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Museum Preparator David Miller installs a story pole

Museum Employee and Professional Artist David Miller Brings Prehistoric Creatures to Life

 

David Miller, American, b. 1957; Quetzalcoatlus, 2002; Oil and acrylic on illustration board, 16 x 12 in. Courtesy of the New York State Museum, Albany.

On a Thursday afternoon in October, Museum Preparator David Miller sat at his desk in the attic of Old City Hall and thumbed through the many binders of his old paintings.

He was searching for a piece he had created many years ago. With each turned page he uncovered a new prehistoric creature like some sort of artistic archaeologist.

Finally, he came across the piece he was looking for. It depicted the prehistoric flying beast Quetzalcoatlus as it soared above a North American forest millions of years ago. The piece, titled Quetzalcoatlus after the creature it depicts, was notable because one block away a reproduction was on display at the Lightcatcher building as part of the Museum’s exhibition Endangered Species: Artists on the Frontline of Biodiversity.

“I think it’s an effective drawing. The forced perspective really shows you the immensity of the creature,” Miller says.

Getting the immensity of the creature was essential. Quetzalcoatlus, with an imposing 52-foot wingspan, was the largest flying animal to ever exist, after all.

Miller originally painted Quetzalcoatlus in 2002 for a book on Pterosaurs. The painting ultimately didn’t get published. In 2004, he took the piece to the Paleo Art Show at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science where the piece was awarded Best 2D Artwork.

Bringing creatures to life

Quetzalcoatlus isn’t Miller’s only dinosaur painting. In fact, much of his art career is centered around creating scientifically accurate depictions of prehistoric animals.

His interest in painting prehistoric animals goes back to his childhood. When he was younger, he drew dinosaurs and World War II fighter planes. After high school, he attended Montserrat School of Visual Art in Beverly, Massachusetts, and the Art Student’s League.

“When I was in school I thought I was going to be a so-called fine artist,” Miller says. “But I quickly discovered that I didn’t have much to say; there were people that were better that could say what had to be said. So, I wanted to serve science as an illustrator.”

His first step into the world of prehistoric painting began after he found an anthology on vertebrate paleontology. The book described the taxonomy of different animals and showed illustrations of their skeletons. Miller says he became interested in the prehistoric fish and took a shot at painting them. Those paintings were included in a book called Discovering Fossil Fishes published in 1995. After that, everything fell into place.

David Miller works on a drawing in his workshop in the Whatcom Museum.

Miller says scientific accuracy is his primary goal. In this work, it’s everything.

To illustrate his point, Miller recounted the story of a painting he created for the Florida Museum of Natural History in 2004. The museum flew him to Florida so he could snorkel in the environment he would be painting. Afterward, he spent hours working with an expert on mollusks to make sure every detail was correct.

“The level of accuracy was exacting,” Miller says. “Everything had to be right. I can’t tell you how many scans I sent to him and how many times they came back with red ink.”

David Miller joins the Museum

In 1992, Miller moved to Bellingham with his wife. The next year, he began working with the Whatcom Museum after he offered to paint a dinosaur for an exhibit.

The Museum continued hiring him for projects over the years, including two massive 80-foot murals. One, created in 2001, depicts African, Asian, and American rainforests. The other, created in 2006, depicts marine and harbor habitats.

David Miller installs a piece in the Family Interactive Gallery.

In 2012, he joined the Museum full time as a preparator. In this role he handles everything from hanging artwork to creating object mounts, painting backgrounds and lighting displays.

“[The most satisfying part of the job is] being alone in the shop working on a project that I helped conceived of or am really passionate about that takes problem-solving skills and attention to detail,” Miller says.  “To me, I can’t think of a better job. If I’m not painting, I’d rather be doing something like that.”

Miller still spends much of his personal time drawing but doesn’t currently do contract work. He says he doesn’t have the time for it.

He then grabbed another binder from the corner of his desk and cracked it open.

“I just seem to keep having to draw,” Miller says. “I miss those days where you get in the car going out to FedEx, and in the back of your car is a painting that you’re going to send out and get paid for.”

Written by Colton Redtfeldt, Marketing Assistant

Woman standing in front of a painting

Madeline von Foerster: Painting Humanity’s Role in Species Destruction

In fourth grade, Madeline von Foerster was asked to do a report on an animal for class. She opted to do her report on an extinct animal. At the time she was also developing a passion for art. So, it’s no surprise that years later she would create art that highlights the plight of endangered and extinct animals.

The work of Madeline von Foerster

Von Foerster has built a career out of using her paintings to comment on the role humanity plays in the destruction of animal species. Two of her paintings, Carnival Insectivora and Reliquary for Rabb’s Frog, were included in the Museum’s exhibition Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity.

