November 21, 2013
Washed up on the remote beaches of southern Alaska are plastics of every shape, size and color. There are detergent bottles, cigarette lighters, fishing nets and buoys, oil drums, fly swatters and Styrofoam balls in various states of decay. They come from around the world, adrift in rotating sea currents called gyres, and get snagged in the nooks and crannies of Alaska’s shoreline. Set against a backdrop of trees, grizzly bears and volcanic mountains, these plastics are eye-catching, almost pretty—and yet they are polluting the world’s oceans.
The garbage, dubbed “marine debris” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems. It destroys habitats, transports nonnative species, entangles and suffocates wildlife. Animals mistake the garbage for food and, feeling full, starve to death with bellies full of junk. For humans, the problem is more than cosmetic; marine debris endangers our food supply.
In June 2013, a team of artists and scientists set out to see the blight firsthand. Expedition GYRE, a project of the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska SeaLife Center, traveled 450 nautical miles along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska to observe, collect and study marine debris. A companion exhibition, opening in February 2014 at the Anchorage Museum, will showcase artworks made using ocean debris.
For the artists on the GYRE expedition, each day in Alaska was filled with scientific briefings, trash reconnaissance and individual pursuits. All four artists—Mark Dion, Pam Longobardi, Andy Hughes and Karen Larsen—are known for work that explores environmental themes and, more or less explicitly, the pleasures and perils of plastic.
Mark Dion is, first and foremost, a collector. The New York-based artist often works in the mode of an antiquarian naturalist, arranging modern and historical objects in collections that resemble Renaissance curiosity cabinets. “This is kind of the way I know things,” says Dion, “by collecting, by having physical contact with actual material.”
On the black sand of an Alaskan beach, Dion created a collage of bottle caps, sorted by shape and color. It wasn’t a finished piece, by any means, but an effort to “learn by seeing.” He cast himself as the “proverbial Martian archaeologist,” trying to make sense of the detritus of human civilization based on its formal qualities.
“When stuff is strewn on the beach, it’s deposited by forces of nature [so that] it takes on almost a natural quality,” he says. “But there’s nothing natural to it. This is a way to restore it as a cultural artifact, an artifact which fits uncomfortably in these remarkably remote places.”
These places were remote even for Karen Larsen, the only Alaska-based artist on the trip. She viewed GYRE as a “fact-finding mission,” a chance to explore parts of the state that she hadn’t visited before. Larsen has created several environmental works such as “Latitude,” a large-scale installation made out of ice and snow, and “XGRN,” a graphic depicting the life cycle of a water bottle.
“Alaska is not as pristine as everyone thinks it is,” Larsen says. “No place is really that way anymore.” During the trip, she was particularly drawn to microplastics—colorful, beadlike particles measuring less than five millimeters in diameter. Stored in a jar, the artist’s collection of the plastic bits resembles confetti and, she says, evokes the “small changes in our plastic ways” that can have a big positive impact.
Dion noticed that the artists and scientists collected in a “parallel way.” Nick Mallos, a conservation biologist, collected bottle caps in order to trace their provenance, while Odile Madden, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, tested her plastic collection for toxicity. “Instead of becoming a science collection or an art collection, it just became one collection that we both [were] able to use for our different purposes,” Dion says.
Pam Longobardi collects, in part, to clean up. She feels compelled to remove as much trash as she possibly can. “Every single piece of plastic I pick up or roll or drag, that specific piece is not going to harm a wild creature,” she says. “It’s not going to be tangling a whale. It’s not going to be in a bird’s stomach or end up in fish or seals. That’s why I’ll do it, and I’ll bend over the millionth time and drag the material off the beach.”
As part of the expedition, the GYRE team assisted with the National Park Service’s clean-up, retrieving a full ship’s worth of marine debris. The top deck of the research vessel was piled six feet high with garbage—but there was still more, innumerably more, left on the beach.
Pam Longobardi is an artist, an educator and an unapologetic activist. Her “Drifters Project” employs marine debris as both medium and message. One piece called “March of Humanity,” for instance, is an array of 77 orphaned shoes, illustrating the wastefulness of human industry. In “Defective Flow Chart (House of Cards),” 1,300 pieces of Styrofoam, which Longobardi personally fished out of a cave in Greece, are stacked into a delicate shrine of seemingly ancient origin—though there is, of course, nothing ancient about it.
