January 28, 2009
In my first year of college, I spent three days a week assisting in a laboratory Kindergarten classroom on campus. My duties weren’t difficult. I was there to make sure the playground shenanigans were kept to a minimum and that snack time conversation was enlightening and informative.
Though my students spoke surprisingly well, at 5-years old, they were still too young to read. I remember sitting with one young boy, dinosaur book on the table, and reading aloud. To me, the letters and the sounds they made went together—the nasal “ahhhh” of A and the buzz of Z. To him, they were just pictures.
How do our minds bridge that gap from pictures to words? It’s an old discussion among educators, but I finally came to my own conclusions when visiting a Smithsonian Institution Libraries exhibit at the National Museum of American History “Picturing Words: The Power of Book Illustration,” on view through Jan. 4, 2010.
It was one particular display case in the dimly lit exhibition room that aroused these thoughts. I watched the letter O morph into an octopus and the letter F into a flamingo, images from “The Alphabeast Book: An Abecedarium” by Dorothy Schmiderer (1971). Next to it, Os hung like ornaments and elbow noodles flooded into a pool of letter Ns from “The Graphic Alphabet” by David Pelletier (1966).
These are great mnemonic devices for children. A few years of A is for alligator, A is for apple, A is for airplane, and after a while, with positive reinforcement, the child catches on. He or she will realize there’s something to each of these sounds that’s special, and it has to do with that triangle with legs. I think as adults, we forget that when we’re reading our favorite blogs or newspapers online, we’re actually reading pictures.
“Illustration is another aspect of literacy,” says Smithsonian’s Helena Wright, who co-curated the exhibit along with Joan Boudreau. “It helps people who are learning to read as well as gives them another dimension at what they’re looking at.”
This interaction between letters and words isn’t only true in English. Sharing the case with the alphabet books was “Tu l’as vu l’oiseau? (Have You Seen this Bird),” by Armand Monjo (1993), in which Arabic calligraphy is shaped into illustrations of birds. According to Wright, this is a form of concrete poetry, when arrangements of words are used to convey the intended effect of a poem.
I wish I had these thoughts when I was back in the classroom, maybe I wouldn’t have emphasized letters so much. I didn’t realize how much learning to write is like learning to paint. Instead of primary colors, my students’ palettes were 26 letters, and as they scribbled their first sentences, it was like watching them fingerpaint.
Check out the Libraries other exhibition, “The Art of African Exploration,” at the National Museum of National History.
August 8, 2008
Recent visitors to the United States Capitol might have noticed the frescoes. The building’s frescoes are like a sailor’s tattoos: each one tells a story. Take the famous Apotheosis of Washington, which dangles overhead in the Capitol rotunda and shows George Washington surrounded by Liberty, Victory, Science, War, and other allegorical figures. Or the naturalistic scenes that dot the Senate-side corridors.
Tourists might—might—also have noticed that the frescoes looked a bit worse for the wear.
Actually, they were downright grimy. The Architect of the Capitol started to restore the frescoes in 1985, scraping away fourscore and some years of dust and paint.
They scraped right down to the original colors applied by Constantino Brumidi in 1856. In his day, Brumidi was a renowned frescoist and Italian bad boy who immigrated to the United States in 1852, after the Pope tried to jail him for fomenting revolution in Rome.
Looking at Brumidi’s original work, conservators found a mystery. Brumidi sprinkled his historical scenes with butterflies and insects. But what species? The curators wanted names.
They recruited a team of Smithsonian entomologists. With the help of a rare book librarian, the bug guys set out to match Brumidi’s painted reproductions with common American insect species. They went through archives and specimen collections.
Some of the first naturalist artwork in Western culture appears in medieval books of hours, calendars with elaborate borders of animals, plants and insects. Based on that, the entomologists thought Brumidi’s work might be a similar catalog of American flora and fauna in the mid nineteenth century.
So what did they find?
“There were some good natural history illustrators in America at the time,” says entomologist Robert Robbins, at the National Museum of Natural History. “Brumidi was not one of them.”