Carnival Insectivora highlights endangerment of the infamous Venus flytrap. Reliquary for Rabb’s Frog highlights the extinction of the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog.

“In both cases, I wanted to create a tribute or a shrine to threatened or extinct species, and also address humanity’s role in their fate,” von Foerster says.

The Venus flytrap is being petitioned for endangered status. It grows in the Coastal Plain and Sandhills of North and South Carolina. These habitats are quickly being destroyed by fire suppression techniques, commercial logging, and residential development, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog became extinct in 2016 after the last known specimen of the species died at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Von Foerster’s painting honors that final frog by placing it in an ornate silver and gold container.

Von Foerster says the container is meant to resemble a monstrance. The Roman Catholic Church uses the highly decorated container to display the wafer a priest or bishop has blessed.

“I want my paintings to make visible the consequences of our actions/inaction. They are meant to inspire a different worldview, one of reverence for and partnership with the natural world,” von Foerster says. “Our lives are so enmeshed with the destruction of nature that it is scarcely visible to us. It will be very apparent to future generations, however, who must live with the results.”

The Mische technique

Von Foerster works in a painting style called the Mische technique. The style was developed more than 500 years ago by Flemish painters and requires the application of many alternating layers of oil and egg tempera. The tempera allows her to paint fine details while the oil layers help with blending.

According to von Foerster’s website, “the two media offer unparalleled luminosity, as light travels through the oil glazes and reflects off the highly opaque tempera beneath.” A demonstration and basic walk-through of the technique can be found on her website.

“It permits the finest of detail,” von Foerster says. “Oil glazes in combination with the tempera under-painting create a luminous ‘glow’ unmatched in other media.  It’s laborious, but I love it.”

Von Foerster isn’t kidding when she says the paintings were laborious. Each of the two paintings took more than two months to create.

The hardest part was the metal container in the Rabb’s frog painting. She describes it as her “problem child.” Her initial idea was to paint it gold. But after painting a large portion of it, she realized the brown tones in the gold made the frog disappear. Because of this, she repainted it silver. In the end, von Foerster says the painstaking process was worth it.

The preliminary drawing and sketch of Reliquary for Rabb’s Frog is now part of the Museum’s collection. Learn more about Madeline von Foerster at madelinevonfoerster.com.

–Written by Colton Redtfeldt, Marketing Assistant

Image credit: Madeline von Foerster stands next to her painting, Carnival Insectivora.

The making of Reliquary for Rabb’s Frog. Photos courtesy of the artist.

A sketched outline of the piece.

Applying layers of tinted egg tempera to the painting.

More layers of egg tempera and local glazes.

Applying final details with oil paint.

 

 

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THOUGHT-PROVOKING EXHIBITION TO EXPLORE ENDANGERED SPECIES AND BIODIVERSITY

Isabella Kirkland; Gone, from the Taxa series, 2004; (63 species made extinct by human activities since 1700 and the colonization of the New World). Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel; 48 x 36 in. Private Collection.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Bellingham, WA, January 30, 2018—The Whatcom Museum presents Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity, an interdisciplinary exhibition featuring 80 works of art, from rare books to cutting edge video, that span the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. It opens September 8, 2018 in the Museum’s Lightcatcher building and closes January 6, 2019.

Endangered Species highlights an international group of 52 artists who celebrate biodiversity’s beauty, interpret natural and human-induced extinctions of plants and animals, and focus on species from diverse ecosystems under stress. It also includes the work of artists who spotlight the human activities that threaten biodiversity alongside projects that revitalize habitats and reconnect people to the rich tapestry of life.

“We often read news headlines with alarming statistics and then turn the page,” said Barbara Matilsky, exhibition curator and Curator of Art at the Whatcom Museum. “Artists take this information and create images that inspire emotional and thought-provoking responses. Hopefully, ‘Endangered Species’ will stimulate visitors to help preserve the planet and its biodiversity.”

Exhibition spotlights important thematic concepts
The first theme, Celebrating Biodiversity’s Beauty and Complexity: From Landscapes to Microscopic Imagery, focuses on artists who illuminate biodiversity’s stunning variety on its most grand and intimate scales. By examining the shared practices that inspire artists and natural scientists, such as exploration, observation, and documentation, visitors can learn what biodiversity is about and why it is important.

The second theme, Mammoths and Dinosaurs: Interpreting Natural Extinction, introduces the concept of the complete loss of an animal or plant species. When natural scientists first discovered fossils of early life, nineteenth century artists presented convincing visions of animals roaming primeval habitats in best-selling natural history books and panoramic murals commissioned by museums. The exhibition will showcase illustrated books and preliminary paintings for these majestic landscapes.