“I see the art as an arm of activism because it can activate,” Longobardi says. “I think art has work to do. It can motivate people, and it can be transformational.” She was the first artist to join the GYRE project and worked closely with Howard Ferren, conservation director at the Alaska SeaLife Center, to recruit other artists for the expedition and exhibition.
Her companions on the trip share her passion for conservation but nonetheless balk at the term “activist.” Andy Hughes, a photographer from Cornwall, England, supports environmental NGOs but describes his photography as “sitting on the fence” between art and activism. His 2006 book, Dominant Wave Theory, for example, features close-up portraits of forlorn pieces of beach trash. Mark Dion sees himself as an “artist aligned with environmentalism” and concedes the limitations of contemporary art in reaching the general public. Dion acknowledges that his work, exhibited in fine art galleries across the globe, tends to preach to a well-heeled and politically liberal choir.
Longobardi, on the other hand, regularly collaborates with advocacy groups, reads scientific papers, shares online petitions and otherwise pushes for environmental policy reform worldwide. Her work has brought her face-to-face with the violence done by marine debris, and she has studied the science extensively, albeit informally. “I don’t have any kind of censor or gag order on my thoughts and feelings about this,” she says. “I don’t have to wait until I prove it in a scientific paper to tell what I know.”
Ultimately, solving the problem of marine debris will require as much artistic conviction as it does scientific rigor. Art moves people in a way that even the most shocking statistics cannot. The GYRE expedition’s “stroke of brilliance,” according to lead scientist Carl Safina, was giving artists a platform to articulate the issue to a broad audience. “If the scientists alone had gone and said, ‘We saw so much trash and 30 percent of it was blue and 40 percent of it was green and 90 percent of it was plastic,’ it would be of no interest to anybody,” he says. “That’s the thing that I appreciate about the artists. Their work is instantly just much more accessible.”
Bringing it all back home
Somewhat ironically, the artists use beauty to call attention to the ugliness of marine debris. Plastics are attractive, arrayed in bright colors and shiny forms as irresistible in one instant as they are disposable the next. As Dion puts it, “these objects are meant to seduce.”
Longobardi’s art seduces too, using beauty as a “hook” as well as a dialectical “weapon”; viewers are drawn into her intricate creations, then unnerved to realize that they are made out of plastic trash. “What I’m talking about is so horrifying [that] to go straight to the horror of it, I would lose a lot of people,” she says. She is currently working on two pieces inspired by the GYRE expedition—one, a ghoulish plastic cornucopia that symbolizes the “squandered bounty of the planet,” and the other, a sculpture with a range of small to large plastics, including tiny toys and the lid of a BP barrel, all made from and representing petroleum.
Andy Hughes is creating what he calls “constructed photographs, more akin to painting.” His new work avoids metaphors of destruction and overconsumption, instead portraying plastic objects as “religious orbs, which float and inhabit sky, earth, beach and sea.”
For Hughes, the trip has lost none of its emotional potency. His memories come back to him, half a world away, whenever he puts on his Wellington boots. He had set out for Alaska expecting it to be “vast and empty,” but instead discovered that “it was completely alive,” teeming with millions of organisms. Hughes said that the beaches in Alaska actually reminded him of the ones back home in Cornwall.
Indeed, it felt strange to Mark Dion that they traveled so far to see a problem that hits every human so close to home. “The lesson of this trip is that there is no away,” says Dion. “There is no other place. Everything we try to get rid of, we find again.”
October 29, 2013
Adam Cohen and Ben Labay are surrounded by thousands of fish specimens, all preserved in jars of alcohol and formalin. At the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas in Austin, the two fish biologists are charged with documenting the occurrences of different freshwater fish species in their home state and those neighboring it.
That is their day job, at least.
Outside of work, Cohen and Labay have teamed up on an artistic venture they call the Inked Animal Project. Since 2008, the colleagues have made surprisingly tasteful prints of actual animal carcasses—scales, fur, feathers and all.
Both scientists have dabbled in art—drawing, painting and sculpting—for as long as they can remember. As a kid, Cohen even used an octopus and flying fish that he bought at an Asian market as huge stamps to make ink patterns on paper. Fish, of course, were a natural subject for two ichthyologists, but Cohen and Labay were also familiar with a Japanese art form called Gyotaku (meaning “fish rubbing”), where artists slather ink on fresh fish and press them onto paper as a means of recording the size and other details of the catch.
Their first collaboration was a poster with prints of all ten sunfish species that live in Texas, and the Inked Animal Project was born. They inked trout, bass and catfish. But why stop with fish? The duo quickly expanded its repertoire, applying the same printmaking technique to mice, squirrels, rabbits, geese, gulls, hummingbirds and a smattering of deer, pig and cow skulls. No specimen seems to fluster the artists.
I interviewed Inked Animal’s creators by email to learn more about where they obtain their portrait subjects, how they produce the prints and what exactly possesses them to do this.
As you know, Gyotaku is both an art form and a method of scientific documentation. Are there certain anatomical traits you try to accentuate in your Inked Animal prints for scientific purposes?
Ben: I don’t think we print for any tangible scientific goal, though we do print in a spirit of documentation, similar to goals of the original Gyotaku printings I guess. As we’ve expanded our medium beyond fish, we’ve been interested in trying to document life processes through the animals, such as internal or unique anatomy and “road-kill” or animated postures.
Adam: Not long ago I ran across some field notes belonging to a fish collector from the late 1800s, Edgar Mearns, who, rather than preserving a particularly large fish, decided to trace the animal on paper and insert it in his fieldbook. We were well into the Inked Animal Project at that point and that‘s when I realized what we were really doing was a form of documentation as well as art. But, in reality, these days with cameras so ubiquitous, there is little need to print or trace the animal on paper for documentation purposes. I think our prints have relatively little scientific value, but substantial artistic value. I often think about the physical characteristics that someone who knows the species well would need to see to verify the identity of the specimen, but I try not to let that get in the way of creating interesting art. I’d much rather have interesting art of an unknown and unverifiable species.
How do you collect the animals you print?
Adam and Ben: We get the animals in all sorts of ways. In the beginning we went fishing in our spare time. Recently, as word of our project got out, we’ve had people donate specimens. A lot of our friends are biologists, hunters, exterminators and people who work in animal rehabilitation; they have access to animals and are excited to donate to the cause. Additionally, there are a lot of great animals to print that can be purchased through exotic Asian grocery stores. We’re getting serious about printing larger animals, like farm livestock. We would love to get an ostrich or emu too.
On your website, you say, “Our tolerance for gross is very high.” Can you give an example of a specimen that pushed this tolerance to its limits?
Ben: My personal worst was the armadillo. We’ve had worse-smelling animals like a gray fox that was sitting in a bucket for a full day before we printed. But something about working with the armadillo really grossed me out, almost to the point of vomiting. Most mammals are squishy with decay, but the armadillo was a stiff football of dense rotten meat. It’s also a bizarre animal that we don’t ever expect to get so intimate with. This is just a crazy theory, but animals like the Eastern cottontail or gray fox are more familiar, and maybe more approachable or acceptable when rotten. When it comes to larger, strictly wild animals, things get more interesting and intense.
Adam: Ben mentioned a gray fox that we printed in the early days of Inked Animal. I remember picking it up and the juices ran down my arm. But I was so excited by the print we were getting, which I think was the first time we realized that we were on to something really unique, that I hardly even thought about it. We recently printed a very rotten deer whose skin peeled away as we lifted the cloth to reveal a writhing mass of maggots—that was pretty gross too.
You are almost more interested in prints of dismembered, rotting or partially dissected specimens, right? Why is this?
Ben: When we started to expand from fish to other types of animals, Adam and I felt excited about not just doing something unique, but doing art that was deeper than just a pretty picture. I think we both feel that there is something indescribable about the animal prints, which allows people to view them from different vantage points. You see it as an animal print, and also as a process. I like the idea of documenting rotting or dissected animals because it emphasizes the process part of the experience. People see it and can immediately imagine what must have happened to produce the image. Most people love what they see even though it’s something, which if seen in real life, would disgust and repulse them.
Adam: At first I think most people think working with animal innards to be a little gross, but really there’s lots to offer aesthetically in the inside. Ribs, lungs and guts provide very interesting patterns and textures. Blood stains and feces add color. These are the parts of the animal that are not usually seen so they catch the viewer’s attention and cause reason for pause. If, for example, the animal is a road kill specimen, whose guts are spilling out—well that’s an interesting story that we can capture on paper.
Do you try to position the specimens in a certain way on the paper?
Adam and Ben: Absolutely. We think about position quite a bit. Mainly we want to capture natural poses, either making the animal seem alive or dead. Often if the animal has rigor mortis or could fall apart, due to rot, we are limited to how we can pose them. Sometimes animals come to us very disfigured, depending on the cause of death, and we’ve been surprised by the beautiful prints that can be obtained from them.
Can you take me through the process of making a print? What materials do you use, and what is your method?
Adam and Ben: We are always experimenting with different papers, fabric, inks, clays and paints as well as different application methods, but it really all boils down to applying a wet media to the animal and then applying it to paper or fabric. The trick is finding the right kinds of materials and transfer technique for each kind of specimen. The process for bones is very different than fleshed out animals; and birds are different than fish. Having two of us is often essential for large floppy animals where we want to apply the animal to the table-bound paper. Fish can be the most difficult; their outer skin is essentially slime, which repels some inks and creates smudgy prints on paper. You have to remove this outer slime layer before you print a fish. Salt seems to work well for this. We often do varying degrees of post-processing of the raw print with paint or pencils.
What do you add by hand to the actual print?
Ben: For each animal we’ll likely do half a dozen to a couple dozen prints searching for the perfect one. With all these replicates, we’ll play around with different techniques of post processing. The traditional Gyotaku method restricts touch-ups to accenting the eye of the fish. I think we’ve at minimum done this. But we’ve employed a lot of post-processing techniques, including pencil, watercolor, acrylic, clay, enamel and even extensive digital touch ups.
Adam: There is a balance that we are trying to achieve regarding preserving the rawness of the print and creating a highly refined piece. We like both and find ourselves wavering. Recently, we’ve started to assemble prints together digitally and sometimes alter colors and contrast for interesting effects.
What are the most challenging specimens to print?
Adam: I think small arthropods (animals with exoskeletons) are particularly difficult and time consuming. We’ve come up with the best method, to completely disassemble the animal and print it in pieces. The other trick with them is to apply the ink very thinly and evenly. Anything with depth is also difficult and sometime impossible since the way paper and fabric drapes across the animal can result in very distorted looking prints.
Ben: Small fish or insects. Fish because they are just so small, and the details like scales and fin rays don’t come out well. And, insects because they can be so inflexible, and their exoskeletons are, for the most part, pretty darn water repellent, restricting what kinds of paints we can use.
What animal would you like to print that you haven’t yet?
Ben: Generally, I’d love to print any animal that we haven’t already printed. That said, I have a gopher in my freezer that I’m not too excited about because it will likely turn out as a hairy blob. And once you’ve done one snake, another the same size is hard to distinguish. Large animals are, of course, charismatic and impressive, but I also really enjoy the challenge of trying to capture details on smaller animals. There are some animals that do, in theory, lend themselves to printing. For example, we have a porcupine in our freezer that I’m really excited about.
Adam: I get excited about anything new really. To date, we’ve been primarily interested in working with Texas fauna, but we are excited about other possibilities as well. I especially like animals with interesting textures juxtaposed. For example, I think the more-or-less naked head and legs of an ostrich with the feathery body would be interesting and very challenging. But, beyond specific animal species, we’re now experimenting with the process of rot, a commonality of all dead animals. One project involves placing a fresh animal on paper and spray painting it at various intervals with different colors as it rots and expands. The result is an image of the animal surrounded by concentric rings that document the extent of rot through time.
What do you hope viewers take away from seeing the prints?
Ben and Adam: We like to think there is something in the animal prints that captures both the spirit and the raw corporeal feel of the animal. It’s amazing to us that the art was created by using an animal as a brush so-to-speak, and that there’s even DNA left on the art itself. We hope people have a similar thought process and feeling about the work. We also hope that the project and print collection as a whole serves as a way people can better approach and appreciate the biodiversity around us.
Ben Labay will be showing works from the Inked Animal Project at his home in Austin on November 16-17 and 23-24, as part of the 12th annual East Austin Studio Tour (EAST), a free self-guided tour of the city’s creative community. Inked Animal works are represented by Art.Science.Gallery in Austin, Texas—one of the first galleries in the country to focus on science-related art.
October 2, 2013
In 2011, when he was traveling to shoot photos for a new book on the disappearing wildlife of East Africa, Across the Ravaged Land, photographer Nick Brandt came across a truly astounding place: A natural lake that seemingly turns all sorts of animals into stone.
