Tuesday, June 15, 2010


International Biodiversity Day, May 22, slipped right past without my knowing it. But I’ve not missed out completely. The United Nations has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity.

Then again, shouldn’t every year be the Year of Biodiversity?

I don’t know of any contemporary artist making a more eloquent and powerful statement about biodiversity than Isabella Kirkland.

Several years ago I blogged about her work, Taxa. For a real treat, you can go to http://isabellakirkland.com/paintings/taxa.html and explore the Taxa paintings closely. The interactive features, online, enhance this masterpiece.

Now I’ve learned about Kirkland’s Nova series, and the painting Understory, reviewed in Seed Magazine :

Artist Isabella Kirkland’s meticulous oil paintings revisit [the] bittersweet tension between discovery and loss. Each life-size panel in her ongoing NOVA series includes dozens of species, from mammals and birds to insects and plants, all of which have been discovered by science in the past 20 years.

In many regards, the message of Understory is reminiscent of 17th- and 18th-century cabinets of curiosities, rooms in which European collectors gathered rare and newly discovered specimens, arranging them in beautiful tableaux.

Understory also has much in common with the Renaissance-era Wunderkammern, or wonder cabinets, which predate curiosity cabinets and emphasized awe over taxonomy and logic. The viewer is delighted with sumptuous visual elements like shafts of stunning golden light, graceful birds and butterflies, and countless hidden treasures, including a suntiger tarantula, a green pit viper camouflaged by leaves, and a tiny Peruvian bird called Lulu’s Body-Tyrant. If these beautiful species have all just been found, the painting makes us eager to know what wonders we are yet to find.

The Nova paintings can be perused on Kirkland’s website:

In 2008, Kirkland was a recipient of the Wynn Newhouse award presented to artists with disabilities. Here’s her artist statement submitted to the awards committee:

I carefully research each of the species in my pictures before I paint them. By studying the original scientific description of the species and whatever preserved materials possible, I come to know each intimately. I make information on the evolution, economic value, food web involvement, predator/prey relationships, etc., available to viewers who wish to delve beyond the surface of the pictures. I am trying to preserve, in the most stable materials, images of biota that may not survive this next century.

My injury was caused in 2004 by a bizarre, tropical round worm that ate part of my spinal cord. Neural presentations of this organism are so rare in the United States that no doctors are aware of symptoms or treatments. I was forced to do some rapid research on the subject of neural damage from parasitic infection in humans. In the end, I developed a grudging respect for the Gnathostomatidae, the genus of my worm, which cloak themselves in the host’s own proteins in order to confound detection by the host’s immune system.

When I first began to recover from the cord injury and associated meningitis, I could barely draw a line. Four years later now, I have recovered almost full motor control of my right hand. Sadly, what I was left with is constant, 24/7, neuropathic pain in the upper right quadrant of my body with the worst sensation on the hand and wrist. Those two places feel as if they were in constant contact with a very hot pan. Some days are simply lost to fighting for control of the pain. I have no desire to use this change in my physical being as subject matter. I am very much engaged in my continued exploration of bio-diversity through the means of painted illusions, many thin layers of oil and pigment.

The most profound connection of this affliction to my work is that when I paint, I do not hurt. That creative flow-state one reaches when one’s work is going well is a sweet refuge from the constant stream of painful sensations.

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