Skip to Content

Blog Archives

Mural Progress, Kentucky Natural History

Colors!

Colors!

A floating reference

A floating reference

We are making good progress on the Artworks mural in Covington, KY!  The mural is a celebration of Kentucky’s rich natural history.  My thesis work at the University of Cincinnati was largely about the connections between art, the natural world and the human hand.  This mural project has been a great opportunity to continue those interests in a more straightforward way.

Artworks summer programs are thankfully designed not only to employ teens but to provide opportunities for enrichment.  To prepare for the project and get everyone interested in the subjects of our mural I organized several field trips.

First, we made a trip to the beautifully redesigned Mary Ann Mongan Covington Library just across the street from the mural site at 502 Scott Blvd.  I organized something of a scavenger hunt/learning rampage, encouraging the apprentices to explore a variety of topics including: the challenges of public art (as illustrated by the popular story of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc), the life cycles and roles of viceroy butterflies and honeybees, and the mastodon bones unearthed at Big Bone Lick State Park in the beginning years of America.  Also, what is a Dunkleosteus?  I have always been interested in synthesizing a lot of information and making connections between seemingly disparate topics.

A couple days after the library trip we went to the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal to visit the natural history museum.  We paid particularly close attention to the ice age exhibit, which is simply fantastic.  Our mural includes a mastodon skeleton, an early American symbol of power and mystery and one of my favorite creatures!  I also included a Brachiopod, the Kentucky state fossil.  These fossils are millions of years old, from a time this area was covered in ocean.  They should be a familiar sight, if you have ever looked closely at a river rock.

Since then it has been many days of sweating in the sun and drawing, painting, and having fun.  I met the most amazing group of teenagers.  It is kind of sad wrapping this project up these next couple weeks.  Stay tuned for photos of the final result!

0 Continue Reading →

The Artist as Collector

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636

In the Renaissance, before the borders of art and science were so rigidly defined, the cabinet of curiosity or cabinet of wonder (Wunderkammern in German) was a place where peculiar objects were gathered (for a most fun and succinct recollection of this history, see Weschler, Lawrence. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. New York: Vintage, 1996. Print.).  These cabinets of wonder included natural objects like shells and bones, as well as human-made art objects such as oil paintings and sculptures.  Today we might understand these groupings of art and science as naive, but those collections were precursors to our modern museums.  Put positively, museums are now cultural expressions of shared understanding, places of wonder and appreciation.  Seen more critically, museums are promotors of ruling class propaganda–institutions where knowledge is created, stored and maintained by governments and wealthy individuals, opened periodically to the public, often for a fee.

The Artist in His Museum, (self-portrait, 1822), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

The Artist in His Museum, C.W. Peale (self-portrait, 1822), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Did you know that one of the first well-known American natural history museums was established by an Artist?  Artists are natural collectors, attracted to unusual forms and phenomena.  It is no surprise then that Charles Wilson Peale, a well known American portrait painter, was among the first to offer his collection to the public as a museum.  Peale also was progressive in that he adopted a system of scientific taxonomy, organizing his birds and bones by groups and classes rather than presenting them as random curiosities.  I always loved this painting, especially the grid of shelves, implying modernism, stability, structure and organization.

Peale, along with Thomas Jefferson and other early American figures, had a particular interest in the Mastodon, a then-emerging symbol of American power.  First called the “American Incognitum”, the Mastodon was thought to have been a powerful carnivorous beast.  One of the first complete skeletons to be unearthed was displayed in Peale’s museum.  Here is a magnificent drawing of the skeleton as it was displays in Peale’s museum from a book, Voyage to North America, and the West Indies, in 1817, published in 1821 and written by Édouard de Montulé.  It would have been incredible sight for early Americans.  but they put the tusks on backwards.  oops!

Skeleton in C.W. Peale's museum, drawing illustration by Édouard de Montulé in his book A voyage to North America, and the West Indies in 1817, published 1821

Mastodon Skeleton in C.W. Peale’s museum

A Wunderkammern aesthetic can be found in my own art, in that my work consists of gathering together seemingly disparate objects under the banner of art but often employs the visual language of science.  I treat natural and human artifacts as equals.  I am interested in the formal effects of visual organization but rather like early cabinets of wonder, my goal is not to deliver answers but to raise questions and inspire.

0 Continue Reading →