Intricate Portraits of Our Wild Past

A colleague shared this New York Times feature article with me this morning. In perusing the article, as I rarely read anything over 500 words anymore, I couldn’t help but think of how the great many naturalists who taught us so much about natural history actually rendered all of the illustrations for their own publications.  You probably know many colleagues in zoos and other wildlife professionals who are talented illustrators.  Certainly many naturalists, and organismal biologists have impressive portfolios of illustrations depicting their subjects. I believe firmly from my own experience and from the work of others that we tend to capture on paper, most accurately, the kinds of animate subjects that captivate us the most. It’s much easier for me to draw a sloth bear than a box. I remember as a biology-psychology undergraduate at Skidmore College, most acclaimed for it’s fine art’s department than anything else, how difficult it was to draw things that had no interest to me.  I chose Skidmore because of it’s reputable and progressive science and fine arts programs and because of it’s location on an expansive research preserve in the Adirondacks. I only considered the Art Minor because with some remote interest in graphic design, I thought I could also pursue biological or anatomical illustration. This is not to say that I wasn’t serious about wildlife illustration, but I didn’t see it as a field that could provide much financial security or transferable skills even in a booming economy. And true to form elephants, walruses, monkeys, horses and bears are now capitalizing on their own masterpieces. And they do it out of pure recreation- the money is less important…..  For those of us who tried to fit in biochemistry and experimental/comparative psychology labs in with the long hours  required for the studio courses,  it was virtually impossible to do justice to either endeavor.  I think the art majors have much more time to be expressive and creative and fortunately most have no interest in reading this post . I was in and out. Brevity was policy as a science major dabbling in the fine arts. Despite what you might think, I’m an average artist and average student, but appreciate why so few actually became biological illustrators.

I highly respect people who managed to pursue a biology degree and dedicate every free minute of their time to drawing and painting in the studio. On a side note, I liken it to when I set out to pursue a DVM/PhD at The Ohio State University. To this day I don’t know anyone who accomplished the the daunting task of completing dual doctoral degrees in veterinary medical sciences.  In human medicine it’s much more common. Revered scholar and father of aquatic  animal medicine, Dr. Michael Stoskopf, DVM, PhD Dipl. ACZM, conveyed to me that few such programs make it possible for anyone to complete both degrees concurrently.  BTW, Dr. Stoskopf is a very interesting guy w/ a great sense of humor. I have such great respect for him. He was zoo veterinarian, and also the Director of  Animal Health at the National Aquarium before returning to academia. He is  a most highly esteemed scholar, research toxicologist, and veterinary clinician and directs a world-class program in ecological medicine at North Carolina State University. If you own a tropical fish, he’s probably the reason it’s still swimming in your fish tank. We’ve talked at length about scholastic programs and zoo careers and the like, but that deserves a book chapter or a book of it’s own, let alone a blog post. But I digress….

I do want to bring home the point that naturalists like Richard Ellis are devoted to conservation biology and natural history and gifted with the skills of a great craftsman. How amazing it must be to see the murals you have painted  in the galleries of the most prominent museums and cultural institutions on earth to also have them feature your monologues and textbooks, popular or more scholarly in their book stores and archived in their libraries.  There are certainly extraordinarily talented people out there. I can think of a number of wildlife biologists, animal keepers and zoo clinicians who are also phenomenal photographers and illustrators. I think passion fosters much of this talent and I am always amazed when visiting a museum of natural history or a zoo exhibit at how astutely artists have captured subtle details of majestic species among our wildlife heritage. As you know some people much prefer to rely on illustrated field guides than on the newer compilations of references that are filled with photographs.  I don’t know much about art history curricula that focus much attention on the great naturalists and wildlife illustrators, but today we certainly tend to forget how vital this craftsmanship has been to our growing knowledge of biology.  Today you will find more people exploring the fields of ecology, conservation biology and behavioral sciences. But without the great systematists of earlier generations and even current day we would have nothing to work with. Our visual references were drawn with pencils. Camera traps were not available to Darwin or Audubon.  As much as I hope to promote the natural historians who have shared knowledge through exemplary works of art, I hope that future generations will still get to see the real creatures, living and breathing. By the way there is still much room for improvement with regard to the “visual arts.” Try relying on a schematic or illustration alone while teaching yourself bovine gross anatomy.  It’s one of those basic classes that you have to show up for, because even Audubon or the most talented anatomical illustrators can not quite capture what awaits you in a cadaver.

I share my own illustration of an infant Bornean orangutan that Animal Keepers’ Forum editorial staff graciously published in 2005. It won’t be featured in the National Gallery of Art, but I thought it was fitting for this zoo blog.  You can see a vague outline of a face in the background. It was not intended for the piece, and I should have erased it entirely.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

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