Robbins says the Senate corridors are no Sistine Chapel. In addition to muddling his geography by putting European butterflies where no European butterfly had gone before, Brumidi and his assistants’ work was often messy and indistinct.
The result is a series of aesthetically charming, scientifically lacking frescoes. Although most of the birds are locals, only one caterpillar and one butterfly seem to be American. The rest are all European species.
But scientists don’t entirely blame Brumidi for the inaccuracies. “There were no good butterfly collections in the United States at the time,” says Robbins. So while Brumidi based his birds on specimens borrowed from the Smithsonian, he was left to his imagination and memory when it came to the butterflies and insects.
Were the scientists disappointed with their findings?
“In reality?” says Robbins. “We did this for fun.”
See a Gallery of Brumudi’s butterflies vs. Smithsonian’s specimens. Can you find a resemblance?
(Fresco in the Brumidi Corridors, U.S. Capitol, U.S. Senate Commission on Art)
July 22, 2008
I’d like to think most people are at least familiar with John James Audubon, America’s most popular wildlife artist, and Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist accredited with binomial nomenclature. But what about Mark Catesby, the English explorer, naturalist and artist whose work informed and inspired them both?
Yeah, I don’t blame you. Catesby’s not exactly a household name. In fact, very little is known about the man himself other than that he was born in Essex in 1683 and made several trips to America–Virginia, then the Carolinas, Spanish Florida and the Bahamas – before returning to England. But his book, Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, chock full of the first depictions of the plants and animals of the colonies begs the question, why? With 220 hand-colored etchings detailed down to the scales of a catfish and wisps of hair on a bison, Catesby could dethrone Audubon as the founding father of nature illustration. In fact, Catesby (1683-1749) makes Audubon, who came more than a century after him, look like a downright copycat. Their styles are remarkably similar–birds propped on tree limbs with sterile white backdrops. And Linnaeus, too, stood on Catesby’s shoulders, infusing his moniker in to Latin species names in his honor. FYI: The Linnaean name for the North American bullfrog is Rana catesbeiana.
For Catesby’s long list of firsts–first to portray the flora and fauna of America, first to draw sketches from life as opposed to dead, posed specimens, first to give viewers a sense of environmental relationships by picturing plants and animals with the wildlife that surrounded them in their habitats, first to discover that birds migrate (nixing the thought that they hibernate in caves, hollow trees or at the beds of ponds) and likely the first to recognize how natural and man-made destruction of a species’ habitat leads to extinction–he’s been unduly forgotten. Finally, some fans of his are taking it upon themselves to yank him out of the folds of history.
David Elliot, founder of the Kiawah Island Natural Habitat Conservancy in South Carolina and executive director of the Catesby Commemorative Trust, and Cynthia Neal, an award-winning documentary producer–fueled by Elliot’s interest in history, especially that of Kiawah Island where Catesby once tramped, and Neal’s passion for wildlife conservation–teamed up to create The Curious Mister Catesby, a film about the one and only. A writer for London’sThe Times called the endeavor “more a labour of love than a hard-headed commercial venture,” a sentiment that if kept in mind should let you get past the hokey, over-articulate narrator. And, so far, over 1,000 people have seen the film at London, Washington, DC, Charleston and Kiawah Island screenings. Its producers are working towards public television broadcasts across the country.
Smithsonian Institution Libraries, which has two of the roughly 80 remaining originals of Natural History, is doing its part to bring the rare book to the everyman’s living room. The text will be digitized for inclusion in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a digital portal for literature on biodiversity of which the Smithsonian libraries are a part of, and made accessible through the Encyclopedia of Life, an online project aiming to create a Web site for every known species that calls up relevant material. The idea is that researchers–tikes to adults–will be able to call up a site on a Rana catesbeiana and get Catesby’s painting of one, along with other interesting sources. Smithsonian Institution Libraries will also have an all-Catesby Web site up and running by the end of the year with a selection of illustrations and essays on his influence on art, natural history and scientific observation.
Join in the Catesby revival! If you’ve heard of him or learn something about him, post a comment.
(Photograph Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries)