A Celebration of Flight

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

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

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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Exploring the animal kingdom through music

April 9th, 2013

Predator-Prey

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.

Predator/Prey group shot

Predator/Prey recording session

Here is the group’s official website.

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The art of Maria Sibylla Merian

April 2nd, 2013

Art by Maria Sibylla Merian

Chances are you hadn’t heard of Maria Sibylla Merian before she was celebrated by Google on her 366th birthday April 2nd. And yet she was  one of the most famous and accomplished naturalists of her day.

She was born in 1647, in Germany. Her father, an engraver and publisher, died when she was three. Her stepfather was a Dutch painter who inspired his young daughter, but left when she was twelve, leaving Maria and her mother on their own. Maria continued her art, taking a special interest in insects, which she would catch and raise so that she could draw them. This would be an unusual habit even for a teenager today, and it was unheard of for a girl in the 17th Century. Her mother must have been wonderfully supportive.

Maria Sibylla MerianShe had a particular interest in the metamorphosis of butterflies, and she studied and documented this process firsthand. She was also very interested in the connection between plants and insects, and often painted insects with the plants that provided food for them. She was also fiercely independent. At the age of 52 and divorced, she took her 16-year-old daughter on a trip to South America to study the plants and insects there. Her daughter followed in her footsteps, continuing her work in South America even as Maria had to return home due to illness.

What I find especially amazing about this artist is her love of insects. Today we do everything we can to eliminate insects from our daily lives. We spray them with poison even at the risk of our own health, despite the fact that insects support our entire ecosystem. And yet she saw something beautiful in them, despite (or perhaps because of) their strange appearance.

The painting at the top of this page appears at first glance to be a simple flower arrangement, but five insects add a wildness that’s surprising and a little unnerving. We expect our flora paintings to be gentle and harmless, we don’t expect them to bite us. But in depicting insects as beautiful works of art, she is inviting us into her world, telling us not to be afraid, that there is much to be celebrated in these little creatures.

Maria Sibylla Merian was ahead of her time in many ways, and we can all be inspired by her life and her work. You can read a lot about her at this website, which has links to many articles and galleries of her work.

Art by Maria Sibylla Merian

Art by Maria Sibylla Merian

Art by Maria Sibylla Merian

Art by Maria Sibylla Merian

Art by Maria Sibylla Merian

Below is a slideshow put together by a fan on YouTube, to the music of Handel.

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The Snowflake Man

March 6th, 2013

Wilson BentleyWilson Bentley was a Renaissance man. He had no formal training in science or art,  yet he had a talent and a passion for both. In 1885 he became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal, and would go on to photograph more than 5000.

His story is just as inspiring as his work. His father, a farmer, did not appreciate his son’s scientific ambitions, but his mother encouraged him. Bentley later recalled, “When the other boys of my age were playing with popguns and sling-shots, I was absorbed in studying things under this microscope: drops of water, tiny fragments of stone, a feather dropped from a bird’s wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower.”

But it was snow that fascinated him most, and he spent over a year experimenting with a bellows camera and microscope trying to photograph the elusive crystals. Once he succeeded, it was thirteen years before he published his work in Popular Scientific Monthly and caught the attention of the scientific world. Photograph by Wilson BentleyYet he never sought to make a profit from his work, and sold prints of his photographs for pennies because he wanted people to enjoy them.

He wrote, “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

It is all too true that often the most beautiful things in life are with us for the shortest time. Luckily we have the photographs of Wilson Bentley to preserve at least some of them.

Photographs by Wilson Bentley

Photographs by Wilson Bentley

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The following video report gives a brief overview of his life:

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The story of Wilson Bentley has inspired other artists as well. He was the subject of the Caldecott Award-winning book Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian.

Snowflake Bentley book

He also inspired an award-winning solo theater production, created by Sarah Frechette of Puppetkabob. Using Czech-style marionettes, miniatures, pop-up paper art, music and live storytelling, she brings Wilson’s story to life. You can learn more about the making of her production here.

Snowflake Man by Sarah Frechette

You can learn a lot more about Snowflake Bentley and his amazing work at the official website.

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A floating forest on the freeway

November 14th, 2012

Urban Air, by sculptur Stephen Glassman

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.

[iframe src=”http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1045021696/urban-air-los-angeles/widget/video.html” width=”100%” height=”340″]

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A glimpse at my own untended garden

October 24th, 2012

Daisies

About once a year I take a break from my usual postings here to show you a peek into my own garden, which is almost as untended as this website.

One of my favorite things about having a garden is seeing all the insects that come to visit — the honeybees, bumblebees, dragonflies, crickets, beetles, spiders, green leaf hoppers, butterflies, ladybugs, ants, and many more. These are the unseen foundation of our ecosystem. Without a healthy insect population, everything else would fall apart, and I’m happy to provide them with a home for the summer.

I’ll leave you with a very short poem by that most prolific garden poet, who loved insects as much as (if not more than) people:

The Pedigree of Honey
Does not concern the Bee –
A Clover, at any time, to him,
Is Aristocracy –

Emily Dickinson

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Sweet Peas

Rabbits

Daisy

Cricket

Dahlia

Dragonfly

Rose

Garden

Mushroom

Dandelion

The fantastical world of Benjamin Lacombe

June 5th, 2012

L’Herbier des FéesNature 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.

L’Herbier des Fées

Artwork © by Benjamin Lacombe

L’Herbier des Fées

Artwork © by Benjamin Lacombe

L’Herbier des Fées

Artwork © by Benjamin Lacombe

L’Herbier des Fées

Artwork © by Benjamin Lacombe

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Here is a video trailer for the book and iPad app:

Here is a video about the making of the interactive book:

Here is another video about the making of the interactive book:

Here is his official blog with even more amazing artwork.

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Drawing the natural world

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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