Sometimes the beauty of nature is so small, you need a microscope to see it.
Diatoms are single-cell algae, encased in glass shells, invisible to the human eye without a microscope. During the 19th Century, diatomists would make intricate arrangements of these tiny objects, creating beautiful designs.
Today there is one living practitioner of this microscopic art form, Klaus Kemp, the subject of a new documentary short by Matthew Killip. Klaus developed his own techniques for arranging these tiny works of art, because the original practitioners never passed down their secret techniques.
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.
A student taking one of her workshops at the art space:
Photographer Heather McKay Bowes describes herself as “an explorer, a wild one at heart, a spinner of stories, a dreamer.” She uses her photography to tell stories, and is embarking on a new project that explores and celebrates the connection between children and nature.
The Wilderness Project is a journey through the wild places in our world, the forests, rivers, mountains and beaches. Heather will photograph children in these natural settings, and the same children will photograph their own view of these wild places. It’s a project designed to bring children and nature together.
As she says on her Kickstarter page, “The children will be asked to either write, tell, or sketch some of their discoveries made while photographing and this will be shared alongside their prints in a printed journal of their own.” Heather will also “connect with families whose children may need art and nature to express, communicate or heal themselves.” The entire journey will be documented and shared to inspired others.
The first phase of the project will focus on the New England wilderness, and will last a full year to experience all four seasons. She has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund her project. You can visit the website to learn more.
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.
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.
Composers draw inspiration from everything around them, and many great songs have sprung from nature. Musicians Dak and Adam are taking their inspiration one step further, by recording a whole concept album inspired by the animal kingdom. Predator/Prey was inspired by the unusual names for groups of animals, and features song titles like “A Knot of Snakes” and “A Gang of Elk.” Here’s how the group describes their work:
Each of the 14 songs is completely inspired by the ecology and behavior of a particular species of Canadian wildlife and is written entirely from the perspective of the animal, both musically and lyrically. Drawing inspiration from an incredibly diverse range of influences, the album pushes genre boundaries while retaining cohesion in true concept-album form.
Dak is a PhD student at the University of Toronto studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and sees this album as a way to engage and educate people about the North American wilderness. He is currently living in the Canadian Arctic working on fisheries research.
The album has taken 2.5 years to write and record, and they launched a crowdfunding campaign to help finish it. It’s great to see how nature inspires different artists in different media. Check out the video below to learn more, or visit the project website to hear samples.
Usually when an art and nature intersect, the work of art depicts or recreates the natural world, and is displayed indoors far from its subject. Sculptor Stephen Glassman uses the natural world to create art in public places, bringing art, audience and nature together for a shared experience. He designs giant sculptures using bamboo and inspired by natural forms, inserting nature into urban settings in ways that are surprising and dramatic. You can see some of his amazing works here and here.
Now he is embarking on a project to convert billboards into living bamboo gardens. Urban Air is the name of this new venture, and he has started a Kickstarter campaign to produce the first prototype in Los Angeles. He will also produce a system kit so that other unused billboards can be likewise transformed into floating gardens around the country.
Watch the video to learn more about this amazing project, or visit the official site.
Nature stirs the imaginations of writers and artists. Benjamin Lacombe is a young artist from France whose work recalls that of Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud, but also dips into a spooky surrealism that is often unnerving and always compelling.
The images below are from his book L’Herbier des Fées, or The Herbarium of the Fairies, written in collaboration with Sebastien Perez (available in several languages, though not yet in English). It tells the story of a fictional Russian botanist who ventures into a strange forest searching for the secrets of immortality. The book is designed as a collection of his sketches, letters and photos, all meticulously illustrated by Lacombe. The influence of Leonardo Da Vinci is evident, from the brown ink studies to the chiaroscuro and classic poses of the characters. There is also an interactive version of the book, which you can see in the video below.
The pages of this book — and many of Lacombe’s books — overflow with imaginative creatures that often blur the lines between flora and fauna, between living and artificial. Some of the pages include die-cuts and transparent overlays to give added dimension to his mysterious world. His beautiful flowers and fairies often seem like they could devour us, even as we are fascinated by them. It is an amazing and unique vision that explores our fear of the natural world as much as our fascination with it.
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.
As 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!
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Finally, here’s a short video taken at the end of the day – exercise time!
Black and white photography allows us to see the world in a different way. By removing all color, it highlights other qualities of the world around us – texture, contrast, composition. It simplifies and abstracts what we see, revealing the world in its pure form.
The images on this page are by renowned landscape photographer Ron Rosenstock, who currently has an exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum. Here is an excerpt from a review in The Boston Globe by Mark Feeney:
The effect Rosenstock strives for in these pictures, mostly taken in rural Ireland but also in places as diverse (and beautiful) as Italy and Maine, Morocco and New Zealand, is of a higher, purer reality. You could almost describe it as a kind of unreality, given that exaltation and ineffability are forms of reality so rare as hardly to qualify as real. That Rosenstock achieves his aim so often is as much a tribute to the depth of emotion he brings to his work as it is to exacting technique.
The exhibit runs through March 18th, and I highly recommend it. You can see a lot more of Ron’s work at his website.
A Witness Tree is a very old tree that has “witnessed” great events in history. There are such trees all over the world, which are treasured by those who know them. One example is a honeylocust tree in Gettysburg, which is the only tree still standing that was there when Abraham Lincoln dedicated the battlefield cemetery in 1863. Witness trees are living links to the past, yet they don’t last forever, and it’s always sad when we lose one to storms or disease.
Ancient pecan tree at the Hampton National Historic Site
In 2009, two professors at the Rhode Island School of Design, in collaboration with the Hampton National Historic Site, created what would become the Witness Tree Project, now in its third year. Professors Dale Broholm (Furniture) and Daniel Cavicchi (History) and the National Parks Service designed a program where students study and produce artworks from witness trees that have recently fallen. It is interdisciplinary learning at its best, as students study the history and culture surrounding the tree, and use that to inform their work.
As their website explains: “In addition to classroom study, the Project variously involves field trips, guest lectures, exhibitions of students’ objects, and other events that highlight the significance of material culture, landscape, and design in learning about American history.”
The first tree used in the program was a pecan tree that had lived for over 150 years at the Hampton National Historic Site, a former plantation near Baltimore (see photo above). In 2010, they worked with trees from both the George Washington Birthplace National Monument and Sagamore Hill (the homestead of Theodore Roosevelt). This year, students are working with an historic Elm from the Olmsted site.
Below are just a few of the pieces created by students from 2010, and you can see many more amazing pieces here. Artwork from the current year’s project will be posted to their website later this year.
The Untended Garden explores the connections between art and nature. Each post looks at a different artist or work of art, drawing from books, paintings, music, film, and any other form of expression. Read more about this blog.