More than five years in the making, the new art exhibition, Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity, at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, WA is a masterful collection of more than 80 works of art, from rare books, sculpture and exquisite paintings to photography and cutting edge video, that span the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.
The captivating exhibition runs September 8, 2018 to January 6, 2019 at Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building. The museum also has 20 related programs planned for this exhibit including tours with collection’s Curator Dr. Barbara Matilsky. This exhibit integrates art history, the natural sciences, and environmental conservation, displaying work by contemporary artists alongside their counterparts from the nineteenth century. It’s focus is more timely than ever in the context of climate change, continuing habitat loss, pollution, national and global politics and economic globalization.
I had the pleasure and privilege of attending the Whatcom Museum Members preview the day before the exhibition opening where I was able to meet and talk with Dr. Matilsky as well as three of the featured artists.
Meaning, Emotion and Inspiration
A sequel exhibition to and inspired by Whatcom Museum’s Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art (2013–14), Endangered Species is a moving collection of pieces from around the world. As you might expect, the collection is…well…diverse. Matilsky has brought together works representing every continent, an array of species and habitats, and a variety of media. Rare books and paintings are displayed near modern art sculpture of a coral reef on the sea floor, National Geographic photography, modern Native American art and Andy Warhol. You would have to spend years traveling the world to see each of the pieces in this collection making this a once-in-a-lifetime collection that exposes its audience to works they would otherwise never see.
The exhibition catalog describes it well, “The splendor and vulnerability of our planet is magnificently portrayed in the telling of touching and fascinating stories around several basic themes: the beauty and immensity of Earth’s biodiversity, natural extinctions, human-influenced extinctions, endangered species, trophy hunting, and of course, global warming.”
During Dr. Matilsky’s introduction she acknowledged that the works both celebrate the wonder and beauty of our planet’s biodiversity, while acknowledging that many are in peril or have been lost.
The recombinant multichannel audio-video installation of Sockeye salmon, Salmon People, 2010-2015 by Julie Andreyev and Simon Lysander Overstall share the fishes point of view. Killer Whale (2009), a glass sculpture by American Tlingit Preston Singletary reminded me of orca mother, J35 or Tahlequah who made headlines around the world this summer after carrying the body of her dead calf for 17 days near Vancouver, Canada. Her endangerd pod has dwindled to just 75 individuals.
Other species and habitats have already been lost. The mixed media sculpture of the now extinct flightless dodo by Harri Kallio, Les Gris Gris #3, Mauritius (2001) seemed as cheerful and unassuming as it must have been when hunted to extinction and its habitat destroyed in 1662. Many of the works are poignant and dark when drawing attention to their current vulnerability. The segment devoted to pollution includes striking, factual photography that speaks for itself. Alberta Tar Sands #3 (2010) is an aerial photography by Canadian Garth Lenz of the oil extraction’s impact on the land. Contents of Laysan Albatross Stomach and Laysan Albatross Necropsy (moli Phoebastria immutabilis) (2004) highlights the pounds of plastic and garbage found inside the body of a single bird. The six-legged frog in DFB 39 Priapus (2013), from the series Malamp: The Occurrence of Deformities in Amphibians by Brandon Ballengée is other worldly.
Perhaps my favorite piece was Tlinget-Aleut Nicholas Galanin’s Inert Wolf (2009). Part trophy rug and part struggling to survive, Dr. Matilsky notes that the wolf in this piece is a metaphor for the Native American struggle to survive.
Despite highlighting the sad realities over the last 300 years, Dr. Matilsky maintains that the exhibit is not about doom and gloom, but inspiration. “Our hope is that by creating awareness about the magnitude of these growing phenomena through an accessible gallery setting, visitors can experience thought-provoking artwork by artists and scientists and learn firsthand about our earth’s plight.”
Meeting the Artists
With more than 80 pieces in the collection, I can only scratch the surface of this exhibit. You’ll have to go see them all for yourself. But I had the deep pleasure of meeting three of the artists.
Illustrator David W. Miller had the distinct honor of being the preparator of the exhibit, the person who helps set up each piece, on a custom made display or wall hanging. His own work, Quetzalcoatlus (2002), an oil and acrylic was also on display. Miller told me that he worked for many years creating illustrations of this and other extinct dinosaurs in prehistoric landscapes for natural history museums. His work highlights humanities efforts to document and reconstruct the past from fossil records as well as the ever-evolving interpretation of it as we learn more over time. Miller’s works appear in the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History, and Yale University’s Peabody Museum.
