Art from the Ashes Goes to Texas

This image by Austin author and photographer Deanna Roy (taken at Loop 360 and Lost Creek Blvd just west of Austin, TX) went viral in the first few days of the Bastrop County Complex Fire. The 'live' version of this terrible sight inspired me to write about Art + Fire back in September.

A few months ago, as the wildfires were just beginning in Bastrop, Texas I wrote a post about the art of fire, and about the ecological function and renewing power of fire in the landscape. Since then, the Bastrop County Complex Fire (the most destructive in Texas state history) has destroyed 34,000 acres, 1649 homes and claimed the lives of two residents. The fires also burned over 90% of Bastrop State Park, and much of the remaining Lost Pines habitat of the critically endangered Houston Toad (Bufo houstonensis; Yes, I am old-school. I still call this Bufo).

Image of Houston Toad by Texas Parks + Wildlife Department's Chase A. Fountain.

Little did I know that my post would end up connecting me with some very caring and creative folks in California who were independently hatching plans to use the healing power of art to aide my neighbors in Bastrop. In my research for my Art of Fire post I came across Joy Feuer and the organization she founded, Art from the Ashes (or, AFTA). I think their mission statement does a pretty excellent job of introducing them:

“Our goal is to support communities devastated by natural disasters through the creation of art. ART from the ashes is about transformation. By using reclaimed materials as our medium, we hope to inspire and support the heart, mind and planet.” -AFTA Mission Statement

Joy and AFTA’s PR + Marketing director Stacy Conde immediately replied “YES!” to my requests to use AFTA images in my post and told me (to my delight) that they were already talking about their first show outside of California to support the victims of the Bastrop wildfires.

I am excited to report, after these few months, that they are here! This past weekend Joy Feuer and Nina Savill came to town to reclaim materials from the Bastrop fires and distribute them to Texas artists. By February 2012, these materials will be transformed into works of art that will be shown at an exhibition in mid-March and then sold to support reforestation and other fire recovery efforts in Bastrop. I am so honored to get to be a part of this exhibition to support my neighbors in Bastrop, and I finally got to meet Joy + Nina in person last Saturday when I picked out my reclaimed materials.

Materials salvaged from the Bastrop County wildfires by Nina and Joy.

Rebecca, Hayley & Cole choose reclaimed materials for the AFTA for Texas show.

A few of the salvaged materials from the Bastrop fires that I chose for my AFTA project.

For more details about the March 2012 benefit show you can visit the AFTA Goes to Texas page of AFTA’s website. You can also view photos of Joy + Nina’s recent trip to Texas and meet some of the artists on AFTA’s Facebook page. What will my materials become? Stay tuned…but it will probably have something to do with toads. Until I’m done with my piece, enjoy this beautiful woodcut of a Houston Toad by artist Lisa Studier, who will be featured in my ECO Art + Science series soon!

Reduction woodcut print of Houston Toad by Lisa Studier. Used here by permission.

Interestingly, “fire” continues to be the #1 search term drawing people to the biocreativity blog (though I like that “cool snakes” is also on the top 10 list). I hope that I have, in some small way, helped to give some ecological perspective on fire, which has been a part of human life for millennia. I also hope that I can directly contribute to wildfire recovery by creating art for AFTA’s Texas show and indirectly by encouraging all of you readers to spread the word about AFTA and their efforts. Joy and the rest of the AFTA crew are deep in the planning stages for the Bastrop show in March 2012, and financial donations to support the show would be greatly appreciated (click here to donate). AFTA is especially looking for volunteers in the Central Texas Region who can help in the planning stages as well as the execution of thier series of fundraising events. Interested sponsors, partners and volunteers should contact

Top 10 search engine terms connecting readers to the biocreativity blog.

ECO Art + Science: Photography of Plant Ecologist Kurt Reinhart

This week’s featured artist-scientist in the ECO Art + Science series is Kurt Reinhart: plant ecologist for the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Miles City, Montana, photographer and videographer. Kurt is also the creator of the website, an educational resource for plant ecology on the web. For those of you who are regular readers, you know how much I love time-lapse projects, so I was particularly excited to interview someone who loves time-lapse even more than I do (and who does a great job, too)!

Forests from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] Thanks for participating in the ECO Art + Science series, Kurt! Why don’t you start by telling the biocreativity readers what type of work do you do.

[KR] I’m an incredibly lucky guy that gets paid to do what I enjoy—being a Plant Ecologist.  At work, I spend most of my time either conceiving, implementing, analyzing, or publishing research projects.  The work is filled with challenges, and I also enjoy the multiple ways that I get to be creative while doing my job.  I have other passions in my life including: my family, hiking, camping, hunting, and nature photography.  In many cases, these passions are intertwined.

