February 14, 2013
Taxidermy: dying trade or resurgent art form? As an outsider—I have never hunted, let alone stuffed and mounted an animal—I was tempted to think the former. Then, I spoke with Paul Rhymer, a former Smithsonian taxidermist and model maker.”Taxidermy is alive and well,” he says. “Commercial taxidermy, for hunters, has probably never been stronger than it is now—and probably never been better. The skill levels have just gotten so good with all the different advances in materials and techniques.”
Rhymer is a traditionalist. He hails from the museum world, where he spent 26 years (1984 to 2010) creating realistic taxidermy for display at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Rhymer and his colleagues produced 274 mounted specimens for the museum’s Behring Hall of Mammals, which opened in 2003; he also had a hand in the now four-year-old Sant Ocean Hall. A bunch of his critters—a maned wolf, a grévy’s zebra, several primates and a pair of penguins, among others—still inhabit the museum. When he wasn’t making new mounts from donated animal carcasses, he was restoring existing ones. In 2002, he gave the museum’s panda a dye job, bleaching its yellowed hair white and dying it’s dark fur a deeper black.
But, even with his institutional background, the second-generation taxidermist is quick to express his appreciation for a new sect of bold artists working in the field. Armed with the know-how to skin, clean and stuff animals, these “rogues” place animal specimens in fantastical contexts; they even build strange hybrids of different species. “This element has been around for a very long time too. You have Victorian guys making whole wedding scenes with little kittens dressed up in wedding dresses,” says Rhymer. “But rogue taxidermists are just taking it to another level.”
“Immortalized,” a new television show premiering on AMC tonight (10/9c), pits taxidermists of both types against each other in what its host, Zach Selwyn, calls “creative combat.” I was able to screen two kooky episodes in the series’ first season, and although the show seems to lack the shiny finish one might expect from a big network, I have to admit I got a kick out of its premise. Oh, and its tagline too. “Immortalized,” says Selwyn, at the close of each segment, “where it is not whether you win or lose, but how you display the game.”
The concept of the show is this: There are four superstars in taxidermy—two traditionalists and two rogues—who, for the purposes of the show, are called “Immortalizers.” Each episode, one Immortalizer takes on an outside “Challenger.” The challengers, like the veteran immortalizers, can be artists or commercial taxidermists. The two contestants are given a theme—some examples include “End of the World,” “First Love” and, the even more confounding, “Self Portrait.” They prepare a piece at home over the course of a few weeks and then return to the studio for a face-off. Rhymer was tapped to be one of three judges; he is joined by artist-taxidermist Catherine Coan and the nasally-voiced comedian, actor and writer, Brian Posehn. Together, the trio scores each submission on craftsmanship, originality and adherence to the theme in each submission, and the total score determines the winner.
“I thought this could really be a lot of fun, and it was! I had a great time doing it,” says Rhymer. “I have my favorites. But, I thought that, by and large, the work that all of the taxidermists brought to it was really, really neat.”
Rhymer has competed extensively at taxidermy conventions, but “Immortalized” was different. “The competitions I had been to in the past were ‘mount this duck,’ ‘mount this fish,’ ‘mount this deer.’ These [challenges on "Immortalized"] were much more open to the imagination, and just much crazier scenarios. Someone put a lot of thought into figuring out which themes would really produce some provocative pieces,” he says.
In one bout, immortalizer Page Nethercutt, the award-winning proprietor of Moore’s Swamp Taxidermy in New Bern, North Carolina, and challenger CJ Fegan, an up-and-coming taxidermist from Edgewater, Maryland, presented two very different pieces meant to convey the same theme, “End of the World.” Nethercutt created a mount of a fierce bobcat attacking a quail; Rhymer describes it as “very intimate, natural, very precise.” Then, in the opposite corner, Fegan prepared a “sci fi and epic and colossal” scene capturing multiple animals in a panic.
Taxidermy is a unique blend of science and art. Any taxidermist with years of experience will have a solid understanding of animal anatomy. But that alone does not make for great mounts. “As an artist,” adds Rhymer, “you have the deer head that is just sticking on the wall and it is looking straight ahead, or there is a way of creating that thing, mounting it and doing something that is not only natural and scientifically accurate but also beautiful.”
