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Aruby-throated hummingbird is visually stunning, even for a work of art. But stunning wasn’t enough for Ashley Cecil. The artist-in-residence at Carnegie Museum of Natural History didn’t want to paint something for its beauty alone.
During her six-month post, Cecil learned to create in a way that marries beauty and scientific research. One of her designs, a scarf adorned with hummingbirds and their iridescent red feathers, is both a chic fashion statement and a call to action based on the museum’s efforts to reduce the number of bird deaths caused by collisions with windows. An estimated 365 million to 988 million birds in the United States alone die each year from striking windows.
“Ashley does a wonderful job of highlighting some of the science going on in the museum in an emotionally and aesthetically evocative way,” says Steve Tonsor, director of science and research at the Oakland museum.
For an artist who grew up drawing horses in her native Kentucky and went on to become a classically-trained painter studying floral textile patterns in European museums, the natural history residency seemed a natural fit. But when she began the project in July, she found the nitty gritty of scientific research altogether baffling.
Cecil, often found roaming the galleries in paint-specked jeans, initiated long conversations with museum scientists and pored over their highly technical, jargon-filled papers about integrative taxonomy, phylogenetics, and migratory patterns of birds.
“Ashley does a wonderful job of highlighting some of the science going on in the museum in an emotionally and aesthetically evocative way.” – Steve Tonsor, Director of Science and Research at Carnegie Museum of Natural History
There was just one problem: She understood maybe five out of 10 words. “I spent as much time consulting a dictionary as I did reading the research,” says Cecil with a laugh. “It felt like a foreign language.” But rather than giving up, or painting something that simply looked interesting, she dedicated herself to a crash course in science. She even took a genetics course online from the American Museum of Natural History.
With so much beauty worthy of painting—and researching—in the natural world, Cecil knew she would have to narrow her focus. Considering her options, one stood out for its widespread appreciation. Who doesn’t love a bird? she thought. Not to mention the fact that birds are critical to a healthy environment. “They pollinate plants, aid in pest control, clean up animal remains, and are some of the world’s best farmers, replanting seeds far and wide,” says Cecil.
So she sought out Matthew Webb, urban bird conservation coordinator at the museum, who told her about the flight tunnel research he and others perform at Powdermill Nature Reserve, the museum’s environmental research station located in the Laurel Highlands. The work is done in conjunction with BirdSafe Pittsburgh, a partnership of eight local conservation organizations, including the museum.
Webb and colleagues aim to reduce bird mortality by partnering with glassmakers in testing potentially bird-friendly glass. With a safety net in place, scientists release birds down a flight tunnel and watch as they head toward glass panes—did the birds see the glass and swoop away, or did they fly straight toward it without slowing down? Presumably, birds see patterns as something solid while the human eye can barely make them out. Using different patterns, glass manufacturers pay the researchers to test glass and rate the bird-friendliness on a scale of 50 to 100. Buildings with bird-friendly windows can use this score as one qualification for the increasingly sought-after LEED certification, the recognized standard for measuring building sustainability.
Intrigued by this work, Cecil decided to paint some of the bird species most often found lifeless or injured beneath windows in downtown Pittsburgh, as tracked by BirdSafe Pittsburgh. Against an elegant background of Mountain Laurel (Pennsylvania’s state flower) and an outline of the state keystone, Cecil painted six birds, all native to Pittsburgh: the yellow-bellied sapsucker, white-throated sparrow, ruby-throated hummingbird, wood thrush, common yellowthroat, and magnolia warbler. In another scientific touch, she identified each species by fashioning specimen tags like those used at the museum.
Her work combines hyper-realistic plants and animals in the foreground with graphic backgrounds reminiscent of Victorian patterns. The result is a painted bird that looks like it could pop off the canvas and fly away. To ensure accuracy, Cecil studied preserved birds from the museum’s vast collection.
Webb admires how she conveys his research in such a relatable way. “I have my own scientific terminology,” says Webb. “But Ashley easily translated it into something more people can understand. From dead sterile specimens, she made something very realistic.”
Throughout her residency, which was generously funded by The Fine Foundation, Cecil’s work has been displayed both inside and outside the museum. This past winter, her bird paintings were on view at BoxHeart Gallery in Bloomfield and for sale at Handmade Arcade, and museumgoers can continue to buy her scarves and coloring posters at the gift shop, or discover her captivating handiwork on the cases that line Bird Hallway.
Cecil, who also helped develop and deliver summer camp curriculum, loves that she not only brings awareness to a major conservation issue, but she’s helping the public connect with BirdSafe Pittsburgh and tips for making their own windows safe for birds. “This has been a great educational tool to start conversations about bird conservation and how human habitats impact the habitats of creatures that surround our homes.”
Many environmental problems leave people feeling hopeless, says Cecil, but this doesn’t have to be one of them. “That’s the best news—there are tangible things that can be done about it.”
Though her residency technically came to an end in 2016, Cecil continues to find ways to extend the life of her artwork beyond the walls of a gallery, including making patterns for window films that are more visible to birds. Cecil also reached out to the public for help in selecting six breastfeeding mammals to feature on a hand-drawn, custom-designed wallpaper that will soon line the walls of the new breastfeeding room located in Discovery Basecamp in the rear of the museum’s first floor.
On her blog, Cecil encouraged the public to vote on their favorite of 10 mammals, which she then narrowed to six. “People go bananas for this stuff,” she says. “They loved it. There were even comments along the lines of, ‘How can you vote for a giraffe over a zebra?’” Wondering what animals made the cut? Stay tuned: The wallpaper will make its debut at the museum in time for Mother’s Day.
Because of her experience at the museum, Cecil has made a commitment to make natural history conservation issues the focus of her art moving forward. “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else now,” says Cecil.
In turn, the scientists at the museum are convinced that it’s a good idea to have an artist in their midst. As Webb puts it, “When she first came around, everyone thought, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing. We’ll see.’ But she definitely proved herself.”
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