[biocreativity] Where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? Is your primary training in art or science, or both?

[KR] I may be interpreting the term “biocreativity” differently but I aspire to being biocreative.  I see it directly related to making scientific breakthroughs, developing multidisciplinary projects, and elevating the importance of my science.  Creativity is an essential ingredient in scientific achievement.

Though I hated it in high school, my primary training is actually in biology. I’ve also been interested in nature photography for years.  For about five years, I’ve been attempting to merge my professional and recreational interests with the creation of some short educational movies and other types of content on my website

This panorama shows a series of plant communities in different stages of secondary succession occurring at Shades State Park, Indiana. Secondary succession involves recovering following a disturbance. In this case agricultural conversion and then abandonment restarts the successional clock. This specific type of succession is often referred to as "old field succession" following abandonment. The field to the left is the youngest. The slightly older field to the right has an abundance of goldenrod (Solidago sp.). This is a common species in old fields of the eastern United States. To the rear of this field (right side) is an early successional forest. The forest to the left is the oldest plant community in view. As succession progresses there are numerous changes in the plant community composition and structure. Photo & caption text by Kurt Reinhart.

[biocreativity] I really enjoy the iecology site. It’s a great way to visualize ecology – especially plant biology! It’s also great that you’ve been able to use your creative abilities to help educate others about ecology. How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? 

[KR] Whether art should be merged more formally with science is functionally a decision for faculty at Universities to decide.  This decision really depends on their composition, history and vision, which will dictate whether such a change is pursued or not.  What is obvious to me is that many scientists are also musicians, painters, photographers, etc.  Scientists are a diverse bunch—some are likely indifferent to art but others are deeply connected and inspired by it.  To me, science has many connections with art.

Art is a tangible product that expresses an artist’s ideas and vision.  It serves as a form of communication that when done well provokes interpretation and reflection.  Scientists are concerned with interpreting and generating ideas, building an awareness for what is known and unknown, collecting and interpreting data, and skillfully communicating the importance of their ideas and interpretations.  A lot of aspects of science and art are shared though the training, tools, and media often differ.  I recently had a lot of fun collaborating on a time-lapse project with painter Mika Holtzinger.

Looking Back from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] What got you interested in plant biology? Also, what are some of the challenges of working with organisms and communities that are often very slow (at least, they are slow from the perspective of most humans) to change? 

[KR] I became really interested in plants after realizing their importance in defining habitat for wildlife and ecosystem structure and function.  Their importance is greater than most realize.  Most people think plants are as boring as rocks…  Their interest in nature is often limited to topics that can be easily visualized like courtship, predation, migration, and other animal behaviors.  I love nature documentaries, but they typically illustrate a small fraction of nature.  Getting audiences excited about the rest of nature is a challenge.

At work, we provide annual school tours.  99.9% of forth graders will never forget the day they got to reach into a cannulated cow’s “stomach” (actually rumen).  A major challenge is making plants equally exciting.  Over the years, I’ve tried to take professional photographs of plants and plant communities (landscapes) to help make them appealing subjects to a broad audience.  I’ve been dabbling in videography and have been shooting time-lapse sequences of plants for nearly 10 years.  Time-lapse videos are my favorite medium for making plants charismatic!

Time-lapse video of American chestnut seedlings growing from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] What inspired you to get started in photography and what inspires your current work?

[KR] For years, I’ve been a huge fan of the outdoors and nature, macro, wildlife, and landscape photography.  I read books and magazines on nature and landscape photography.  For several years, I’ve been a big fan of the  forum!  Probably my biggest source of inspiration for my website is Roger Handgarter’s website (  I was fortunate to interact with Roger and documentary film maker Sam Orr while post-docing at Indiana University.  I’m also a huge fan of the incredible time-lapse content produced by BBC, especially Tim Shepherd‘s time-lapses.

[biocreativity] I am a huge fan of the BBC time-lapse crew, which I featured in a post about nature time-lapse back in July. Time-lapse just seems to be a really engaging and effective way to get others involved in biology. What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[KR]  I see patterns and processes in nature with biological meaning that many people don’t.  This view of nature has been honed by years of training and experience.  Publishing research is an essential part of my career but this content often impacts only a small fraction of the world and mostly other scientists.  Photography and videography is one way that I attempt to communicate ecological concepts to a broader world.

The above panorama near the peak of Mount Sentinel near Missoula, Montana experienced a wildfire killing the trees in the foreground. The north aspects of the mountains retain slightly more moisture (i.e. snow melts slower) permiting trees to persist (see upper left of picture with a north-west aspect). Photo and caption text by Kurt Reinhart.

[biocreativity] Your ability to communicate ecology to others is really well illustrated by your Mount Sentinel panorama (above). I assume this often sparks interesting conversations with others about your work and about ecology. What are the most common questions or comments you get about your work?