In the third theme, Portraits of Loss: Extinction by Human Actions, visitors can explore how artists transform scientific documentation about early human-induced extinctions of the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon, among others, into stirring portraits and still life paintings. Their artworks reflect meticulous research and analysis of specimens from natural history museum collections. By reviving past life in sometimes startling ways, artists imprint their memory on our consciousness and spark awareness about the contemporary extinction crisis.

The plants and animals interpreted by artists in the fourth theme, Endangered Species: Plants and Animals on the Edge of Survival, symbolize the threatened ecosystems in which they live and the global decline of biodiversity. The artworks call attention to just a few of the 10,000 “endangered” and “critically endangered” species classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. An illustrated timeline highlighting conservation milestones will be exhibited here.

Contemporary artists not only portray animal and plant species at risk, they also interpret the human actions that lead to their precarious status: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overhunting and fishing. These issues will be explored in the final theme, At the Crossroads: Destruction or Preservation of Biodiversity. Within this area, the challenges facing several biodiversity hotspots, such as tropical rainforests and coral reefs, will be highlighted.

An uplifting narrative is interwoven throughout this section by including examples of how artists collaborate across disciplines to revive habitats and engage humans with the natural world. These multi-media projects serve as inspiring models for individual and community grass roots efforts towards environmental restoration and education.

Endangered Species has been organized with the intent of impacting public discourse about biodiversity while advancing the artist’s pivotal role in building awareness. By tracing links between contemporary and earlier artists, the exhibition examines art’s contribution to an enduring cultural legacy of nature conservation.

Featured artists include John James Audubon, Brandon Ballengée, Nick Brandt, Edward Burtynsky, George Catlin, Catherine Chalmers, Mark Dion, Madeline von Foerster, Nicholas Galanin, Ernst Haeckel, Martin Johnson Heade, Patricia Johanson, Chris Jordan, Isabella Kirkland, Charles R. Knight, David Liittschwager, John Martin, Courtney Mattison, Susan Middleton, Alexis Rockman, Christy Rupp, Joel Sartore, Preston Singletary, Fred Tomaselli, Roman Vishniac, Andy Warhol, and Yang Yongliang, among many others. A full list of artists can be viewed on the exhibition webpage. A fully illustrated catalogue will accompany the exhibition.

Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity is supported by major grants from The National Endowment for the Arts and The Norcliffe Foundation, with additional funding from the Whatcom Museum Advocates, the Whatcom Museum Foundation, and the City of Bellingham. The exhibition opens September 8, 2018 and extends through January 6, 2019 in the Lightcatcher building, 250 Flora Street, Bellingham, Wash.

VIEW press images. Images available upon request by contacting Christina Claassen, Marketing & PR Manager, cmclaassen@cob.org, 360.778.8936.

THE WHATCOM MUSEUM RECEIVES $60,000 GRANT FROM NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS IN SUPPORT OF ENDANGERED SPECIES EXHIBITION

Isabella Kirkland; Gone, from the Taxa series, 2004; (63 species made extinct by human activities since 1700 and the colonization of the New World). Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel; 48 x 36 in. Private Collection.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Bellingham, WA, September 5, 2017 —The Whatcom Museum has been awarded a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in support of the upcoming exhibition, Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity, which will be on exhibit September 8, 2018 – January 6, 2019 in the Lightcatcher building. The grant will assist the Museum in funding the loan of artworks from around the world, educational programming, and an exhibition catalogue. Endangered Species will explore artwork created by 50 artists who interpret the fragile balance of life on Earth through a wide range of media.

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu approved more than $82 million to fund local arts projects across the country in the NEA’s second major funding announcement for fiscal year 2017—a significant win for the arts during a time when NEA funding was at risk of federal budget cuts this year. (The NEA is proposed for elimination under the president’s 2018 budget.) Included in this announcement is the Art Works award of $60,000 to the Whatcom Museum, which was the highest amount given to a museum exhibition.

“The arts reflect the vision, energy, and talent of America’s artists and arts organizations,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support organizations such as the Whatcom Museum, in serving their communities by providing excellent and accessible arts experiences.”

As the only funder in the country to support arts activities in all 50 states and five US jurisdictions, this NEA funding round includes partnerships with state, jurisdictional, and regional arts agencies. Competition for NEA grants is significant, and the agency received 2,063 eligible applications. The value of NEA funding is not only its monetary impact, but also its reputation, as an NEA grant confers a seal of approval, allowing an organization to attract other public and private funds. The Art Works award is the NEA’s largest category and focuses on funding the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with art, lifelong learning in the arts, and strengthening of communities through the arts. The NEA received 1,728 Art Works applications and made 1,029 grants ranging from $10,000 to $100,000.

“The Whatcom Museum upholds the highest of best practices in the museology field, as an American Alliance of Museums accredited museum, and we are proud to receive this important funding in support of a topic that will highly resonate with our audiences in the Pacific Northwest,” said Patricia Leach, Executive Director of the Whatcom Museum. “Endangered Species will allow people of all ages to better understand the history and ongoing struggle for survival of plant and animal life through the works of these amazing artists, and hopefully make a lasting impression of what we can do to help make a better future for our environment.”

Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity presents 70 works of art in all media, from rare books to cutting-edge video, that span the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries. It highlights artists who celebrate biodiversity’s exquisite complexity, interpret natural and human-induced extinctions of plants and animals, and focus on endangered species from diverse ecosystems. The exhibition explores art’s historic role in raising public awareness about the human activities that threaten habitats. Weaving together art, natural science, and conservation, “Endangered Species” also features creative solutions by ecological artists who revitalize habitats and reconnect people to the rich tapestry of life. Featured artists include John James Audubon, Brandon Ballengée, Nick Brandt, Edward Burtynsky, George Catlin, Mark Dion, Madeline von Foerster, Nicholas Galanin, Ernst Haeckel, Patricia Johanson, Isabella Kirkland, David Liitschwager, Courtney Mattison, Alexis Rockman, Joel Sartore, Fred Tomaselli, and Andy Warhol, among many others.

“We often read news headlines with alarming statistics—60% of the world’s primates, including apes, lemurs and monkeys, face extinction—and then turn the page,” said Barbara Matilsky, exhibition curator, and Curator of Art at the Whatcom Museum. “Artists take this information and create imagery that inspires emotional and thought-provoking responses. They also collaborate with natural scientists and communities on ecological artworks that serve as models for revitalizing land and water-based biodiversity in urban and rural areas. Hopefully, Endangered Species will stimulate visitors to join with artists, scientists, and conservationists in preserving life’s biodiversity.”

Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity is supported by a major grant from The Norcliffe Foundation, with additional funding from the Whatcom Museum Foundation and the City of Bellingham. The exhibition will open September 8, 2018 and will be shown through January 6, 2019 in the Lightcatcher building, 250 Flora Street, Bellingham, Wash.

About the National Endowment for the Arts
Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. For more information, visit www.arts.gov.

THE WHATCOM MUSEUM RECEIVES $50,000 GRANT FROM THE NORCLIFFE FOUNDATION IN SUPPORT OF ENDANGERED SPECIES EXHIBITION

Isabella Kirkland; Gone, from the Taxa series, 2004; (63 species made extinct by human activities since 1700 and the colonization of the New World). Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel; 48 x 36 in. Private Collection.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Bellingham, WA, June 22, 2017 —The Whatcom Museum has been awarded a $50,000 grant in support of the upcoming exhibition, Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity, which will be on exhibit September 8, 2018 – January 6, 2019 in the Lightcatcher building. The grant will assist the Museum in funding exhibition design, related educational programming, and an exhibition catalogue. The exhibition will explore artworks by an international group of artists who interpret the fragile balance of life on Earth through a wide range of media.

“We are thrilled to have the support of The Norcliffe Foundation for this exciting project,” said Patricia Leach, Executive Director of the Whatcom Museum. “The grant funds will assist us to assemble a truly impactful exhibition, and bring related high-quality educational programming to our community.”

Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity presents 70 works of art in various media, from rare books to cutting-edge video, that span the 19th through 21st centuries. It highlights artists who celebrate biodiversity’s exquisite complexity, interpret natural and human-induced extinctions of plants and animals, and focus on endangered species from diverse ecosystems. The exhibition explores art’s historic role in raising public awareness about the human activities that threaten habitats. Weaving together art, natural science, and conservation, Endangered Species also features creative solutions by ecological artists who revitalize habitats and reconnect people to the rich tapestry of life. Featured artists include Ernst Haeckel, George Catlin, Andy Warhol, Patricia Johanson, Isabella Kirkland, and David Liitschwager, among many others.

“We often read news headlines with alarming statistics—60% of the world’s primates, including apes, lemurs and monkeys, are facing extinction—and then turn the page,” said Barbara Matilsky, exhibition curator, and Curator of Art at the Whatcom Museum. “Artists take this information and create imagery that inspires emotional and thought-provoking responses. Hopefully, Endangered Species will stimulate visitors to join with artists, scientists, and conservationists in preserving life’s biodiversity.”

The Norcliffe Foundation is a private nonprofit family foundation established in 1952 by Paul Pigott with the intention of improving the quality of life of people in Puget Sound communities by the application of financial and human resources. Succeeding generations of the family have continued to support The Foundation in this tradition. Grants are given to nonprofit organizations, and areas of support include education, health, social services, civic improvement, religion, culture and the arts, the environment, historic preservation, and youth programs.