Friday, April 13, 2012

Artists and Extinction

extinct species, dusky seaside sparrow, biodiversity
Dusky Seaside Sparrow, former resident of Florida, declared  extinct  in 1990.  
Many artists have been tuning into the biodiversity crisis and raising awareness simply by painting endangered and extinct species. One such artist is Joanna Barnum of Baltimore, MD. She kindly agreed to answer some questions I sent her. 

1. First of all, given your scientific portraits, what's your connection to science? 

JB: My only “formal” connection to science is that I really enjoyed biology class in high school, and I enjoy gardening at home and walking in nature.  I'm just a big fan.  I come at the subject as an artist with a strong aesthetic attraction to the natural world, and a concerned citizen of the world who cares about preserving the environment and who also cares about critical thinking and reason in an age where a distressing number of people seem to be drifting away from science.

2. When did you tune into the present extinction crisis?

JB: I think endangered and extinct species are one of those things many of us study in grade school as an important topic, and then it kind of drifts from the front of our consciousness.  

extinct species, thylacine, biodiversity
Thylacine: "The Tasmanian Tiger", former resident of Australia, declared  extinct  1936

3. What inspired you to begin a series of prints on recently extinct species?

JB: I created the series in 2010 when I was invited to participate in a show at the former Positron Gallery in Baltimore, MD.  The show's title and theme was “Eschatology,” which is the theological study of the end of the world or the apocalypse.  We were allowed to take the theme in any direction we wanted, so instead of looking at mythological visions of the apocalypse, I focused on the destruction of the world that is going on already. 

extinct species, norfolk boobook, biodiversity
The Norfolk Boobook lived on Norfolk  Island, in the  Tasman Sea and was last seen in 1996. 

4. We're all familiar with the extinction of the dodo, the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet, how did you choose some of the lesser known extinct species, like the rather adorable Norfolk boobook (above), the Columbia basin pygmy rabbit and the Dusky seaside sparrow (shown at top)? 

JB: I started my research for the series as just a curious person on the internet.  I browsed all kinds of articles, lists, and databases of extinct species and read about a lot of animals I had never heard of before.  In the end, some of the species I chose to paint were a matter of practicality.  Some of these lists are HUGE, and yet I couldn't even find photos or scientific illustrations of the animals in question to get a sense of what they were like.  That seems especially sad to me.  That there are species that now seem to be no more than a line of text on a list somewhere. 

extinct species, falkland islands wolf, biodiversity
Falkland Islands Wolf, former resident of the Falkland Islands,  extinct in 1876. 

5. In your research, did you respond to some of the extinction stories more than others?
I was particularly disturbed by the stories of some animals which became extinct through a combination of overhunting and intentional eradication during the nineteenth century, such as the Falkland Islands wolf.  It's hard to imagine the attitude of entitlement that existed in a pre-conservation movement era, mankind's sense that nature was his to plunder at his whim and convenience. 

And yet, despite our greater awareness today, species are still dying as the result of our actions.  

6. What sort of response have you had to the series?

I've found that many people have been attracted to the series simply because they find the images to be pleasing colorful paintings of animals- but it's a bit of an emotional sucker punch to say “oh look at the cute bunny, pretty bird, etc.” then step closer and read the image captions, and realizing the species you're enjoying looking at no longer exists.  It wasn't completely intentional when I started painting the images for them to work that way, but it turned out to be pretty effective. 

Ultimately the people who have bought some of the paintings and prints of them have probably done so because they find the artwork attractive, but I hope in the process they are also being educated about an important issue. 

7. When one starts reading about the present crisis it becomes difficult to be optimistic that we will halt the crisis anytime soon. Did you find reasons for optimism in your research?

Looking at earlier extinction stories (such as the Falkland Island wolf I mentioned above) and comparing society's attitude in the past to the awareness that exists today, I try to be optimistic.  Most people used to think it was OK to consume as much as they wanted of the world around them and that resources were limitless.  Most people would not agree with that today, although our actions haven't caught up with our stated morals.  I hope they will.  But it's still hard not to look at the situation and be utterly terrified. 

8. Where can readers find out more about seeing or purchasing your work? is my main website where you can browse most of my portfolio, and in the “shop” section there is information on how to order prints of any of my pieces. 

You can follow my blog at if you want regular updates on new work, exhibits, etc.
extinct species, golden toad, biodiversity
Golden Toad, former resident of Monteverde Costa Rica, last seen in 1989. 
Some lucky Ecofest participants will be taking home prints of Joanna Barnum's work as prizes, so
sign up today! 

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