I came across a really striking graphic today on The New York TImes, Are We in the Middle of a Sixth Mass Extinction? by Bill Marsh associated with the OpEd Protecting Many Species to Help Our Own. The credit for the image is a little ambiguous (is just the data from IUCN or is the entire graphic?). What do you think – is this a helpful way for you to visualize this information?
When I was looking for artistic representations of Houston Toads a few weeks back for my post AFTA Goes to Texas I ran across a very talented printmaker who I am happy to feature on today’s ECO Art + Science post: Lisa Studier. Lisa’s work in woodcut reduction printing is not only beautiful, but also educational, as she does a great deal of background research and strives to provide information about the plight of each species she prints. Lisa’s lively and engaging portraits help people build a connection with each species, which may help them to better appreciate the conservation messages embedded in her work and to better understand global threats to biodiversity.
[biocreativity] Hi Lisa, welcome to the biocreativity blog! What type of work do you do? How would you describe your interests and profession?
[LS] I’m a printmaker, and I make woodcuts. I’ve been working exclusively in this technique for the past eight years. I love it, but I don’t make a living doing it—just fit it in as best I can in my free time. I’ve always worked full-time, until recently in jobs that were not art- or science-related in any way. But since 2006 I’ve been working as a librarian at the New York Botanical Garden, which has one of the largest plant science research collections in the world, so it’s nice to have my “day job” and my interests intersecting a bit more. My science interests are kind of broad: natural history, ecology, conservation, biodiversity, endangered species.
[biocreativity] Where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? Closer to the arts end or the science end? What is your primary training (art or science)?
[LS] Definitely closer to the arts end, although I don’t have much formal training. I have a B.A. in History and a Masters in Library Science. I took a lot of art history classes as an undergrad, but didn’t do any studio art until I moved to NYC in the mid-90’s and started taking drawing and painting classes. Eventually I stumbled upon a woodcut class and just took off from there. I had some fantastic teachers and all those years of drawing classes were a great foundation once I started making prints. Also the collaborative atmosphere of a printshop is something I love about printmaking: the need for shared equipment means you’re around other artists all the time rather than working alone in your own studio, and that offers a lot of opportunities to learn and grow as an artist. I don’t have any science training beyond doing lots and lots of reading, although this semester I’m finally taking a botany class at my workplace, which is very exciting.
[biocreativity] That sounds like a lot of fun! Lisa, how do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? Can they be separated? How does one inform the other?
[LS] I don’t think they can be separated at all. For one thing, the visual display of information is vital to learning. When I look at my botany textbook, for example, I can’t imagine really understanding it without all the illustrations and photos and diagrams. So art is an important teaching tool, that seems like a no-brainer. But the interaction can be so much more: images are very powerful, and people have an emotional reaction to them that can really make an idea or concept stick. Science can seem detached and dry; I know when I talk about endangered toads in the abstract I often see eyes glazing over, but when someone is looking at my toad prints they’re suddenly much more engaged, and they want to know about the toad and the issues affecting it, and I think (hope?) they retain the information better and maybe care more about the issues than they would without the image.
So art has enormous potential for communicating scientific information because it can have such an emotional pull on people, and I also think science can inform art by making it more rigorous and informed and giving it depth. Walton Ford’s artwork is a good example: his technical skill as a painter is extraordinary, but what I like about his paintings is how smart they are, with layer upon layer of history and science behind the imagery.
[biocreativity] Tell us more about your current art-science work.
[LS] I think of my work as portraiture, but focused on animals rather than people. I’ve done a number of series, such as fish and other sea creatures, sea turtles, walruses, toads, and wildlife found in New York City. Each print is a collective portrait of a species, although they’re often based on photos or observations of one individual. In very broad terms, the purpose of a portrait is to allow the viewer to know the subject, to convey a sense of identity. And at the risk of anthropomorphizing animals (which is not my intention), I want my prints to allow the viewer to get to know the animal. I like to focus on the obscure (most people don’t know much about the variety of toad species), the unexpected (wild animals in urban areas that are not pigeons and rats), and species that are endangered or face serious conservation concerns.
[biocreativity] I love your NYC wildlife series! I also think your prints are a great way to get people thinking about diversity and endangered species. What inspired you to do these portrait series?
[LS] I started out with a fish series, and was inspired by a lot of reading I did on environmental issues affecting the ocean and destructive fishing practices that are endangering marine species; two books that stand out are The Empty Ocean by Richard Ellis and The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts. I’ve also been inspired by natural history illustrators like John James Audubon, Mark Catesby, Ernst Haeckel, and Maria Sybilla Merian (and I’m very fortunate to be able to look at some of their work in my library’s collection), and contemporary artists like Walton Ford, Chris Jordan, Kiki Smith, and Brandon Ballengée.
[biocreativity] It must be wonderful to have access to so much great art at work! I think the biocreativity readers will also love learning more about the contemporary artists you mention. Lisa, what is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?
[LS] People respond well to my artwork because animals are often endearing and they touch something in us, but I strive for my prints to be more than just cute animal pictures. I do a huge amount of reading and research about each species so that I can talk intelligently about it, and when I show my work I try to include information, particularly about any conservation issues, whenever possible. Of course people take away what they want from it, and that’s fine, but it’s important to me that the work comes from an informed place.
[biocreativity] I think that providing that information along with your art is a great way to help communicate science (more on that at the end of the post…)! What is the most common question or comment you get about your work?
[LS] How do you have the patience to do that?? Which is funny to me, because I don’t necessarily think it takes more patience than any other artistic medium, but I guess printmaking techniques can seem mysterious and complicated, and multi-color woodcuts have a lot of steps in the process so it might seem like it requires an exceptional amount of patience. But when I look at scientific illustration, the level of detail and precision just amazes me, and I don’t think I’d have the patience for that!
[biocreativity] Can you tell us a little bit more about the woodcut process?
I work primarily in the reduction printing technique, where a single woodblock is gradually cut away in-between each color pressing, leaving it destroyed by the end of the process with a closed edition of prints. Working with the wood grain and watching the image emerge and become more defined as each color is printed gives me a sense of getting to know the creature, and a feeling for its fragility and sentience. I hope that my prints will spark an interest in the animals and a desire to learn more about them. There is an excellent video on YouTube featuring Santa Cruz artist Bridget Henry demonstrating the reduction printing technique.
[biocreativity] It’s a really great video and definitely illustrates the patience and skill required for reduction printing! Lisa, what’s next for you in art + science? Will you be expanding your portrait series?
[LS] I plan to expand on my toad series, and I’m also looking into and reading about endangered snakes (my first print for this series is the New Mexican Ridge-Nosed Rattlesnake) and sharks. And last year I had a show where I created a big wall installation that combined statistics on amphibians from the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with layers of cut-out prints, so I’m mulling over some ideas on how to expand and improve on that piece.
[biocreativity] Snakes and sharks sound great! You know, all of this reminds me of an ECOLOG (The Ecological Society of America’s listserv) thread this week, “Global Emergency: What Can I Do?”. It started with a forwarded message (originally by Paul Erhlich) which called on scientists to help “do something” to help make the world more aware of the current global crises of overpopulation, climate change and biodiversity loss. A few responses have been uplifting, but I have found many more to be rather pessimistic or at a loss for what to do in a world where ecologists are so vastly outnumbered by non-ecologists. It seems to me that we should all be using our own individual and varied talents and affinities to help spread awareness of global ecological issues. I believe artists like yourself have a tremendous power to engage people who otherwise might ‘glaze over’ in response to a strictly science approach. I suggest that one thing we can all do is to spread the word about you! Lisa, do you have a website that you’d like the biocreativity readers to know about?
[LS] Sure, it’s www.lisastudier.com
[biocreativity] Lisa, thanks so much for sharing your prints with us on the biocreativity blog. I really can’t wait to see what comes out of your studio next!
Stay tuned for more ECO Art + Science interviews each Thursday right here at www.biocreativity.wordpress.com! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.