2012 Darwin Day Portrait Project

Darwin Day Portrait Project. Paper collage and acrylic on wood panel. © 2012 Hayley Gillespie

I am happy to report that I had a wonderful time at Darwin Day 2012 last week at the Texas Memorial Museum – the first public event for the biocreativity blog! For those of you who aren’t familiar, Darwin Day is an international celebration of the birthday of naturalist and evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin, who was born on February 12, 1809.

I hosted a booth at the Darwin Day celebration to make a big portrait (3 x 6 feet) of the great naturalist using images of biodiversity cut out of National Geographic magazines that were so generously donated by Half Price Books. This was a really fun process, and the kids and the adults seemed to love it, too! But, from selecting the base image for the portrait, to putting the finishing varnish and installing hanging hardware, pulling off the Darwin Day Portrait Project was quite a job, and I couldn’t have done it without my husband, Cole!

The first step was choosing a portrait of Darwin from which to base the line drawing for the collage. I had a lot of fun with this, because Darwin commissioned many portraits throughout this lifetime, which was a luxury many scientists of the time couldn’t afford. Many of these portraits are now in the public domain and are shown on the Portraits of Charles Darwin Wikipedia page. I chose to go with a portrait of an older, very recognizable Darwin, from this 1871 photograph by Oscar Gustave Rejlander:

1871 Portrait of Charles Darwin by Oscar Gutave Rejlander

“Darwin’s visage, particularly his iconic beard, continues to be culturally significant and widely recognizable into the 21st century. According to historian Janet Browne, Darwin’s capacity to commission photographs of himself—and their widespread reproduction as carte de visite and cabinet card photographs—helped to cement the lasting connection between Darwin and the theory of evolution in popular thought (largely to the exclusion of the many others who also contributed to the development of evolutionary theory).”  -Portraits of Charles Darwin, Wikipedia

Interestingly,  Rejlander’s collaboration with Charles Darwin on his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, earned the victorian art photographer an important place in the history of behavioral and psychiatric science. The book is an excellent example of art-science collaboration in the 19th century. It defined Darwin’s contribution to the field of psychology and put Rejlander on the radar of other prominent scientists of the time. This book is also a pioneering influence in the work of modern psychologists studying human emotions through body language and microexpressions, including prominent psychologist Paul Ekman (a fictional version of Ekman was recently portrayed by Tim Roth in the Fox series Lie to Me; Ekman was also a guest on WNYC’s RadioLab episode on catching liars).

Photographs illustrating emotions of grief from Charles Darwin's work "The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals," published by J. Murray, London, 1872. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. This is likely the work of Oscar Gustave Rejlander.

There were many other interesting portraits I could have chosen, such as this strapping young lad just returned from his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle from this late 1830’s watercolor by George Richmond.

1830's watercolor portrait of a young Charles Darwin by George Richmond.

Or, this photograph by Baker Street photographers Joseph John Elliott and Clarence Edmund Fry, who produced many portraits of Darwin throughout his life including this one, which is one of the last photographs taken of the evolutionary biologist before his death on April 19, 1882.

November 1881 photograph of Charles Darwin by Elliot & Fry, London.

Though, as reported by author Richard Millner in the 1995 Scientific American article Charles Darwin: The Last Portraitthis relatively recently discovered Woodburytype by victorian portrait artist Herbert Rose Barraud is now considered by some scholars to be the last photo taken of Darwin. Millner also reports that in his later years, Darwin expressed that portrait-sitting, “is what I hate doing & wastes a whole day owing to my weak health”. And, with regards to a historic opportunity to sit for a portrait with Alfred Russell Wallace in 1869 (the man who independently proposed a theory of natural selection, which prompted Darwin to publish his own theory of evolution by natural selection), “to sit with another person would cause still more trouble & delay.”

1881 Woodburytype image of Charles Darwin by Herbert Rose Barraud.

And, of course, then there are the caricatures, many of which were prompted by strong societal reactions to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which are duly reviewed by the American Philosophical Society (of which Darwin was a member) here. These range from depictions of Darwin as an ape, such as A Venerable Ourang-Outang : A Contribution to Unnatural History which appeared in The Hornet in March 1871, to slightly more flattering fare, including Men of the Day No. 33, Natural Selection that appeared in Vanity Fair magazine in September 1871. Darwin, however, seemed to take these in stride, “I keep all those things,” he told a friend in 1872.  “Have you seen me in the Hornet?”

