Posts

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.

 

 

Events

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.

Painting with blue, white, and black designs and paintings of a rabbit, owl, and ships on the left and red background paint with a painting of a deer sitting and an owl on its back to the right

Docent Tour of Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art

Take a docent-led tour of Un/Natural Selections. Visitors can gain in-depth insights into this exhibition’s themes, artists, and works. The exhibition considers the diverse ways contemporary artists employ animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness and ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Tours begin in the lobby.