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Humans, Nature, and Birds

Humans, Nature, and Birds: Science Art from Cave Walls to Computer Screens

Darryl Wheye
Donald Kennedy
Foreword by Paul R. Ehrlich
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Humans, Nature, and Birds
    Book Description:

    This book invites readers to enter a two-floor virtual "gallery" where 60-plus images of birds reflecting the accomplishments of human pictorial history are on display. These are works in a genre the authors termScience Art-that is, art that says something about the natural world and how it works. Darryl Wheye and Donald Kennedy show how these works of art can advance our understanding of the ways nature has been perceived over time, its current vulnerability, and our responsibility to preserve its wealth.

    Each room in the gallery is dedicated to a single topic. The rooms on the first floor show birds as icons, birds as resources, birds as teaching tools, and more. On the second floor, the images and their captions clarify what Science Art is and how the intertwining of art and science can change the way we look at each. The authors also provide a timeline linking scientific innovations with the production of images of birds, and they offer a checklist of steps to promote the creation and accessibility of Science Art. Readers who tour this unique and fascinating gallery will never look at art depicting nature in the same way again.

    Published with assistance from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Public Understanding of Science and Technology Program.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15173-2
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword: Art, Science, and Birds
    (pp. vii-xii)

    To some, birds, science, and art may seem like a weird mixture. But they have long been at the center of my intellectual life. Along with friends, wine, and food, they have also been my major focus of enjoyment. So it is with great pleasure that I compose a foreword to a wonderful book on Science Art written by two old, close friends about the relationship between three of four of my favorite loves. The fourth love is my wife, Anne. Anne and I met at the University of Kansas, where she was an art major. I was working on...

  4. Preface: What Is Science Art?
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction: A Gallery of Science Art
    (pp. xv-xx)

    Art often devotes itself to exploring our relationship with nature. Narratives about that relationship have been recorded in landscapes, whether or not our ecological footprint is evident in the picture and irrespective of locality, be it urban, pastoral, or marine. Artists sometimes provide entry into these views of nature through the use of particular representatives. More frequently than we realize, and for good reason, these representatives are birds. We like their color and quickness and admire to the point of envy their mastery of the air. In nature, a mere speck of brilliant plumage as a bird perches quietly or...

  6. Gallery Guide
    (pp. xxi-xxviii)
  7. LOWER GALLERY.: Bird Art over the Millennia

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 1-4)

      The images of an owl etched into the soft clay of a cave wall 30,000 years ago, included in Egyptian hieroglyphics, woven between the words of a bestiary during the Middle Ages, painted on canvas in the eighteenth century, molded out of plastic in the twentieth, and saved in bytes on a laptop are all related to one another. Similarly, the images in each room in the Lower Gallery illustrate a single topic and are presented systematically, allowing consideration of possible patterns in the history of their production. In each room, too, the examples were produced in roughly the same...

    • ROOM 1 Birds as Icons
      (pp. 5-15)

      The history of iconic birds serving as intermediaries to the gods or as ostensible models of human behavior is long and little known, but clues are noted in the captions.

      The history of iconic bird masks and bird chimeras, both of which were sometimes venerated, is almost as long. A Paleolithic artist included what is usually interpreted as a bird mask in Lascaux, 12,000 years before pictographic writing was devised (see Plate 31), and much more recently, within the past few hundred years, an artist in New Guinea added a carved merganser (ducklike waterfowl) to his mask, and an artist...

    • ROOM 2 Birds as Resources for Human Use
      (pp. 16-28)

      Many species of birds have been hunted, plucked, domesticated, kept as pets, trained to seize prey, or bred to fight others of their kind. Artists have left a record of advances in our methods of hunting, training, and utilizing them. Artists have also left a record of wild birds that provide free services, such as consuming insect pests upturned by farm machinery, pollinating flowers while feeding on nectar, dispersing seeds that they swallowed whole (see Plate 30), and serving as a cleanup crew by scavenging carrion. The narratives of birds providing these free services make up only a small portion...

    • ROOM 3 Birds as Teaching Tools
      (pp. 29-39)

      The pictorial record is an archive of evidence. It shows us, for example, how changes in a species’ range, as recorded in historical images, can indicate changes in climate, or the inroads of an invading species, or the advance of habitat degradation caused by the expansion of human activities. It shows us how artists have helped us understand the intricacies of bird anatomy and the extent of bird diversity and how they remind us specifically of the role that birds have played in helping us build up a picture of evolution. The often-illustrated Galápagos finches, for example, became an icon...

    • ROOM 4 Birds as a Means of Understanding Biology
      (pp. 40-51)

      The images in this room present aspects of bird biology that artists have recorded, although this is such an extraordinarily rich and productive area of study that it is impossible to derive a sample that represents its full scope. Our choices were not dictated by taxonomy, or evolution, or particular bird behaviors. Rather, we made selections based on three general themes—the history of art, human interest in birds, and birds and nature—and conforming to the general dates of production used in the other four rooms of the Lower Gallery.

