ECO Art + Science Series: The Sustainable Art of Emily Bryant

On today’s ECO Art + Science Series I’m pleased to introduce the sustainable artwork of Emily Bryant. When Emily first contacted me through the biocreativity blog, I was awestruck by her work, which in many ways channels the iconic collages by Eric Carle (of The Very Hungry Caterpillar fame). Though, where Carle transforms colored paper into his widely recognized plants and animals, Bryant puts pressed invasive plants to work in her collages of invasive insect species. It’s not often you meet someone with the degree of simultaneous training in the arts and sciences that Emily has achieved. She pursued a double-major in Sustainability and Studio Art (along with a nifty minor in biology) at Baldwin-Wallace College. She even created her own course in Sustainable Art to research the environmental impact of fine art materials with stunning results. Her invasive-species collages and digital nature photography collages are created entirely from sustainable materials. I am glad that we both live in Austin, Texas, where I have been lucky enough to view her meticulous collages in person and assist her in collecting more invasive plants for her next series. As I head out the door to meet Emily on the Lady Bird Lake hike + bike trail to do more collecting, I hope you enjoy her thoughtful interview for the ECO Art + Science Series.

**UPDATE 4/16/12  Emily currently has 9 pieces of sustainable native species art hanging at Cafe Josie in Austin, TX until May 26th! 1200 B west 6th Street, Austin, TX 78703**

[biocreativity] Welcome to the biocreativity blog, Emily! What type of work do you do?

[EBB] As a specialist in the field of sustainability, I help reduce operating costs of companies by decreasing utility and natural resource consumption. I also use a lot of creative problem solving to make products and processes more sustainable. I have experience with a governmental organization, small local business, large international business, and multiple non-profit groups. I’ve worked with wildlife, engineers, automobile mechanics, park rangers, city legislatures, artists, and ecologists, and I’ve found that as long as I can be creative and make a positive contribution to environmental protection and promote stewardship, I am fulfilled. I love exploring and photographing natural areas.

Native Texas Aquatics. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[biocreativity] Emily, where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? Closer to the arts end or the science end?

[EBB] I think I fall right in the middle! I went to school at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, where I double majored in Studio Art and Sustainability, with a focus and minor in Biology.

[biocreativity] That’s an impressive combination of credentials! How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? What’s your take on how these disciplines interact?

Torpedo Bug. Collage, pressed invasive plants and plant-based glue © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[EBB] I think creativity is a necessity in the sustainability field. You really have to have a holistic viewpoint and be able to balance many different disciplines and the concerns of many different stakeholders. I love the challenges involved in trying to find sustainable solutions that improve a product or process and save companies money. When people say the term innovative, I hear creative.

In positions I’ve held in the past, my employers have realized that my creativity was an unexpected asset. I’ve used creative writing, photography, filming, drawing, and graphic design to enhance marketing for sustainability initiatives companies were pursuing. They were thrilled with my ability to share sustainability messaging in such captivating and appealing ways. I think arts enhance the sciences and take them to another level. I feel that many people in the sciences can get so caught up with processes and data that they forget to take a step back and remember how incredible the subject matter they are studying really is. I think the arts enable people to share their research and passions with those outside of their academic disciplines on a very personal and captivating level, and I sincerely believe it is critical that scientists share more of their work with the general public.

The Magical World of Pollination. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

I was lucky in that I could sit in a biology class and admire the human body for its complexity and functionality and later go to a life drawing class and admire the human body for its beauty and form. My photography professor told me that the few science majors in his classes produced some of the best work. My invertebrate natural history professor, happy that I was using my art to teach others about insects, told me that we needed more creative people in the sciences. The natural world has always inspired me and is the motivation behind my art.

[biocreativity] It sounds like you had an amazing art-science experience at Baldwin-Wallace! Emily, what are your current art-science projects?

[EBB] The goal of my first series of sustainable art is to educate people about invasive species. Invasive species are species that have been introduced to an area purposefully or accidentally that harm ecosystems by out-competing native species. Some invasive species that have been introduced purposefully were originally intended for a good cause, such as pest removal, but it can be difficult to know all the impacts a foreign species can have in an environment. To make this artwork, I collect and press invasive plant species and layer them using a plant-based glue to form collaged images of invasive species. So far, I have been making insects, but plan on making other invasive animal species in the near future. In some of my pieces I have also featured the native plants that the invasive insects destroy to show people what impact the species are having on local ecosystems.

Japanese Beetle. Collage of pressed invasive plants and plant-based glue on paper © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

Native species are the focus of my second series of artwork. Many of these images have a fantastical or ethereal quality to them because I want people to see nature in the same enchanting way that I do. These pieces are made in Photoshop by stripping away the original colors of a picture and manually adding new ones, or by layering multiple pictures together in order to form a new image. These photographs are printed on sustainable bamboo paper by a company that runs on 100% green energy. Many of the animals featured in this series are also insects because after taking an Invertebrate Natural Science course where I had to make my own insect collection, I really began to observe and appreciate some of the incredible invertebrates of our world. I think most people don’t even notice insects when they are outside. As one of the most misunderstood types of animals, I thought it was important to show people how fascinating and compelling these species could be. Featuring native species was very important to me because I want people to become in touch with natural areas on a local level and get them passionate about protecting these places.

B-W Native Plants Garden (You're More Beautiful When You're Open). Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[biocreativity] I think the collages are particularly impressive. They’re so delicate, and the cutouts so intricate it looks like they must have been very painstaking to construct! What is your inspiration for these series?

[EBB] My idea to create sustainable art began when I decided to try combining my two disciplines. Having studied some material and product chemistry, I began to realize how unsustainable and harmful a lot of the art materials I had been working with really were. This led me to create an independent study Sustainable Art course with my art advisor. The objectives of the course were to create art with various sustainable materials that would educate viewers on different environmental issues. I had just accepted a sustainability internship with the Cleveland Metroparks at the time, and invasive species management was a big focus area of theirs. This inspired me to make artwork featuring invasive species because I knew that so few people in the greater Cleveland area were aware of the devastation that was occurring in our parks, especially from species like the Emerald Ash Borer.

Emerald Ash Borer. Collage, pressed invasive plants and plant-based glue on paper © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[biocreativity] What does the emerald ash borer do to affect native species? Why is it so important that we know about the effects of invasive species?

More than 50 million ash trees in the midwest are estimated to have been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), whose larvae eat through the tissue between the bark and wood of Ash trees, disrupting a tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients. Adults emerge from Ash trees and feed on its leaves in late spring or early summer. The adults then lay eggs, which promptly hatch and feed on the Ash tissue for one to two years before maturing into adults. Trees usually die over the course of a couple years. EAB was brought to Michigan from Asia from wood on boats. It has since spread to more than one dozen states, commonly through individuals transporting firewood. A large portion of suburban trees are ash trees, planted to provide shade and reduce energy costs. So far, we have no way to deter the spread or destruction caused by the EAB. It causes billions of dollars in damage each year and threatens to destroy most ash trees in North America. Do your part by not transporting fire wood and reporting signs of EAB infestation observed locally. Instructions on where to report EAB signs can be found by searching for EAB in your state online.

Other invasive species I have collaged include the Japanese Beetle, which feeds on roses and other ornamental plants in Ohio; the Cactus Moth caterpillar, which feeds on the Prickly Pear Cactus; and the Torpedo bug, which feeds on a variety of ornamental plants. I am planning on collaging one of the invasive species of ants in Texas next. I will continue to collage insects, but may branch out to other animals, such as birds, in the near future. It all depends on the materials I am able to find and what colors they are.