Rhymer hopes that “Immortalized” will show that someone who prepares taxidermy can still respect animals. “I would like the general population to see taxidermy in a new light,” he says, “that it’s not just rednecks who do it and that even we who define ourselves as rednecks, and I count myself among them, have a real deep appreciation for wildlife.”
December 5, 2012
Given the growing public interest in artsy science and sciency art, I like to think these gifts are sure to impress your friends and family this holiday season!
For the movie buff:
If there is a participating theater near you, grab tickets and take a movie-loving friend or family member to see the documentary Chasing Ice. Inspired by a trip to Iceland in 2005, photographer James Balog embarked on a massive project called the Extreme Ice Survey. He deployed time-lapse cameras across the Arctic as a means of gathering visual evidence of climate change. “His hauntingly beautiful videos compress years into seconds and capture ancient mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at a breathtaking rate,” says the movie’s Web site. Outside Magazine says Chasing Ice “should be required viewing for every policymaker on earth.”
For the athlete:
Unfortunately, the women’s running tights that Nike released in mid-October, boldly decorated with X-ray images of bones, flew off the shelves and are currently out of stock. The company described the spandex leggings as giving a glimpse into the wearer’s “inner toughness,” and, boy—or shall I say, girl!—they were fierce. But, if you have an athlete on your list who’d be willing to make equally as bold and scientific a fashion statement, consider these muscle leggings from the Australian clothing brand Black Milk.
For the game nut:
Some families (mine) are into games, while others (my husband’s) cringe at the mention of them. If yours is the former, think about bringing the boardgame, Rorshöck in Color, to your holiday gathering. Loosely based on the ideas of Swiss pyschoanalyst Hermann Rorschach, who designed his “Rorschach test” on the premise that much about an individual’s personality could be deduced by what he or she sees within a set of inkblots, the game comes with 20 cards, each with a different inkblot painting. When one player responds with what they see in a given inkblot, another refers to a handy book of diagnoses. “Don’t worry, you haven’t lost your mind: The diagnoses here are funny, cheeky and downright irreverent,” claims the game’s manufacturer. As the tagline says, Rorshöck in Color is “a game for colorful personalities.” (Recommended for ages 15 and up)
For the art collector:
One of the very first posts I wrote for Collage of Arts and Sciences was about a clever company called DNA 11. Since 2005, founders Adrian Salamunovic and Nazim Ahmed have filled orders placed by people around the world wanting their very own (and sometimes even their dogs’) DNA portraits. The customer swabs his inner cheek and then rubs that foam swab onto a paper card, which DNA 11 provides in a DNA collection kit. Once the company receives the sample, technicians in DNA 11′s genetics lab—the very first of its kind devoted solely to art making—isolate specific DNA sequences and create a unique digital image–a pattern of highlighted bands–that is then printed on a canvas. For the artist or art collector on your list, DNA 11 offers a gift kit. The kit includes all the materials a recipient would need to collect his or her DNA sample and submit it for a custom portrait.
For the bookworm:
America’s Other Audubon, published this past May by Princeton Architectural Press, is an incredible book for anyone interested in scientific illustration. To most, John James Audubon is a familiar name, but author Joy M. Kiser tells the story of Genevieve Jones, an illustrator whose artistry and scientific accuracy rivaled Audubon’s and yet history forgot. In the 1880s, Jones and her family published 90 copies of her masterpiece, Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Ohio. Today, only 34 of those 90 originals are known to exist. (The Smithsonian Institution Libraries is lucky enough to have two.) Yet, in America’s Other Audubon, Kiser brings Jones’ story and her detailed illustrations of delicate birds’ nests and dappled eggs to the public for the very first time.
For the shutterbug:
Introduce someone near and dear to the fascinating world of photomicrography. For 38 years, Nikon has hosted an annual “Small World” competition where skilled researchers submit photographs captured through a light microscope. This year’s top winners, depicting everything from a zebrafish embryo to coral sand, and the retina of a fruit fly to a close-up of garlic, are featured in a 2013 calendar.
For the crafty kid:
A fun way to teach a child about the beauty of nature is through sun printing. Using a SunPrint kit, one can put leaves, flowers and other objects on chemically-treated solar paper and place the composition to the sun. In a matter of minutes, the areas exposed to sunlight are blue whereas the areas blocked by the objects are white. The design can be preserved by dipping the paper in water and allowing it to dry. Once your child has mastered sun printing on paper, she or he can apply the technique to fabrics. Light-sensitive cotton, silk, t-shirts and scarves can be purchased at www.bluesunprints.com.
For the nephew or niece who eats and sleeps with Beats headphones on:
Pop Chart Lab, a Brooklyn-based company founded by Patrick Mulligan, a book editor, and Ben Gibson, a graphic designer, has made it its mission “to render all of human experience in chart form.” Music is no exception. Check out the Periodic Table of Heavy Metals print and the Grand Taxonomy of Rap Names, which takes an almost scientific approach to linking all the Lils, Bigs, Daddys, Masters and Doctors populating the genre’s history.
And, last but not least, for a party’s host or hostess:
A petri dish ornament! Artist Michele Banks watercolors—resembling bacteria-laden agar—are actually quite beautiful.
October 19, 2012
For a few consecutive years, as a kid, I put the board game Mouse Trap on my Christmas wish list. Hasbro’s commercials from the early 1990s made the game look outrageously fun. First, you build an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, with a crane, a crooked staircase and an elevated bath tub. Then, once that is pieced together and in working condition, you use the contraption to trap your opponents’ miniature mice game pieces under a descending plastic cage.
I can hear the ad’s catchy jingle now: “Just turn the crank, and snap the plant, and boot the marble right down the chute, now watch it roll and hit the pole, and knock the ball in the rub-a-dub tub, which hits the man into the pan. The trap is set, here comes the net! Mouse trap, I guarantee, it’s the craziest trap you’ll ever see.”
Unfortunately (for me), Santa thought the game had “too many parts.” He was somehow convinced that my brother and I would misplace enough of the pieces to render the game unplayable.
Where was Mark Perez when I needed him?
Perez, a general contractor in San Francisco, believes the game of Mouse Trap is an important educational tool. He and a troupe of performers actually tour the country with a life-sized version of the board game, using its many levers, pulleys, gears, wheels, counter weights, screws and incline planes to teach audiences about Newtonian physics.
“I used to play the game a lot as a kid,” says Perez, when I catch the nomadic carnival man on the phone. “I used to put several of the games together and just kind of hack the game, not even knowing what I was doing. Then, that interest just sort of made its way into adulthood.”
In 1995, Perez began to tinker. At the outset, the self-described “maker” thought of his giant board game as a large-scale art installation. He scrapped his initial attempt a year in but returned to the project in 1998, this time renting a workspace in a reclaimed boat-building barn on San Francisco Bay. “I worked every day for eight hours and came home and worked for two to four hours more in my shop fabricating the Mouse Trap,” he says.
The crane alone took two years to construct. But by 2005, Perez had 2o sculptures, weighing a total of 25 tons, that when interconnected created a completely recognizable—and, more importantly, working—model of the popular board game.
With the “Life Size Mousetrap” complete, Perez and his motley crew of carnival-type performers took to the road, staging at times up to six shows a day at museums, science centers and festivals around the country. Prior to his construction career, Perez did some production work for bands and nightclubs in San Francisco, so he has a flair for the dramatic. He stars as the enthusiastic ringleader, and the show includes clowns, tap-dancing mice and a one-woman band (she sings and plays the drums and accordion) who sets the whole thing to music. This past summer at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, the goal of the Mouse Trap was not to catch a mouse (or a tap-dancing mouse, for that matter) but to instead drop a two-ton safe onto a car.
“I find that kids and adults both like it,” says Perez. “And when you get 400 people cheering for what you are doing, it becomes something that you want to do. I knew that I was on to something.”
At first, Perez was in it for the spectacle. Oh, and for bragging rights too. “I am the first person in the world who has done it on this scale,” he says. But, over time, he has incorporated science lessons into the act. “It sort of turned me into a physics person,” he says.
As the Rube Goldberg machine is set in motion, Perez and the other performers explain certain terms and laws of physics. For instance, when a spring that is cranked backwards is released and pulls on a cable, which then swings a hammer to hit a boot, the cast discusses potential and kinetic energy. There are also fulcrum points at play in the system. Then, when a bowling ball rolls down stairs, Perez points out that the staircase is an example of an incline plane. There are also opportune moments to talk about gravity, the workings of a screw and the mechanical advantage one can achieve by rigging several pulleys together. Esmerelda Strange, the one-woman band I mentioned earlier, has even released an album, How to Defy Gravity with 6 Simple Machines, with the rollicking explainers she sings during the show.