“When I saw those creatures for the first time alongside the lake, I was completely blown away,” says Brandt. “The idea for me, instantly, was to take portraits of them as if they were alive.”
The ghastly Lake Natron, in northern Tanzania, is a salt lake—meaning that water flows in, but doesn’t flow out, so it can only escape by evaporation. Over time, as water evaporates, it leaves behind high concentrations of salt and other minerals, like at the Dead Sea and Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
Unlike those other lakes, though, Lake Natron is extremely alkaline, due to high amounts of the chemical natron (a mix of sodium carbonate and baking soda) in the water. The water’s pH has been measured as high as 10.5—nearly as high as ammonia. “It’s so high that it would strip the ink off my Kodak film boxes within a few seconds,” Brandt says.
As you might expect, few creatures live in the harsh waters, which can reach 140 degrees Fahreinheit—they’re home to just a single fish species (Alcolapia latilabris), some algae and a colony of flamingos that feeds on the algae and breeds on the shore.
Frequently, though, migrating birds crash into the lake’s surface. Brandt theorizes that the highly-reflective, chemical dense waters act like a glass door, fooling birds into thinking they’re flying through empty space (not long ago, a helicopter pilot tragically fell victim to the same illusion, and his crashed aircraft was rapidly corroded by the lake’s waters). During dry season, Brandt discovered, when the water recedes, the birds’ desiccated, chemically-preserved carcasses wash up along the coastline.
“It was amazing. I saw entire flocks of dead birds all washed ashore together, lemming-like,” he says. “You’d literally get, say, a hundred finches washed ashore in a 50-yard stretch.”
Over the course of about three weeks, Brandt worked with locals to collect some of the most finely-preserved specimens. “They thought I was absolutely insane—some crazy white guy, coming along offering money for people to basically go on a treasure hunt around the lake for dead birds,” he says. “When, one time, someone showed up with an entire, well-preserved fish eagle, it was extraordinary.”
Just coming into contact with the water was dangerous. “It’s so caustic, that even if you’ve got the tiniest cut, it’s very painful,” he says. “Nobody would ever swim in this—it’d be complete madness.”
For the series of photos, titled “The Calcified” and featured in this month’s issue of New Scientist, Brandt posed the carcasses in life-like positions. “But the bodies themselves are exactly the way the birds were found,” he insists. “All I did was position them on the branches, feeding them through their stiff talons.”
September 19, 2013
Diana Beltran Herrera had a realization a couple of years ago. “I started to feel closer to nature, but more, I recognized that I was in nature living at the same time as others, and I wasn’t any more special than any other element,” says the Colombian artist.
A bit conflicted, she says, “I had this knowledge of things living around me, but did I really know about them? I decided that it was time to play again, to rediscover the place where I was living.”
Herrera’s explorations began with birds. She observed local birds in her city of Bogotá and did Internet research on these species, identifying them and learning about their behavior and habitat. The artist also met with members of an ornithology group that provided more information.
“I discovered that I was living in a city full of nature, but somehow the traffic and modernism never allowed me to see what was living in there,” says Herrera. “With time, I started to find those plants, animals and life in general and felt astonished about each single thing, but the most recurrent animal was always the bird.”
Feeling inspired, Herrera started to cut paper into feathers and construct hyper-realistic sculptures of birds. In just a short time, she has created an her own aviary complete with more than 100 species found around the world, from lineated woodpeckers, Bateleur eagles and European bee eaters to blue herons, flamingos, cardinals, blue jays, robins and warblers. The artist’s first international solo exhibition, “Diana Beltran Herrera: Birds of Florida,” featuring seven new sculptures of the state’s birds, is now on display at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum in Winter Park, Florida.
To represent the birds as they are in nature, Herrera makes her sculptures life-size. For a cardinal, that might translate to just over six sheets of paper and five days of labor. An eagle or a crane, on the other hand, means 10 to 15 sheets of paper and up to two weeks of time. She observes some of the species in the wild, studies photographs of birds, and confers with ornithologists and birding groups to ensure an impressive level of visual accuracy.
Then she begins, first with a base form made out of paper, on which she carefully pastes meticulously cut paper feathers. The feathers themselves—mostly delicate bits of Canson art paper scored finely with scissors—range from lightweight wisps to stubby fronds and spikes, depending on the species of bird and their position on the creature. The result is something so stunningly close to the real thing, you’re shocked not to see it move.
