Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Bits & Pieces, Here & There

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Bits & Pieces, Here & There

Article excerpt

I wasn't planning on writing about my trips last summer, because I didn't go on any very science-oriented travels. I went for other reasons: work, family, friends. However, it's hard not to bump into biology even without going to a national park or a nature preserve. In the end, I had so many small but memorable experiences tied to the living world that I have felt compelled to share them.

* Nature Prints

The first event didn't even involve much travel; I just had to get to the Bronx, to Wave Hill, a public garden where there was an exhibit on nature prints. Traditionally, nature prints are made by smearing ink on leaves and pressing them onto paper. I am making it sound easy, but it isn't, as Karen Reeds, a historian of botany, noted in her presentation at Wave Hill. Karen, who has written of Leonardo da Vinci's link to nature prints (Reeds, 2006), was the reason I was there. She had invited me to a symposium on nature printing held in conjunction with the exhibit called Propagating Eden: Uses and Techniques of Nature Printing in Botany and Art. It had been organized by the International Print Center and was amazing. Fortunately, an illustrated catalogue of the show is available on the Web ( 20Propegating%20Eden%20Catalogue.pdf). I'm pleased I had a chance to visit it before the symposium, because it prepared me for some of the surprises encountered there.

In the exhibit there were examples of early nature prints such as those of Christiano Ludwig and Johann Knipnof from the mid-18th century, along with 19th-century work such as that of Anna Atkins, who specialized in cyanotypes of seaweeds. These were done by arranging the plants on light-sensitive paper and letting the sun do the printmaking. In addition, there were a number of pieces by 20th-century artists such as Max Ernst, who used nature prints in some of his collages, and Ed Ruscha, who created one of my favorite pieces in the show. If you look at the catalogue, you'll see what appears to be grass pressed on paper, but it's not the grass itself. Rather, it's a very sophisticated print that gives a sense of the plant's dimensionality and color. There was also a print--Untitled (Lungs) (2007) by Michele Oka Doner, an artist who was new to me--in which roots are arranged to suggest the branching patterns in lung tissue.

Doner was one of the speakers at the symposium, and she gave a fascinating description of how she created this print. She had collected banyan tree roots that she found washed up on the beach near her Miami home. She cleaned them, packed them in shopping bags, and hauled them to Wildwood Press in St. Louis, where she creates her prints. Besides the "lung" print, she has also created huge, 8-foot long prints of roots in the form of humans--giant human "circulatory" systems. They are dramatic and complex in the ways they wed the plant world to the human world. In her talk, Doner focused on these prints, but I encountered a different aspect of her work later in the summer. Again, she surprised me.

I had gone to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a conference, and there was a tour of the Frederik Metier Gardens and Sculpture Park, an amazing combination of art and botany. There are over 180 artworks at the gardens, by artists ranging from Auguste Rodin and Alexander Calder to Henry Moore and Andy Goldsworthy. There is a giant sculpture of a horse that was designed by Leonardo DaVinci for the Duke of Milan, but it was never cast at the time. In the 1990s, Frederik Metier financed a project to finally create the 24-foot-high, 13-ton bronze statue. The sculptor Nina Akamu was in charge of the project, and the result was the statue that is now at Meijer Gardens as well as an identical one in Milan. I'd read about the statue, but it was a totally different experience to actually see it set among trees and looming over the gardens.

When I walked into the Visitors Center at Meijer Gardens, I was amazed to find a beautiful stone floor embedded with bronze forms of plants and invertebrates that turned out to be the work of Michelle Oka Doner. …

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