ECO Art + Science: Printmaker Lisa Studier

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.

Houston Toad. 2010. Reduction woodcut print by Lisa Studier.

[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.

Platypus. 2008. Woodcut print by Lisa Studier.

[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.

Orang Roughy. 2004. Reduction woodcut print by Lisa Studier.

[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.

Sonoran Green Toad. 2010. Reduction woodcut print by Lisa Studier.

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.

The Time Has Come. 2006. Reduction woodcut print by Lisa Studier.

[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.

Wolf Eels. 2004 Reduction woodcut print by Lisa Studier.

[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.

Mexican Burrowing Toad. 2010. Reduction woodcut print by Lisa Studier.

[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!

Eastern Box Turtle. 2009. Reduction woodcut print by Lisa Studier.

[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.

Great Plains Toad. 2010. Reduction woodcut print by Lisa Studier.

[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

San Francisco Garter Snake. 2007. Reduction woodcut prints by Lisa Studier. Click on the image for a slightly larger version.

[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 biocreativity@yahoo.com.

Endangered Species Condoms

Yes. Endangered Species Condoms. Seriously. That’s creative.

Lest you think this is a joke (as I did at first), you can visit the Center for Biological Diversity’s 7-Billion and Counting site and their newsletter Pop X. The world’s population is slated to hit the 7-billion mark this October. The Center for Biological Diversity‘s Endangered Species Condom initiative is their attempt at creatively (and, hey, practically) – dare I say – driving home the connection between overpopulation and environmental destruction.

“Overpopulation and overconsumption are the root causes of environmental destruction. They’re driving species extinct, destroying wildlife habitat, and undermining the basic needs of all life at an unprecedented rate.” -Center for Biological Diversity

The CBD is relying on volunteers to distribute the condoms at public events across the US. You can even sign up to help them reach their goal of distributing 100,000 free condoms in 2011, which is a bit shy of their 2010 quota of 350,000. Maybe this map will help you decide whether or not your geographic area is in need of more free Endangered Species Condoms. Just look at that distribution!

The images used on these clever condom wrappers were donated by the Endangered Species Print Project (ESPP). Since I study endangered species, this project hits pretty close to home. I love it! The ESPP creates art prints of critically endangered species in series that are limited by the number of animals (or plants) remaining in the wild. For example, there are less than 100 Panamanian Golden Frogs left in the wild, so ESPP founder Jenny Kendler’s print of the creature is limited to 100 prints. This project  grew out of a fondness for nature and animals shared by ESPP founders Jenny Kendler and Molly Schafer:

” [they] met during their graduate studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where they bonded over nature-geekery, including a studious interest in animals, wild places and natural pre-history. Since 2005, Kendler and Schafer have been collaborating on projects relating to art and the environment.”

To learn more about ESPP, they have a great blog and a Facebook page that features many of the ESPP’s biocreative endeavors. All of the prints are available for about $50, and the proceeds go directly to organizations that benefit each endangered species. Now if only we can do a print for the critically endangered Barton Springs Salamander!? *Hint, hint Jenny & Molly!* I just happen to have a watercolor print and access to a rhyming dictionary!

The endangered Barton Springs Salamander. Less than 200 remain in the wild. Artist: Victoria Harrell of Conroe, Texas.

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 http://www.lisadpottery.com/

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 http://www.smokeybear.com

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 http://on.natgeo.com/q03gS7

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 http://www.charleyharperartstudio.com.

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.

images for outreach, research and conservation

On Monday afternoon I had the chance to learn more about ARKive.org from Liana Vitali, who led a workshop at this year’s Ecological Society of America meeting in Austin, TX. My first thought upon entering the room (a few minutes late) was: “Where is everybody?”. About a dozen participants from a registered crowd of over 3,600 ecologists came to the workshop to learn more about how this website can contribute to our research, outreach and teaching and how it can be used to satisfy just plain old biological curiosity. I thought the low attendance was strange since this year’s theme is Earth Stewardship which seems pretty in line with ARKive’s mission. And – is it just me – or does there seem to be a growing sense within our field that we ecologists should be doing more to help increase public awareness of what we do? If so, shouldn’t we be taking advantage of as many free resources and training opportunities as possible? As I’ve mentioned before on the biocreativity blog, I think wildlife photography and nature documentaries are two of the most compelling biocreative media for illustrating natural phenomena and introducing broad audiences to the biodiversity of our planet.

ARKive.org does just that. Produced by Wildscreen, a non-profit organization, its mission is to increase public understanding of wildlife, biodiversity and its conservation through wildlife imagery. Wildscreen is behind, among other things, the “world’s largest” wildlife and environmental film festival, the Wildscreen Festival. One major figure behind ARKive.org is the late Christopher Parsons, former head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit and the project has a few notable spokespersons including Dr. Sylvia Earle, Dr. E.O Wilson and Sir David Attenborough (indeed).

ARKive features species profiles with photos and videos of all species listed on the IUCN red list of threatened species. John Hanke of Google Earth fame has recently joined the ARKive team, and as a result you can view ARKive images directly within Google Earth (layer included in GE download) or within the ARKive.org species profiles. All of the images within ARKive have been donated by organizations, professional photographers, researchers and natural history broadcasters. The great part is, you don’t have to ask permission for private, scientific, educational and non-commercial uses. For example, if you would like to use a photo or video for an academic presentation or for use in your K-12 classroom, feel free! Have another use in mind? Just ask permission. Contact information for the photographer or filmmaker is attached in the bottom right corner of every image by clicking the “Credit” link.

There are several ways contribute your images or expertise to ARKive.org. First, ARKive has a “most wanted list” of species for which they need good images and videos. Most species profiles also have a shared Flikr gallery on which users can contribute additional photographs directly. An added benefit of contributing images is that the entire online archive of ARKive is backed up on both US and UK servers, so if you contribute and then somehow loose your data, you’ll have at least two backups of contributed images. If you have expert knowledge to contribute to particular species featured in ARKive, you can offer your help to review and write profiles by emailing arkive@wildscreen.org.uk. If you’re at the ESA meeting you can view the most wanted list and get in touch with Liana at the booth in the exhibit hall. Finally, the ARKive and Universities program allows graduate students to create and review species profiles, providing them with an opportunity to contribute their knowledge and get published online.

Personally, I can’t tell you how helpful it would have been to have had access to ARKive’s videos (linked below) of ‘Akiapola’au – a rare Hawaiian forest bird – when my colleagues and I were presenting results of our research on the foraging ecology of this bird nearly a decade ago. ‘Akiapola’au is so rare we saw it only once in two summers of field research. Explaining the feeding behavior of this bird verbally is so much different than being able to transport your audience to the field via a short film. My only complaint so far is that you can only embed fairly small thumbnails of photos and links to videos like the ones of the ‘Akis below. One way around this is that you can download the videos and re-post them for certain limited purposes (or with permission), but the ability to embed videos (on blogs, for example) would be nice. Nevertheless, this is a cool tool. How will you use ARKive.org?

ARKive video - 'Akiapola'au - overview ARKive video - 'Akiapola'au feeding ARKive video - 'Akiapola'au feeding and calling