[KR] A lot of people enjoy watching time-lapse content.  Shooting time-lapse sequences is considerably more challenging than photographing the same subject.  Most questions that I receive pertain to technical details of shooting a sequence.  I only have a few trade secrets and enjoy sharing most of what I’ve learned.  On my website, I provide various details on individual sequences.  I like hearing from people, and their positive feedback helps keep me motivated!

I do lots of different types of research.  So the questions are as varied as the topics and people asking the questions.

Damping-off – a story of plant disease from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] I really enjoy how you are able to present scientific information along with captivating images. Your short film on damping off disease in plants is a particularly good example of this. I also really enjoy your series of interactive panoramic photos on the iecology site that present information on plant community ecology. The diversity of habitats you’ve covered is impressive! Kurt, what’s next for you?

[KR] I’m enjoying being a full time ecologist in a region with some of the largest, most intact, and least studied grasslands in the world.  I wouldn’t want to be doing research anywhere else.

I’m gradually accumulating all sorts of time-lapse content that I hope to eventually develop into a 10-30 minute movie that I would like to enter in a regional film contest! That is a distant goal.  I’ve also got a new time-lapse set, like a mini studio, nearly complete that should enable me to make some incredible time-lapses of plants.  I love my website but a lot of content on the internet is tough to sustain due to the persistent costs of maintaining a website.  Either way, I’ll still be working away at shooting and making content.

Time-lapse blue grama grass anthesis from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] Well, I can’t wait to see what comes next! Speaking of science and film – you and the biocreativity readers may be interested in Scientific American’s PsiVid blog. They discuss all kinds of opportunities and methods for making science films. I notice that your Favorites page on the iecology site features a lot of ecology, photography and filmmaking links that could be very useful to the biocreativity readers. Just to summarize, can you tell the biocreativity readers all the places on the web where they can learn more about your work?

[KR] To see my time-lapse content, check out my website ( or  my Vimeo page. The Vimeo account may be the best place to keep track of my content in the future because I’m contemplating closing my website due to annual hosting fees. If you’re interested in learning more about my science then you can jump over to I also have an iecology Twitter account, but post infrequently.

[biocreativity] Kurt, thank you so much for sharing your work with us on the biocreativity blog. I noticed you have a ‘donate’ button at the bottom of the the iecology website. I think it’s really important for there to be diverse ways for the public to learn more about the science of ecology. I hope that folks who like your website might be inspired to give what they can to support it. Now, I’m off to go and watch some more of your videos!

Panoramic photo of a bog in Adirondack State Park in NY. See the interactive panorama and learn more about bog succession at

Stay tuned for more ECO Art + Science interviews each Thursday right here at! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to

ECO Art + Science: Photographs + Blog of Ecologist Margaret Siple

This week’s ECO Art + Science series post features ecologist and photographer Margaret Siple who is currently a graduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa on the island of Oahu. Her graduate research is based out of the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, which is on Moku o Lo’e (a two-minute boat ride from Oahu). Margaret (who also goes by Megsie) is the creator of the science blog Fishpond Fever (, which presents her ecological research on He’eia fishpond through engaging writing, eloquent photography and some beautiful insight into Hawaiian culture. Hawaiian fishponds are traditional aquaculture systems that consist of a porous stone wall surrounding a natural bay that let small fish enter but trap them as they grow larger. I was really excited to hear from Megsie after my first round of outreach to the Ecolog listserv. She currently studies Hawaiian ecology; I used to study Hawaiian ecology. I wanted (once upon a time) to study at UH Mānoa for graduate school, and she actually does this! She uses stable isotopes to study food webs; I also use stable isotopes to study food webs! She likes finding creative ways to help communicate her science, and so do I! I had a lot of fun interacting with her to create this post, and I hope you enjoy her work as much as I do.

Photograph by Margaret Siple.

[biocreativity] Welcome to the biocreativity blog, Megsie! Why don’t you start by telling us about the work you do. 

[MS] I study food webs, which means I spend some of my time characterizing communities (counting and identifying invertebrates, for example) and some of my time using stable isotopes as natural tracers to follow carbon and nitrogen through all the eaters and the eaten [for those who are unfamiliar, Megsie provides a good explanation of how stable isotope analysis works here].

Much of the reason I chose my field is because I love the kind of people that do this work. I love doing a job that is intellectually stimulating, ecologically important, and of course, really fun to share with other people. I also love writing grants.

An assortment of worms and amphipods found in sediment cores from mangrove removal areas. The plant fragments are mangrove rhizome fibers. Photograph and caption text by Margaret Siple.