      Birds have played an essential role in helping humans...

    • ROOM 5 Birds as a Means of Promoting Conservation
      (pp. 52-63)

      Bringing nature to the canvas is difficult when depicting organisms as structurally complicated as birds, but when it works, the effect can be profound, especially when a conservation message is conveyed. Of the images in this room, the two oldest—a painting from the cave walls of Lascaux and a coffin for a Sacred Ibis from ancient Egypt—might have been produced independent of conservation messages, but they deliver them now. Since humans are naturally attuned to notice birds in nature, artists inviting us to explore facets of avian vulnerability or the protective measures designed to offset them can appeal...

  8. Mezzanine. Thinking about Aesthetics, the Oldest Bird Paintings, and Painting Nature
    (pp. 64-68)

    The linkage of science and art has historical as well as contemporary origins in the pictorial archive, which raises a question: Does linking the two cast doubt on the often-cited “Two Cultures” theme of C. P. Snow that modern scientists and artists are members of opposing cultures that do not exchange much information?¹ David Edwards, inArtscience(Harvard University Press, 2008), finds the traditional line between these two cultures still firmly drawn and argues eloquently for a new intellectual milieu that will be an interdisciplinary catalyst for innovation and creativity. Others find the boundary more porous. For example, in 1995...

  9. UPPER GALLERY.: How Science and Art Overlap

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 69-71)

      Both scientists and artists try to persuade others to make connections and remember them. To help viewers come away with more than a vague sense of “maybe I understand it,” artists whose works fit the criteria of Science Art eliminate the “work it out yourself” directive implied by many untitled paintings. Although they may have created the works for their own satisfaction, the images portraying birds must be neither so cryptic nor so personal that viewers cannot decode the biology that underlies them. (The subject matter is limited here to birds for the sake of our discussion.) These artists can...

    • ROOM 6 Science Art as Its Own Category
      (pp. 72-94)

      The images in this room show some of the advantages of recognizing Science Art as a unique category. They offer narratives about birds in nature and narratives about birds and technology; they exemplify the value of collaborative efforts between scientists and artists; they demonstrate the use of visual metaphors grounded in science; and they show the arbitrariness of the boundary between illustration and art.

      As we saw in the Lower Gallery, people have been creating images that depict particular sets of relationships for at least 30,000 years, often relationships with and in the natural world. Since Paleolithic times, artists have...

    • ROOM 7 Content, Style, and Medium
      (pp. 95-117)

      The ten bird images in this room show some of the influences that content (narrative) and the artist’s style and choice of medium have on Science Art. The first five exemplify the role of content; the next two show two artistic methods; and the last three present three media—photography, realist painting, and minimalist serigraphs.

      When nature artists invite us to take a closer look into an animal’s life, what is presented is as accurate as the artist can make it. This does not mean that each blade of grass will be in place, but if the artist puts the...

    • ROOM 8 The Importance of Captions
      (pp. 118-124)

      The three paintings in this room demonstrate the value of writing captions that decode the underlying science.

      As we have seen, works of art sometimes explain themselves, but sometimes more is needed. This is especially true of art that communicates about nature or science. On occasion, the ancient Egyptians included captions within the art itself. We saw this in the Lower Gallery: the statue of King Chefren is inscribed with hieroglyphics that specify the extent of his realm (see Plate 4), and the pelican painting on the wall of Horemheb’s tomb even mimics a portion of the hieroglyphic text that...

    • ROOM 9 From Real Public Venues to Virtual Ones
      (pp. 125-130)

      The two images in this room enable us to explore the use of public spaces—especially those in academic settings—to exhibit art about nature that has a scientific focus, and to consider the use of the Internet to post additional information about installations.

      Living artists have few outlets for their work. Gallery space is limited, and much museum space is reserved for deceased artists. Fortunately, the use of empty walls in public spaces remains an underutilized boon. Certain locations are far better than others—and competition for their use may already be significant. Many well-positioned bare walls have yet...

    • ROOM 10 Science Art, Birds, and Perceptions of Nature
      (pp. 131-142)

      The four images in this room summarize the themes of this book. The first image, a rather stark impressionist painting of an urban woman by Édouard Manet, prompts us to think about captivity, both ours and that of our pet birds. It also allows us to explore the adoption of the term “Science Art” to describe the kind of art featured in this book. The second image, which was published with the report of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s apparent rediscovery in 2005, and the remaining two images—paintings of Black Grouse by different artists from different centuries—allow us to explore...

  10. APPENDIX 1. Timeline Linking Art, Technology, and the Study of Birds
    (pp. 143-166)
  11. APPENDIX 2. A Science Art Checklist for Practitioners
    (pp. 167-170)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 171-184)
  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 185-188)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 189-190)
  15. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 191-192)
  16. Index
    (pp. 193-200)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-201)