"A Venerable Orang-outang", a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine, in March 1871

Caricature of Charles Darwin, “Men of the Day No. 33., Natural Selection”, which appeared in Vanity Fair, September 1871.

Another interesting art-science connection comes directly from Charles Darwin’s personal life. His wife Emma Wedgwood Darwin was the granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the world-famous Wedgwood and Sons pottery firm in 1759 (which is still in operation today as Wedgwood Waterford Royal Doulton). Here’s one of Wedgwood’s iconic Jasperware cameos, in “Wedgwood blue”, modeled in the likeness of Charles Darwin.

A Wedgwood pottery Jasperware cameo of Charles Darwin, based on an 1881 portrait.

Of all of these intriguing portraits, I needed something for the Darwin Day Portrait Project that could generate simple lines for a color-by-number template. Rejlander’s photograph  provided just that, and so I used it to generate this simple outline that I projected onto wood panel to create the collaged portrait.

Line Drawing of Charles Darwin for the Darwin Day Portrait Project © 2011 by Hayley Gillespie

Then came the fun part: putting on the collage! The kids had a great time at the Darwin Day celebration at the Texas Memorial Museum pasting images of the great diversity of life onto Mr. Darwin’s image. Indeed, it was a four-hour non-stop bombardment of excited kiddos (and even a few adults) coming at me to make their mark on the portrait. I also had a fun conversation with Austin American-Statesman reporter Farzad Mashood, who later filed this report from Darwin Day 2012, and left his mark on the Darwin portrait. While I scarcely had time to breathe, my amazing husband Cole helped cut out images in the colors we needed, took photos and helped direct things as I pasted the day away! While the kids seemed to have a lot of fun looking for their favorite animals, nearly all the parents reminisced by flipping through the piles of National Geographic. “I loved this magazine when I was a kid!”, many of them exclaimed as they watched their kids fill in the Darwin. The joy of appreciating the natural world, just as Darwin did for 73 years, and for its own sake, was apparent in their expressions as I invited to take a copy home with them. This is why I’m a biologist. Helping people enjoy science is one of the most rewarding things that I do.

We were lucky enough to capture a time-lapse of the Darwin Day Portrait Project (though the museum was a bit dark for good photography, and because the kids needed to be able to reach the wood panel there are a lot of derrières in the ground-level photographs!). It’s taken a little more than a week to put the finishing touches on – filling in gaps in the collage, painting on the outlines and putting on a protective varnish. Very soon he’ll be hanging in the Texas Memorial Museum, and I’ll update this post with his location.

Many heartfelt thanks to all of the participants, to Christina Cid, Director of Education at the Texas Natural Science Center and Texas Memorial Museum and her crew of volunteers, and to Half Price Books Austin (South Lamar and North Lamar locations) for their generous donation of National Geographic and Science magazines for this project. And, as I mentioned above, my husband Cole was instrumental in the development of this idea, and its successful execution. Thank you, and Happy 203rd Birthday Charles Darwin!

Signatures of the many participants who made their mark at the Darwin Day Portrait Project.

Advertisements

best of biocreativity 2011

Happy New Year! I’m so thankful to have been able to start this blog in back in June 2011 and just wanted to take a look back over the past six months of posts to see what your favorites have been. Here they are, the top 10 posts on the biocreativity blog in 2011:

10. ECO Art + Science: Sculpture of Ecologist Gary Grossman

9. ECO Art + Science: Printmaker Lisa Studier

8. Endangered Species Condoms

7. snake week art!

6. ECO Art + Science: Photography of Plant Ecologist Kurt Reinhart

5. ants in my pants | title image august 2011

4. ECO Art + Science: Illustrator + Wildlife Biologist Kevina Vulinec

3. biocreativity at esa 2011

2. the art of fire

1. ECO Art + Science: Scientific Illustrator Emily M. Eng

Numbers 1 and 2 were separated by only seven hits, making them nearly a tie, but Emily’s post came out on top. Stay tuned for more musings about art, biology, creativity, science, design and nature in 2012 and thanks for reading!