As for what brings me joy on a daily basis, I really like working in the lab. I have some algae isolation protocols that are really fun, and every time I sort a core I find something I’ve never seen before. Stable isotopes are SO fun to work with, and such a powerful tool. And there’s nothing more satisfying than getting a code to work in MatLab or R [statistics programs]. I live for those days.

There are other things I love doing, somewhat unrelated to science + art: I play the oboe in the Oahu Civic Orchestra and the University of Hawai’i Symphony, and I have to say that music has always been a great love of mine.

[biocreativity] Do you have a website, blog, facebook page, twitter account, etc. that you’d like the biocreativity readers to know about?

[MS] Totally. I would love if people read and/or subscribed to my blog, Fishpond Fever. I don’t post often, but when I do, I try to make the posts interesting, accessible, and visually interesting.

A sponge raft found drifting along the bottom of He'eia fishpond. Composed of Gracilaria and the orange sponge Mycale sp., the piece was weighed down with sediment and tiny organisms living inside. The contents included two brittle stars, several polychaete worms, a few amphipods, and what look like juvenile tunicates. Photograph and caption text by Margaret Siple

[biocreativity] I see you also have a nice photostream on Flickr featuring marine invertebrates. Megsie, where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? Is your primary training in art or science, or both?

[MS]  My primary training is in science. My interests in marine ecology began in high school, but I started college wanting to become an oncologist. After years of training in medical labs, I started doing some molecular and ecological work for a lab at the University of Chicago, then landed a job at the Field Museum in Chicago, studying coral bleaching using methods developed for studying human tumors. What an exciting place to be, at the intersection of human and ecological heath! It was a really wonderful opportunity. The technology we used was incredibly complex, so we had to rely on good schematics to show people what we were doing and why it mattered.

Though I am a scientist by training, I was raised amongst artists: My mother, though a technical writer by trade, takes incredible photographs and specializes in silver palladium prints. My sister and brother are an art historian and artist, respectively, so I have had a lot of opportunities to learn from them. They’re so creative, and have taught me much of what I know about art and images. Brother and sister also venture into the realm of ecology every now and then: my sister helped design my research lab’s t-shirt, and my brother’s thesis exhibit included a series of living-art terrariums.

In celebration of the 4th of July, Megsie posted this photo of a Sternapsid worm whose body is reminiscent of a firecracker. The worm was found in mangrove sediments from He'eia fishpond. Photograph by Margaret Siple.

[biocreativity] The biocreativity blog readers might be interested to see some of your family’s artwork – how can they learn more?

[MS] My brother has a website portfolio: My sister is Director of Education at the Photo Center ( My dad, who makes furniture, has a site where he talks about the material and inspiration he uses. Unfortunately my mom doesn’t have a website. She keeps her genius on the down-low.

[biocreativity] How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? 

[MS] This is a tough question. When I say “art” I really mean “images,” and I don’t think the two are synonymous. I view images mostly as a vehicle for teaching science. Regardless of our backgrounds, we humans respond very strongly to what we see. Images are important to us. I don’t think I really know much at all about art, but I understand that you can communicate with people really successfully if you show them something they like to look at.

I think the other thing that makes art in science important is that it reminds us of the sense of wonder about the systems we live in and work with. Nature is so incredibly beautiful, so elegant, and so complex. When you show someone an equation describing how light moves through a medium, the complexity intimidates them. I think art about science can inspire people to value complexity, and experience it in a new way.

[biocreativity] Well said! Tell us more about what inspired you to start your blog, Fishpond Fever

He'eia fishpond. Photograph by Michael Walters via Flickr.

I work at a site, He’eia fishpond, that is extremely important for Hawaiians. I interact with the fishpond managers on a daily basis, but they know much more about their system than I do, so my input as a researcher is not always as valuable as my input as an observer. Traditionally, natural resources have been managed with massive collections of experiential data, passed down through kupuna [elders] to future generations. I wanted to be able to add to local knowledge with my experiences, and what better way to do this than with pictures, anecdotes, and accounts. It was also a way to make my research transparent to managers and to the public.

I have always loved writing, so a research blog was kind of a no-brainer. Also, blogs can be really helpful in graduate school: they provide you with a log of what you’ve done and how your thought process has changed over time, and they give you a space in which you can really mull things over. I process things by writing about them. Communicating scientific methods and theories to the public is also great practice for, well, the rest of my life.

[biocreativity]  I love the way you include so much about Hawaiian culture in your blog – because really, your work can’t easily be separated from it. In particular, I really enjoyed your post from the Ecological Society of America meeting in Austin about the intersection of local Hawaiian knowledge systems and Western scientific methodologies. Can you tell us more about your ecological work? 