The whole endeavor is a real labor of love. The show’s cast doubles as its crew, assembling and disassembling the Mouse Trap at each site. Perez’s wife is a dancing mouse. She does all the costuming and a lot of the choreography—and drives a forklift too. Then, there are the production costs. “Just traveling with a semi-trailer costs $3 a mile. I bought a crew bus and that bus costs at least $1 a mile,” says Perez, who is working on getting funding through grants. “Then, you tack on all the extraordinary amount of insurances you need for these events. It just gets crazy.”
But the efforts and expenses are worth it, says Perez, if the Mouse Trap can provide real-life, unplugged encounters with scientific principles.
“You can go online and see all of these simple machines, but actually seeing it in person, watching a compressed coil spring release its energy to push a push rod to make a bowling ball roll down an incline plane, when you experience it and hear the clanging of the metal, it is different,” says Perez. “We make it fun.”
October 10, 2012
“I’m a microbiologist masquerading as an artist. Or am I an artist masquerading as a microbiologist?” says Zachary Copfer on his personal Web site, Science to the Power of Art. “I can’t seem to remember anymore.”
His confusion over how to describe himself is understandable. Copfer is an artist in a lab coat.
Copfer graduated from Northern Kentucky University with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and secondary education in 2006. He then worked as a microbiologist for Proctor & Gamble and Teva Pharmaceuticals for five years. However, he quickly learned that the commercial lab setting wasn’t the best fit for him. ”I began to lose sight of all that I had found romantic about science,” says Copfer, on his site.
Copfer instead channeled his creative energies into art, pursuing a masters in fine art in photography at the University of Cincinnati. “Photography developed into my new method of inquiry. Everything that I had missed about science I rediscovered in photography,” he adds. He completed his coursework in June.
Already, Copfer’s experimentations have led to the creation of a medium he calls “bacteriography.” Essentially, the microbiologist-turned-artist borrows techniques from traditional darkroom photography to develop recognizable images in growing colonies of—yes, you got it—bacteria.
Copfer has created a series of “bacteria portraits” of famous artists and scientists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. For each one, he covered a large petri dish, measuring 9.5 by 9.5 inches, in Serratia marcescens, a bacteria responsible for some hospital-acquired infections. “I use it because it is red and it pops and it gives you that great color,” Copfer told Cincinnati Public Radio.
Then, the artist placed a photograph in the dish. For instance, in one, he laid the famous photograph of Einstein sticking his tongue out, captured by UPI photographer Arthur Sasse on the scientist’s 72nd birthday. Instead of exposing the setup to ultraviolet light, as you would when developing a photograph in a darkroom, Copfer exposed it to radiation. The image cast a shadow on the bacteria. In that shadow, the bacteria grew, but in areas where the radiation passed through, they did not. Once those colonies of bacteria grew to his liking, and the piece was finished, so to speak, Copfer irradiated the portrait, killing the bacteria. Finally, he sealed the portrait with a layer of acrylic, so that it could be safely displayed.
The resulting portraits are bold, pop art-like reproductions of the original photographs. Comprised of red dots—each a tiny colony of bacteria—the images call to mind Roy Lichtenstein‘s comic-strip style of portraiture.
In the titles of his works, Copfer refers to artists da Vinci and Picasso as “scientists” and scientists Darwin and Einstein as “artists.” He believes that for many others, like himself, the titles are interchangeable.
“For me, the two seemingly disparate fields of study serve the same purpose, a way to explore my connection to everything else around me,” he says, on his site.
September 21, 2012
The other day I wrote about five horrendously inaccurate scenarios in science fiction movies, all selected by David Kirby, a trained geneticist and author of Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema. If you missed it, Kirby’s list touched on asteroid predictions, natural disasters and a cloning incident—all bogus, when dissected by a scientist.