I very much enjoyed meeting American Madeline von Foerster, who hand delivered one of two pieces to the collection from her home in Cologne, Germany. Reliquary for Rabbs’ Frog (2018) commemorates the extinction of the Rabbs’ fringe limbed treefrog. Her painting is symbolic and was based on the last specimen that died at the Atlanta Botanical Garden on September 26, 2016. The frog sits in an elaborate container of metal and glass, its style incorporates elements of German architecture. The container is held carefully by a pair of gloved hands, she said to symbolize our laboratory-like separation from the animal. I couldn’t help but tear up seeing this piece. We often think of extinctions as something that happened somewhere else a long time ago. Not here. Not now. But here we are in 2018, still losing an estimated 200 to 2000 species to extinction each year.
Her second piece in the collection, Carnival Insectivora (Cabinet for Cornell and Haeckel) (2013) includes a variety of carnivorous plants, including the Venus flytrap that now survives in the wild only within a seventy-five-mile area in North Carolina. The plant is threatened due to habitat destruction and rampant poaching of wild species. It is currently listed as a species of concern, a status that offers no legal protection. Von Foerster pays homage to the artist-biologist Ernst Haeckel and his influential drawings of flora and fauna in his book Art Forms of Nature (1904) and references Joseph Cornell’s dream-like sculptural boxes. She noted that the hands in the piece have a layered meaning, both as protectors, but also as collectors.
Both paintings, along with many of her other works, use a five century-old mixed technique of oil and egg tempera, developed by the Flemish Renaissance Masters. The subject of her works are entirely modern, exploring the human relationship to nature with such themes as deforestation, wildlife trafficking, and human-caused extinction.
I also had the pleasure of meeting Port Townsend, WA artist Michael J. Felber. At first I mistook his colored pencil of a polar bear, Arctic Father (2017) for a photograph because it was so detailed and realistic. Felber meticulously based his drawing on bears that he photographed while on a cruise in Svalbard and Greenland, this one representing bear Number 14 observed in June 2016. Unlike the way these bears have been portrayed in the past, as viscous wild animals, Felber’s bear is serene. Felber communicated with the Norwegian Polar Institute’s monitoring project to share and obtain more information about this bear and to support their efforts to monitor impacts of climate change on the populations. Felber and I discussed his detailed use of the black and gray color pallet as well as how you create depth in a ‘white’ landscape. Felber connected the bear directly to the ice upon which it is delicately perched.
About Curator Dr. Barbara Matilsky
Endangered Species isn’t Dr. Matilsky’s first foray into the subject area. She also curated Whatcom Museum’s Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art (2013–14). Prior to her nine years with Whatcom Museum, Dr. Matilsky was Curator of Exhibitions at Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and curator at the Queens Museum of Art, New York City, where she organized the traveling exhibition, Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists’ Interpretations and Solutions (1992).
To produce this collection, Dr. Matilsky worked on and off for over five years, and most intensely over the past two to three. Curating an exhibit of this scale is complex. She spent a year on research, a year writing the catalog, a year to organize, as well as time spent throughout to raise the funds. A huge investment before you even know if the exhibit will actually happen.
Dr. Matilsky allowed me to photograph her in front of a very special piece in the exhibit. Buffalo Bull, Grazing on the Prairie (1832–1833), one of the oldest in this collection, is on loan from the Smithsonian. Dr. Matilsky explained that the loan was made possible by an affiliate relationship between Whatcom Museum and the Smithsonian and that these works very rarely travel. Similarly, she was able to obtain the Warhol paintings through a long-time connection with the Ronald Feldman Gallery who commissioned the works in 1983.
She not only has curated exceptional and diverse works of art in this exhibit, but she also infused her own creativity in the selection and juxtaposition of the pieces. Dr. Matilsky noted that each artist handles a similar subject in vastly differing ways based on technology, the time and culture in which they lived, and their own personal influences.
The collection is bold and honest in its presentation. It does not shy away from the emotional darkness of habitat loss from deforestation, tar sands extraction or species extinction from overfishing, illegal ivory harvest and extirpation of bison and wolves. Although lighter subjects could have broader popularity, Dr. Matilsky stays positive and strives toward progress despite our dark past. She purposely made a point of noting the strides made in conservation since the 1970s, the increased education and awareness overall, and a hopefulness that the situation will improve. She also noted that despite the emotional subject matter, the quality of the pieces themselves alone would be a draw to audiences. The vibrant colors, intricate details, story and craftsmanship on their own are notable.
I enjoyed this so much that I’ll be heading back with my teenagers. I noticed other children of all ages got something different out of the exhibit. As I wandered through the collection, I could hear the deep conversations among visitors, about the status of species and their habitats, global politics and economics and the artists themselves. I’ll look forward to those conversations with my teens.
Plan your visit now to catch this bold and thought-provoking collection of exquisite work before January 6, 2019.
Endangered Species also provides hope for the future. According to the catalog, “Artists themselves are not only creating works that draw attention to environmental problems, but they are also designing projects that help restore habitats. It is our fervent hope that visitors will be inspired and take notice of these positive changes so that they feel empowered, even if in small ways, to help make a difference.”