[MS] I am approaching one question through two studies: one is a predator exclusion experiment that will show how invasive mangroves are changing community structure, and the second is a stable isotope project to determine whether an invasive alga provides a source of carbon for animals (directly or indirectly) in a native Hawaiian fishpond. These are related questions: they both focus on structure-forming species and the ability of these species to affect changes in the way other organisms interact.

These structure-forming species are often called “ecosystem engineers,” but that term can be misused. Clive Jones, who coined the term, defines an ecosystem engineer as an organism that create or modify physical habitat. He specified in his definition that engineer species modulate the availability of resources other than themselves. You can see how broadly this could be interpreted. I use the term “structure-forming” to make sure people know that I am talking about autogenic ecosystem engineers whose main resource contribution is somehow related to their physical structure.

Deforested mangrove has been grown over by the indigenous 'akulikuli. Dead mangrove leaves float in the water nearby. Photograph by Margaret Siple.

[biocreativity] I love how you’re able to explain your work in very down-to-earth terms, and that you also have a glossary on your blog explaining the more scientific vocabulary in your posts. What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[MS]  A) Hawaiian fishponds are a remarkably effective, low-impact solution to the sustainable fisheries problem, in coastal communities. I wish the whole world knew about them.

B) It is important to look at species not just as actors against a backdrop of their physical environment, but as agents of biogeochemical change, and as habitats in and of themselves. The idea of the “ecosystem” is so much more plastic than people probably realize.

[biocreativity] What is the most common question or comment you get about your work?

[MS] People often end up asking me more questions about fishponds than about ecology. They usually ask how many functioning Hawaiian fishponds are around Hawaii. There are about four currently being restored on Oahu, but at one time there were at least 500 in the Hawaiian Islands. Molokai still has about 60 of them. You can see them all if you fly over– it’s incredible.

People also always ask me “how do you study a food web?” This is a relevant question because a real food web has so many connections in it that it seems impossible to separate any of them. That’s because if you want to characterize a few links, you have to choose the important ones. A lot of food web ecology focuses on a few important links. People also use models a lot. I use stable isotopes and exclusion experiments, and I’ll use those both in models.

Where green world and brown world collide: mats of benthic microalgae are glued together with detritus, but fish eat the mats indiscriminantly, obtaining nutrients from both detritus and microalgae. Photograph and caption text by Margaret Siple.

[biocreativity] Megsie, can you explain what you mean by models and how you use them in your work?

[MS] Well, we use models all the time, whether or not we call them that. Our expectations, in daily life, are models. What we see, often, is a model for what we might expect to hear or experience. Everything is a model.

The mathematical models of ecology are like our road maps to the endlessly complex processes in nature. They are often relatively simple mathematical equations that can be solved– this is exciting because a model is an equation which you can solve. This means we can generate testable hypotheses, and if a model works, it can also help us make predictions for the future.

I use a few different models in my work: for my stable isotope work, I use trophic mixing models, which are simply mass-balance equations like we used in chemistry class, applied to stable isotopes. That model is a simple equation, and it helps me estimate percentages of different food sources in an animal’s diet. I also measure changes in community structure, which can be analyzed with statistical tests that are somewhat like a multivariate ANOVA [a type of model which tests for differences within and between groups]. I also use models to estimate density from crab trapping data.

[biocreativity] Megsie, what’s next for you in art + science? Where do you see the Fishpond project going, or what would you like to do next?

[MS] This project is for my graduate degree. I hope, by the time I’ve completed my thesis, that I will have added significantly to the body of knowledge on invasive species, structure-forming species, and mangrove ecology. This is a little ambitious, perhaps, but it keeps me going!

When I am finished, I hope to give back to my own native ecosystem, the coast of the Pacific Northwest. I have always wanted to study fisheries there, and I hope to end up there someday.

Samoan crab (Scylla serrata), a predator associated with mangrove forests in Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific. Though alien species in Hawaii, they are not considered a threatening invasive, because they grow slowly and are a popular fishery. Photograph and caption text by Margaret Siple.

[biocreativity] Let’s talk more about your images. You mention your family members got you into creating images. When did you start? Have you always been into photography or was it something you picked up in grad school to document your work?

[MS] I was one of “those people” in high school and picked up a camera and said, “I’m going to do photography!” What I really meant was, “I like taking pictures.” I have never been good at actual photography. [biocreativity begs to differ here] My mom would always have to help me in the darkroom. But I still like taking pictures. I now use mostly digital photography, because it’s fast and easy and the camera I have is waterproof so I can bring it in the field. Sometimes I’ll use an old medium-format Yashica (the fabulous Mat 124G), but that’s for leisure time.

[biocreativity] Do you have a favorite image you’ve created? (Or, maybe you can’t pick just one).

[MS]  There are two images I’ve taken that I really love. The one with the urchin is probably one of my more complex images– it has hard and soft edges, you can’t really tell whether it’s in or out of the water… the Padina (that whorled algae on the right)  is so beautiful. Look at those concentric rings of calcium carbonate! This picture is a study in structure.

The other one is a lichen community I found on a log. In my work, in ecology and modeling, scale is very important. I like this picture because you can see it on multiple scales. It’s tiny, they’re tiny lichens, but they look like trees. I suppose the shallow depth of field gives it away. But I think that’s cool. For all these pictures, though, I think nature really comes up with the beauty, and I just point my camera at it and press a button. Thanks, nature!

[biocreativity] Do you have any advice for people (maybe other grad students or scientists) who are considering doing more work in the creative realm? A lot of people get trepidatious about it because they think they have no talent or don’t have time. What would you say to them? I often encourage collaboration with very creative people to get started – it sounds like your family has been very helpful in that regard.

[MS] A lot of people in research or science think that you are either “artsy” or you aren’t. Oh, please! Everyone knows what they like to see. You just need some tools and some practice. And you need to care. It helps to have artistic outlets in your research.

I think people in science sometimes think of pictures and art as something “soft” and that research is hard and logical– they think there is some kind of trade-off between artistry and practicality. I say, “Au contraire“. Nothing is more practical than a well-placed, well-composed image.

[biocreativity] Do you plan out what images you need for a project (say, one of your grad projects) or are you just always taking shots no matter what? Any tips for other scientists on how to end up with the images you want after a project is complete?

[MS] Yikes. No idea. My advice would be to just take tons of pictures all the time. I learned this from my first PI. She made us take hundreds of pictures of Symbiodinium and coral skeletons. They ended up being very helpful when we were writing papers and proposals and giving talks.

[biocreativity] What type of equipment do you use? Do you do much post-processing on your images or do you just use them raw?

[MS] I use a Canon PowerShot D10– the shock-proof, waterproof one. It’s the only thing I trust in my muddy, salty research environment. In the lab I use a  Leica DFC 295 to take microscope pictures.

I mostly use my images raw. Sometimes I have to do some digital dodging, because the light in Hawaii is extremely bright, so you can get really bright skies and super-dark shadows.

Margaret's interns carry test crab cages to the mangroves. Photograph by Margaret Siple.

[biocreativity] Thanks so much Megsie for being a part of the biocreativity blog!

Stay tuned as the ECO Art + Science series continues each Thursday right here on! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to

ECO Art + Science: Sculpture of Ecologist Gary Grossman

When I posted about the biocreativity blog on the Ecological Society of America’s listserv Ecolog back in July, I got a lot of replies from biocreative people who are doing some really great work at the intersection of art + biology. I’m happy to say a short series of featured artists from my Ecolog interactions are finally making their way onto the biocreativity blog! I hope this series will serve to illustrate the many ways in which artists and scientists are using their talents in the modern world, to provide inspiration to any of you readers who are considering picking up the biocreative torch and to give artist-scientists (both experienced and new) a platform to showcase their work.

The first featured artist-scientist is aquatic ecologist and sculptor Gary Grossman, professor of animal ecology at the University of Georgia. Gary and I ‘sat down’ for an e-interview this week to discuss his work, his inspirations and his advice for new biocreatives.

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[biocreativity] Hi Gary, welcome to the biocreativity blog! Tell me about the type of work do you do.

[GG] I am an aquatic ecologist who works on problems of community organization, population regulation and resource use (i.e. habitat and dietary selection). Artistically, I am a stone carver who works primarily in harder stones like marble and limestone but also in softer stones such as alabaster and steatite. I love learning new things and I love teaching students that are interested in learning. Several years ago I developed a Natural History of Georgia course that is a large lecture course for non-science majors. I have had more fun teaching that course than any other course in my 30 years of teaching. Introducing students to science and making it fun is a great experience.

[biocreativity] Where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum?

[GG] My primary training is in science and I did not start making art till my late 40’s. Since then I’ve decided that this whole left-brain right-brain classification scheme is not really helpful and may inhibit people from trying activities on the other side of the spectrum.

[biocreativity] Well said, I quite agree! That leads in to my next question, which is how do you view the interaction of the arts and sciences?

[GG] Conceptually, art and scientific research have an identical goal, which is to see the world in a completely new way. Before I started carving I wrote poetry for about 10 years and there were very strong similarities between a great poem and a great scientific paper – both succeed by reducing complicated topics to easily understandable prose that has high impact. The same is true for my sculpture which is cubist abstract in form. I seek to reduce a form to the minimum necessary for visual recognition while retaining a visually and tactilely pleasing form.

[biocreativity] What you said about your sculpture reminds me a lot of Charley Harper, who was known for having said of his bird art, “I count the wings, not the feathers.” What inspired you to begin your work in sculpture?

[GG] After many years of wanting to do art but thinking that I had no talent, my wife bought me a book on soapstone carving, 20 pounds of soapstone, and a set of hand tools. I was hooked and have left a trail of dust in my wake ever since.

[biocreativity] I think a lot of people are trepidatious about getting into art for the same reason you described. What is your advice for others considering a foray into the arts?

[GG] First, don’t ever be afraid to make art and second, art is for you and for no one else.  There is no better feeling than making a piece of art and being completely satisfied with it.  It is exactly the same with writing a really good scientific paper, you read it and feel, “I am just incredibly happy that I made this.” The joy of creativity is likely the same for all creative outlets and is one of the true pleasures of life.

[biocreativity] That’s stellar advice! I’ll have to remember it next time I get a rejection notice for a scientific article! What is next for you in the art-science realm?

[GG] I’ll keep carving, there are lots of pieces that I would like to make.  I would also like to mention the therapeutic/meditative  value of sculpting.  I stopped writing poetry because it kept me “in my head” which is where I am all day for my scientific work.  For me, carving is an intuitive process that gets me out of my head completely and keeps me in a completely experiential mode.  So when I carve I free myself from all my day time stresses and worries and just work on the stone to the exclusion of everything else.  Hours can go by and I don’t even realize it.

[biocreativity] Thanks for talking with me about your work, Gary. Before we close, where can the biocreativity blog readers go to learn more about your work?

[GG] I have a web site but it’s mostly out of date. I am mainly using Facebook as a platform for my work because it has such a large audience. Readers can go to my Facebook sculpture portfolio to see some of my work or friend me on Facebook to see a greater sample. I’m the only Gary Grossman with a sculpture for a portrait photo.

Stay tuned for the next ECO Art + Science feature and if you’d like your work (or someone you know) featured here, please email and tell me about it!

the art of fire

Driving back from a Labor Day visit from Fort Worth to Austin earlier this week I was awestruck by the size of the smoke plumes emanating from the wildfires currently raging in Bastrop County. It’s overwhelming to consider the extreme devastation that my neighbors to the East are experiencing in the wake of these fires. As an ecologist, I’m also thinking about what this will mean for the Lost Pines ecosystem and populations of the endangered Houston Toad that have already been devastated by the current drought and habitat destruction. My thoughts are also on Bastrop State Park that is all but 100 acres burned, and nearby Buescher State Park and Stengl Lost Pines Biological Field Station. All of this got me thinking of ways that the arts and biology have merged over one of nature’s most destructive and renewing forces, and with a little bit of research I’ve found some very interesting examples.

fire is ancient history

It probably goes without saying that our species would not be where it is today without fire. Some very ancient forms of artistic expression would not have been possible without it. Our ancestors that created paintings located deep within caves would not have been able to access such depths without light from a fire. Pottery, my own preferred medium, requires fire to vitrify the clay into a strong and watertight form. One of the most beautiful examples of earth, fire and biological materials coming together to create art is horse hair raku-style pottery. In this technique, the fired pottery is heated and coarse horse hairs leave behind their carbon markings as it burns off of the pot.

Large Horsehair Vase by Lisa Dempsey. Available from

Fire also plays an important role in the mythology of one of my favorite types of creatures: the salamanders. The ecology of woodland salamanders that live underneath logs is responsible for the genesis of this mythology. When people collected logs from the forest and burned them for cooking or warmth, the once-hiding salamanders ran for their lives, emerging from the fire (wouldn’t you?). Our early ancestors found this quite magical, and their stories around the campfire later influenced early texts on alchemy and zoology. Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) was one of the first to describe the association between fire and salamanders in his Historalis Naturae, and several medieval bestiaries also described the salamander as a creature of fire. In his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci writes about the salamander, “This has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin.” An excerpt and emblem from the Book of Lambspring, a book of “spiritual alchemy” first published in 1599 by Nicholas Baurnaud describes this association a bit more lyrically:

In all fables we are told
That the Salamander is born in the fire;
In the fire it has that food and life
Which Nature herself has assigned to it.
It dwells in a great mountain
Which is encompassed by many flames,
And one of these is ever smaller than another—
Herein the Salamander bathes.

"Figure X. A Salamander Lives in the Fire, Which Imparts To It A Most Glorious Hue" from the 1599 alchemical text the Book of Lambspring

One of the first landscape paintings of the renaissance, Piero di Cosimo’s 1505 painting The Forest Fire, depicts quite a bestiary of real and imagined animals fleeing from a wildfire. This painting is said to have been inspired by the ancient philosopher Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, which asserts that the foundations of civilization were laid when man finally lost his fear of fire and started to use it to craft metals. Thus, our ability to “control” fire is often seen as the beginning of human’s dominion over nature, and is what sets us apart from other animals.