Although her work is awe-inspiring in its detail, the real wonder is the complexities seen in nature, Herrera explains. “The most amazing thing for me is to go and find these birds in the wild,” she says. “I feel like a kid still with this need to discover. I love to feel this surprise and enjoy this experience in a mature way that I did when I was a child.”
At the top of her list of birds she would like to see in the wild is a kingfisher. “I have been looking for one, but it is difficult to find,” she says.
When choosing a bird to make her subject, Herrera focuses on its movement. “It is the most important thing for me,” she says. “When I started this project, I was trying to find a way to communicate with this other part [of nature]. Having knowledge that there wasn’t a language in common, there was a challenge to understand this life in another way. I realized there was this corporal expression, this dance, that could tell me a story about them.” She always looks for a photograph to reference, where the bird seems to be at its liveliest.
On her website, Herrera describes her work as seeking “to explore the chillingly disengaged relationship between humans and nature in modern society.” She deeply hopes that her paper sculptures of birds can affect this relationship for the better.
“People say that a little action can bring a reaction, and I like to think that this is possible. I wonder if people could appreciate the real world as they appreciate art, things could be different,” says Herrera. “My work is nothing different or new, it is just a representation of something that is real, and somehow it has an impact. More than creating birds, the real aim of what I do is to use this work as a model to exercise a behavior. It is an invitation to rediscover what is there, to see further and understand we are not alone here. We are part of a big system, and, as that, we need to learn how to respect and relate.”
“Diana Beltran Herrera: Birds of Florida” is on display at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, on the campus of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, through December 8, 2013.
September 4, 2013
A female Altamira oriole toils over her nest for weeks. She gathers long grass, bark, vines, roots, palm fronds, horsehair and colorful twine—”some of civilization’s detritus,” says photographer Sharon Beals. Then, the mother-to-be weaves her materials into a narrow sack, dangling from a high tree branch. She burrows down inside and pads the bottom with straw and feathers, a soft bed for her pale blue eggs.
“Bird nests, even without knowing which birds constructed them, seem hardly possible,” says Beals, on her website. “Creations of spider’s web, caterpillar cocoon, plant down, mud, found modern objects, human and animal hair, mosses, lichen, feathers and down, sticks and twigs—all are woven with beak and claw into a bird’s best effort to protect their next generation.”
To highlight birds’ elaborate architecture, the San Francisco-based artist has photographed nests of various species, all collected sometime in the past two centuries and preserved in the collections of the California Academy of Sciences, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley, the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology and the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates. The portraits, of the nests set against a stark black background, are featured in Beals’ latest book, Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds That Built Them. Through May 2, 2014, a selection of 24 of the photographs are being exhibited in “Nests: Photographs by Sharon Beals” at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. The shots are accompanied by illustrations of the nest builders.
Much of Beals’ work has an environmental bent. For a past project, she photographed still lifes made from plastic trash floating in lakes and the ocean. Beal became interested in birds when reading Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, a 1999 book by naturalist Scott Weidensaul. She learned about the incredible migrations of Arctic terns and blackpoll warblers and also about the habitat and food supply loss along many of the species’ routes.
“I have become what I call a theoretical birder, one with a very short life list but on a quest to learn what birds need to be sustained both locally and globally,” Beals explains in an artist statement. “It was only after making the first photograph of a nest, drawn to its palette and messy, yet graceful and functional form, that I knew I had found my medium—or at least a way that I could be a medium for the birds.”
Beals has since photographed the shelters of young Allen’s hummingbirds, barn swallows, Caspian terns and African palm swifts. She has also managed to capture the nests of spotted-nightingale thrush, social flycatchers and American crows, among others.
From poofs of feathers to wads of leaves to piles of sea shells, the nests reflect the diversity of bird life and certainly evoke the ingenuity of different species, all using resources found in their habitats to build protection. While the nests are constructed to safeguard the birds’ young, there is still a delicate, fragile beauty to them.
“I offer these photographs as a bowerbird lures a mate,” adds Beals, “with the hope that others will be as seduced as I to wonder and learn about the birds that built them.”
“Nests: Photographs by Sharon Beals” is on display at the National Academy of Sciences through May 2, 2014.