I had heard Kirby talk about the history of science advising in the TV and film industries at “Hollywood & Science,” a recent webinar hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Directors hiring scientists to review the science they portray on screen goes back to the 1920s and 1930s. Kirby is actually quite forgiving when it comes to science fiction movies heralding from those early decades. The “bad science” those movies sometimes portray is not always the fault of filmmakers, Kirby says; in many cases, it is due to the limitations of technology or simply a reflection of the state of scientific knowledge at the time. For instance, Destination Moon, a sci-fi flick from 1950, was one of the first to show space travel in a somewhat realistic way. However, the astronauts could not wear clear, goldfish bowl-type helmets, as they did in real life, because they created too much glare for the camera.
Today, filmmakers have little excuse for error.
The Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences, actually matches TV and film professionals, even video game makers, with science consultants for free. “We have Nobel Prize winners on speed dial,” said Ann Merchant, deputy director for communications at NAS and a fellow panelist. “We were told, if we built it, they [directors, screenwriters, etc.] would come—and they did.” Since the program was launched in November 2008, it has received three to five new calls a week and arranged a grand total of 525 consults. The movies Iron Man, Tron, Spiderman, Prometheus and The Avengers and TV shows Fringe, The Good Wife and Covert Affairs have all benefited from the service.
Here are Kirby’s top five “science done right” moments in film:
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
“For its time, 2001 is one of the most, if not the most, scientifically accurate film ever made,” says Kirby. Stanley Kubrick, the film’s director, hired former NASA space scientist Frederick Ordway to serve as his science adviser. One of the greatest lengths that Kubrick went to is in acknowledging that gravity doesn’t exist on a spaceship. “Kubrick actually decided to acknowledge this fact by building an artificial gravity wheel for the spaceship,” says Kirby. “On a long-distance space flight, you need to spin it to get the centrifugal force to simulate the idea that there is actually gravity, something pulling you down. That is what this thing did.” The prop cost $750,000 (equal to $5 million today) and took six months for Vickers Engineering Group to build. “That shows incredible commitment to scientific veracity,” says Kirby.
2. Finding Nemo (2003)
As I mentioned in my previous post, animators painstakingly removed all bits of kelp from the coral reef scenes in Finding Nemo after marine biologist Mike Graham of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, California, explained that kelp only grows in cold waters. But, as Kirby points out, this is just one of many measures the filmmakers took to ensure scientific accuracy.
According to an article in the journal Nature, Adam Summers, then a postdoc in fish biomechanics at the University of California, Berkeley, and other experts he recruited gave lessons during the movie’s production on a wide range of topics, including fish locomotion, how fish scales reflect light and the mechanics of waves. Director Andrew Stanton attended the lessons along with animators, producers, writers and character developers involved with the project. Robin Cooper, head shader for the film, gets extra credit though. She actually reached her arm into the blowhole and mouth of a beached, dead gray whale to take some photographs. This way, when Nemo’s dad, Marlin, gets sucked into a whale’s mouth and blasted out through its blowhole, she could accurately portray the inside of the whale. “I’m just amazed at how rigorous these people were,” Summers told Nature.
3. Contact (1997)
Warner Brothers filmed some of the scenes of this movie, adapted from Carl Sagan’s book Contact, at the Very Large Array, a New Mexico branch of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. (Remember the huge white dishes facing the skies?) Bryan Butler, then a postdoc researcher at the site, served as a science advisor.
In the film, scientist Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, tries to make contact with extraterrestrial life. According to Kirby, her actions are largely in line with SETI, or search for extraterrestrial intelligence, protocol. “The setting, the dialogue, the way that they are trying to confirm what they are seeing, is real,” says Kirby. “They have to call someone in Australia and say, ‘hey, can you see this too?’ They have to wait for it to be confirmed by somebody on the exact other side of the world before they can actually confirm that it is real. All that type of stuff was accurate.”
4. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
In this sci-fi thriller, based on Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel of the same title, a team of scientists studies an alien virus that infects and kills humans. “There is a scene where they are trying to figure out how big the microbe is that they are dealing with. From modern eyes, it ends up being a very slow, boring scene, but that is because it is realistic,” says Kirby. “It is this idea of, ‘Let’s try two microns. Oh, that’s too big. Let’s try 0.5. Oh, that’s too small. Let’s try one.’ The science in it is accurate. They are experimenting, but it doesn’t make for very gripping cinema.”
5. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Russell Crowe played the brilliant, schizophrenic mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. However, the actor had a hand double. Dave Bayer, of Barnard College’s math department, wrote all the mathematical equations so that they had “a natural flow,” according to Kirby.