The Forest Fire. 1505. Piero di Cosimo.

fire: friend or foe?

The view that humans should control and suppress fires in wild landscapes is perhaps exemplified by a well-known mid-20th century campaign by the Ad Council and US Forest Service: Smokey the Bear. A lot of us have fond memories of Smokey, who turns 65 this year, and who is now considered one of our national symbols. We can all thank Smokey for reminding us of the importance of properly extinguishing our campfires and cigarettes and avoiding any activities that could start an unplanned fire – a message that is especially relevant in drought-stricken central Texas right now.

See more Smoky the Bear Posters at

The stop-fires-at-all-costs ideology behind Smokey’s campaign, however, has been criticized by many as ignoring the important role of fire in landscapes that have evolved with natural fires as a renewing and necessary element of landcape ecology. Some landscapes – such as grasslands, chaparral and many types of forests – require periodic fires to clear away dead understory material. Many of these fires are low-heat and slow, and do not get hot enough or large enough to reach the crowns of trees and kill older plants. Many species of plants even require the heat from fires to open their seed-pods, and simply cannot reproduce without being exposed to fires. Fire suppression in these ecosystems can lead to the build-up of dead trees, shrubs and grasses that will provide an unusual amount of dried fuel when a fire eventually sweeps through an area. When combined with drought, high winds and dry air (sound familiar, central Texans?) these fires can become so large they reach the crowns of the trees (“crown fires”), and often are so hot and powerful that they burn everything in the landscape, including mature trees that are usually benefitted by lower-intensity fires.

"Mexico Fire" by Bruce Dale shows a 1990 crown fire in Chihuahua, Mexico. Available from National Geographic's Wildfire Photos gallery

An entire branch of ecology – fire ecology – is dedicated to understanding the effects of wildfires on ecosystems, which can be essential in maintaining and restoring native landscapes. One of my favorite artists, Charley Harper, provides an exquisite example of the integral role of natural fires in ecosystems in his painting Kirtland’s Warbler. Charley’s artwork appeared alongside an article by Jean Ducey in the April 1978 issue of Ford Times Magazine describing the necessity of fire in conservation of breeding habitat for the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler. This rare bird makes its nest at the base of Jack Pine trees, whose seeds require fire to be released (skillfully illustrated in Charley’s painting below) and a bed of ashes in which to germinate. Fire suppression in Michigan’s lower peninsula kept Jack pines from reproducing and, as Ducey describes,”Man’s efficiency…has tamed the forests and threatened the warbler with extinction.”

Kirtland's Warbler. 1978. Art used here by permission and Copyright Estate of Charley Harper. A lithograph is available at

Through the use of prescribed low-intensity burns that are set intentionally under controlled conditions, ecologists were able to restore the specialized habitat of the warblers. And guess what? It’s working! Here are the population estimates for Kirtland’s Warbler – provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). For more information on efforts to conserve this endangered species, visit the MDNR site.

Number of singing males is used to estimate population size in Kirtland's Warblers. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Recall 1978 was the date of the Ford Times article featuring the artwork of Charley Harper.

emerging from the ashes

“In the wake of devastation and destruction, these works of art symbolize one’s ability to renew, rebuild and persevere” -Art From The Ashes

Whether you see wildfires as agents of destruction or renewal, it cannot be argued that they are agents of change. While we might not be able to see it now, current wildfires could possibly bring about positive changes, either for the landscape or in our own lives, and can help bring us together as stronger and more connected communities. A California group called Art From the Ashes, whose mission is to provide support for communities devastated by wildfires and other natural disasters through the creation of art, is working to do just that. By using reclaimed materials left in the wake of fires, artists create works that are donated and then sold to provide relief for victims of natural disasters. A local news story from KTLA illustrates this creative process with Art From the Ashes  founder Joy Feuer. The exhibitions themselves are also opportunities for communities to try and find some solace and perspective. The group has recently expanded their scope to include all natural disasters and their upcoming exhibition Artists Unite for Japan runs September 17-30 at Royal/T in Culver City, CA to benefit the Japan Society Earthquake Relief Fund (opening reception 9/17, 6-11pm). Among many other talented artists, this exhibition will feature work from the master of wood firing, potter Peter Callas. I’m sure the presence of Art From The Ashes in central Texas in the near future would be welcomed and appreciated. In the meantime, find out what you can do to help by visiting the Central Texas Red Cross.

Xenia Zampolli 'In Flight' Reclaimed branch from Deukmejian Wilderness Park-Station Fire, feathers. Photo courtesy of and used here by permission from ART From The Ashes.