biologists and artist make fire ant art

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of creating this month’s biocreativity blog header image in Dr. Larry Gilbert’s “Fire Ant Lab” at Brackenridge Field Laboratory (or, BFL for short) – an 88-acre field station at the University of Texas at Austin. As you know from my post from last month, I’m really into time-lapse. After the July 2011 biocreativity header image and video using native plants from my backyard, I started brainstorming on what else I could use to create interesting header images and time-lapse videos for the blog. Of course, I wanted to do something with animals – but how would I keep anything still long enough to spell out b-i-o-c-r-e-a-t-i-v-i-t-y, and how could I get enough of any one kind of animal to do it? Then it hit me: FIRE ANTS!  What if you could make fire ants spell out ‘biocreativity’ and then all walk away? So, With the help of Dr. Rob Plowes from the fire ant lab, his excellent team of research assistants, my husband and his tripod and the BFL deep freeze, I set out to create the August 2011 biocreativity header image and time-lapse video using the South American red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta). Here it is if you didn’t get to see it earlier.

biocreativity | august 2011 title from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

As a former teaching assistant for a lab course in field ecology methods at BFL, I was familiar with the work of the fire ant lab, so I knew a few “tricks-of-the-trade” when it comes to ants that could make for a really interesting biocreativity project. Two natural history characteristics that make these invaders very good at what they do also worked to my advantage in this project.

First, fire ants make rafts. Literally. They link themselves together to make a raft formed from of their own bodies, which helps them disperse during floods to found new colonies. This phenomenon got quite a bit of media attention last April when researchers Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey and David Hu published the findings of their research on the water repellency of fire ants and how they cooperate to make rafts in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  It was covered by NPR, The Huffington Post and Scientific American among others. Their project is yet another great use of time-lapse that helped to visualize and explain how natural phenomena work, and it helped Mlot and colleagues make some very interesting discoveries about biomimicry which may have technological applications in developing new waterproof materials.

Rafting not only helps the fire ants live to colonize another day, but it’s also used to the advantage of researchers studying fire ant behavior and how to control the spread of this invasive species. In Dr. Gilbert’s lab where I met up with Rob Plowes, he showed me how they use the natural tendency of fire ants to raft as a means of easily separating hundreds of thousands of fire ants from the soil they’re collected from so they can be used to study this invasive species. In short, when they dig up fire ant mounds from the field, they place the dirt mixed with ants in 5-gallon buckets. They then bring them to the lab where they slowly drip water into the buckets overnight. This ‘rising tide’ of water in each bucket prompts the ants to dutifully gather up their brood and make for the surface where they all gather together to form a large raft.

Here is a figure from Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey and David Hu's paper "Fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Available from http://bit.ly/qYBnRw

Here is a figure from Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey and David Hu's paper "Fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Available from http://bit.ly/qYBnRw

The research in the BFL fire ant lab is focused on developing effective biocontrol agents for S. invicta, and they’re doing it using very species-specific parasitic phorid flies (Pseudacteon sp.) which interrupt foraging and other behaviors which can end up making colonies less successful in the long term. You can take a really cool virtual tour of how they conduct this research here. Thanks to these generous researchers, the problem of where I was going to get enough ants for this project was solved. They simply set aside a single tray of tens of thousands of fire ants when they were done with their research for my project.

A tray of South American Red Imported Fire Ants (Solenopsis invicta) from the Fire Ant Lab at Brackenridge Field Laboratory

A tray of South American Red Imported Fire Ants (Solenopsis invicta) from the Fire Ant Lab at Brackenridge Field Laboratory.

Now that I had enough ants, how was I going make them be still long enough to spell out the title? Well, I was introduced to a similar problem when I was the teaching assistant for Dr. Gilbert’s field ecology lab. We taught our students how to conduct ant diversity surveys by baiting for ants, usually by setting out a piece of hot dog, which any picnic-goer knows is irresistible to ants. We quickly captured the ants on the bait with a plastic baggie (reminiscent of the process of picking up after your dog) and brought them back to the lab to identify to species and count. The problem was, how do you count all the individual ants when they won’t be still? The solution lies in the fact that ants are exothermic (or “cold blooded”), meaning they get their body heat from the external environment and are less active at cooler temperatures. So, we simply put the bags of ants in the freezer to immobilize them. Once frozen for 10-30 minutes, students had a limited time window to count the ants until they warmed up enough to start moving again. It’s amazing how long it takes for this to kill the ants – usually well over 12 hours of deep-freezing! For my project, I simply put the tray of ants from the fire ant lab in the freezer while we set up the video equipment.

