moment.

Animal at the nature labAs an artist who loves animals, I found the preserved animals unnerving and fascinating at the same time. You feel a mixture of awe, curiosity, sympathy, and connection with the once-living creatures, you wonder where they came from, what kind of life they led. There is a long history of artists drawing deceased animals, from Leonardo to Audubon. You can observe an amazing amount of detail from such close observation, though the drawback is that the drawing often ends up as lifeless as its subject.

The whole day was very inspiring, and seeing so much of the natural world crammed into one room really makes you think about how much is alive all around us, and how everything is connected. Hopefully these kind of creatures will remain alive and healthy in the wild, so that nature centers like this don’t become the only places to find them.

Here are some of my photos and sketches from the day. Thanks to Christina Rodriguez for organizing such a great workshop!

insect drawings by John Lechner

stick insect drawing by John Lechner

insect drawings by John Lechner

tortoise drawing by John Lechner

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Nature Lab at RISD

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Parrot in the Nature Lab

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Ocean creatures

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Ocean creatures

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Butterfly collection

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Butterfly

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Longhorn Beetle

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Stick Insect

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Giant Tortoise

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Finally, here’s a short video taken at the end of the day – exercise time!

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The Big, Blue Ocean

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010
Illustration by Alicia “Kat” Dillman

Summer is here, and for the next six weeks or so, I am going to devote this blog to one of our greatest and most inspiring natural resources, the ocean.

Since ancient history, the ocean has inspired art, poetry and storytelling in every culture. In fact there are so many great works of art and literature about the ocean, I think we’ve taken it for granted as one of those eternal things in life that will always be there, impervious to anything. The ocean is always described as “mighty” and “powerful”, something that humans must battle and which always has the upper hand.

Anyone who has witnessed a storm at sea knows how powerful it is, yet it is not invulnerable, as we’ve learned in recent months. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is only the latest and most visible blow to a living ecosystem that is slowly dying. So in the next few weeks, I will be highlighting some famous and not so famous art, books and films inspired by the ocean, to help us all gain a better understanding and appreciation of why it is so unique.

I’d like to start by highlighting a wonderful blog called Ripple started by artist Kelly Light to help animals harmed by the recent oil spill. The images in this post are all from that site, and I encourage you to check it out.

Also, the Smithsonian Institution has a new website called Ocean Portal, which has many cool features about the ocean’s history and ecology, definitely worth taking a peek.

Illustration by Gina Marie Perry

Illustration by Alicia Padron

Illustration by Renee Kurilla

Illustration by Katriona Chapman

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The Art of Tasha Tudor

Thursday, December 24th, 2009
"Laura in the Snow" by Tasha Tudor

"Laura in the Snow" by Tasha Tudor

Few artists have been more in tune with nature than Tasha Tudor. Not only did she paint the natural world around her, she lived her life as in olden days, growing her own food, raising livestock, and spinning and weaving cloth for her family’s clothing. Her persona and her work now seem so quaint and old fashioned, many people forget what a great artist she was.

This is one of her most famous works, commonly known as “Laura in the Snow.” It’s a beautiful composition that first draws your attention to the girl’s face, then down her arm to the cat, then across the lines of her snowshoes to the other cat, and finally back to her face again. There is also drama in the picture — do the cats belong to the girl? Is she trying to befriend them? And the beautiful spareness of the open snow is a model of restraint. A perfect painting, from someone who has undoubtedly been on snowshoes herself.

Tasha Tudor died last year at the age of 92, and her art will be missed.

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