Cactus Moth Caterpillar. Collage, pressed invasive plants and plant-based glue on paper © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[biocreativity] What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[EBB] I want people to look at my artwork to know what is at stake. I want them to look at my series of native species art and show them all the incredible and overwhelmingly beautiful organisms that are right outside their doors. I want them to know that natural areas can be enchanting, spiritual places that are a breath of fresh air when we are feeling drained in our lives. I want them to know that if we keep carrying on consuming the way we do, they might lose something beautiful that they never knew existed.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

I hope that through my invasive species art, people will begin to learn about and appreciate native species to stop the invasives from spreading. I think many people believe that scientists have all the answers, but invasive species show us that there are tangible consequences for being careless with foreign imports and purposeful introductions of exotic species. The United States may lose all of its ash trees from the Emerald Ash Borer, and there is nothing we can do right now except collect ash tree seeds for the future. I would love for people to know the positive impacts of growing native plants in their yards, such as mitigating harsh weather conditions and providing food and habitat for native species, some of which may be endangered due to habitat loss.

[biocreativity] Emily, I think that’s a very strong message, and a very creative way of conveying that message.What’s next for you in art + science? Where do you see your projects going, or what would you like to do next?

[EBB] I plan on continuing both series of artwork. Having just moved to Texas in August 2011, there are plenty of native species for me to photograph and collage. There are also many more invasive species to feature! I may move into pests and invasive animals outside of the insect world. I am considering making collages of native species out of native plants, but then I’d have to find a way to not feel guilty about collecting the native plants…

Find Us in Ohio's Parks. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[biocreativity] What got you started in the arts?

[EBB] I have been making art since I was a child, but my current artwork where I am combining art and sustainability has meant more to me than any other work I have done. It gives my art a sense of urgency and makes me want to share it. It has helped me articulate my sustainability education and connect with and reach people in ways that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. I think I’ve found my artistic niche and it gives me renewed inspiration, joy, and pride in my artwork. It’s really refreshing to work on art that you feel is unique when there can be a lot of redundancy in the art world.

[biocreativity] Do you have any advice for young artists and scientists who might be thinking about getting into art-science projects?

[EBB] I would tell them to absolutely go for it, young artists especially. Going through school and struggling to find out who you are in the face of difficult social situations can really damage your self-esteem. Your art is always a talent that you can feel good about. No matter what, no one can take that away from you. Art is always there for you to express yourself, learn about yourself, and grow as a person. Creativity is what has made the world we live in possible and what will continue to make our quality of life better. I think creativity needs to be appreciated more in our society and especially in our schools. Being both left and right-brained can open up an entire world for you that many people never get to explore. Art is a way for you to communicate with the world and I think the sciences need to be available to everyone, not just other scientists in the field.

[biocreativity] How can the biocreativity readers find out more about your work?

[EBB] I have an Etsy shop with prints of my artwork for sale, and jewelry that I make for enjoyment. I am also working on finding more sustainable products to feature my prints on. So far, I have made prints on recycled content note cards. You can check them out on I can also be found on LinkedIn.

Long-horned Beetle. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[biocreativity] Emily, I hear you’re also looking to start a career in sustainability here in Austin, what types of work are you interested in?

I have found that as long as I can be creative and make a positive contribution to the environmental field, I am more than happy. I enjoy being challenged and look forward to the opportunity to contribute sustainable solutions to different environmental problems in Austin, whether that be through writing, product or process design, the protection of species and wild places, or helping green businesses grow.

[biocreativity] I can’t wait to see what comes next for you in the arts and sciences, Emily. Thanks for sharing your talents with the biocreativity blog! [Note to potential employers: hire this talented and creative woman before someone beats you to it!]

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

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

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!

ants in my pants | title image august 2011

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

Each month I’ll be creating a new header image and short film for the biocreativity blog. As you can see above, the August 2011 biocreativity blog header image and accompanying video are finally here! I had lots of fun making this one, but I want to give you a chance to guess how it was done. The ‘making of’ video will be posted in a couple of days, so get guessing!

One hint: fire ants! Many thanks to Dr. Rob Plowes and Dr. Larry Gilbert and the hard-working crew of the Fire Ant Lab at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory in Austin, TX for generously providing red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) for this project!