A tray of fire ants is immobilized in the deep freezer.

A tray of fire ants is immobilized in the deep freezer.

To create the title image, I made a stencil to spell out ‘biocreativity’ on which I sprinkled the immobilized ants. One thing that made this a little difficult was the same thing that allows the ants to raft – their legs stick together, so instead of little individual ‘sprinkles’ I ended up with more of a flocculated mass of ants that stuck together a little bit, making the letters seem ‘fuzzy’ around the edges. Also, if you ever do a project where you pour ants through a stencil, make sure you pick a font with block letters. The angle on the “t” I used gave us a bit of trouble, but it turned out OK. Some forceps and pin tools helped clean up the edges, and after a few takes, we had a pretty good image and — if I do say so myself — a pretty darn cool time-lapse.

Here’s the making-of video that shows how we did this, along with some outtakes that show some of the difficulties we had getting the ants to go through the stencil just right. Many thanks go to my husband, researchers Dr. Rob Plowes and Dr. Larry Gilbert and the hard-working crew of the Brackenridge Field Laboratory fire ant lab. Enjoy!

biocreativity | making of august 2011 blog header from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

And, yes — because I’m sure you’re wondering — I did get stung twice…in the name of biocreativity!

Link

Thanks to Scott Chamberlain at r-ecology for sending me this article in the Guardian about collaborations between artists and scientists. The article opens, “Science and art are often considered opposites – so what happens when top practitioners in each field collaborate?”. Well, I think you know what I’d call it. Biocreativity! The article describes four very interesting collaborations between an artists and geneticist, a poet and speech scientist, a photographer and physiologist and theater director and neuroscientist. I think what I find most interesting about the article are the comments. This is probably the most intense discussion of the intersection of arts and sciences I’ve seen in a while. Interestingly, while I (and several of the commenters) tend to see this intersection as more of a continuum, many of the commenters seem to need to classify works as one or the other: artistic or scientific, and are staunchly defending their views. What do you think?

Link

And…I’m back from a quick bout of post-ESA 2011 exhaustion (a few more posts on the way from ESA by the way)!

Loved Julie Palmer’s quick post last month on Bioephemera about a recent NYT article featuring graduate programs. The commissioned art for the piece strikes me as a more “serious”, NYTimes-y version of Jorge Cham’s PhD Comics (which was also featured recently in the NYT). I don’t have to tell any of you graduate students out there how great Cham’s uncanny depictions of your life actually are. According to the NYT article, he started writing the comics as “therapy” for coping with grad school. Even with no formal training in the arts, he’s made a career out of his creativity, and I think we grad students are all in his debt for bringing a little humor to our strife.

On the one hand, cartoons have the potential to engage us in biology without worrying too much about being ‘serious’. Exhibit A, Natalie Dee:

Thank God I'm Not an Earthworm by Natalie Dee. Available from http://www.nataliedee.com/archives/2011/Jun/

Thank God I'm Not an Earthworm by Natalie Dee. Available from http://www.nataliedee.com/archives/2011/Jun/

Cartoons also have the potential to bring awareness to how science can be perceived (or be ignored) in our culture. Again, Natalie Dee:

It's Gonna Last Forever Because of Our Unlimited Supply of Dead Dinosaurs by Natalie Dee. Available from http://www.nataliedee.com/

"It's Gonna Last Forever Because of Our Unlimited Supply of Dead Dinosaurs" by Natalie Dee. Available from http://www.nataliedee.com/

They can also serve as commentary on the process by which scientific research is sometimes (but not always!) conducted, as Cham often does with PhD comics:

Independent Research Study (c) Jorge Cham 11/17/1997 Available from www.phdcomics.com

Independent Research Study (c) Jorge Cham 11/17/1997. Available from http://www.phdcomics.com

If you didn’t know PhD comics movie is coming soon, hold on to your freakin’ hats, because it’s almost here!

Comics can also help describe some of the more endearing qualities of we who practice science (Randall Munroe of xkcd.com is very good at this):

Finally, no post on biology humor would be complete without a nod to Gary Larson’s The Far Side. Out of greatest respect for my favorite comic of all time, I can’t post one here. Here’s why. I’m sure many of you out there know of some great bio-comics! Let me know about them with a comment!