Art Imitates Nature

Students gain a greater appreciation of wildlife at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

"We are made so that we love first, when we see them painted, things we have passed perhaps a hundred times, nor cared to see."--Fra Lippo Lippi

"That's the quote I live by," says Katie Lee, a creative sparkplug with wire-rimmed glasses and a close crop of gray hair. It's midway through a bright April morning, and the acclaimed wildlife artist grips the attention of some 20 students in a broad and airy room on the eastern slopes of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Sunshine spills through partially shaded windows; beyond them, cactuses bask in the shimmering spring light.

Outside, tourists crowd the walkways, trekking from exhibit to exhibit of semi-wild creatures. But inside this studio, the entire natural world is winnowed down to quail wing portrayed in lovely shades of lavender and blue. Thanks to a tiny video cam, the wing has become high-tech, splayed across a screen at the front of the room.

Also onscreen, beneath the gracefully painted feathers, is the comparatively macabre and very real skull of a thrasher.

Life and death, beauty, art and decay--it's all here. It's also mesmerizing. "We can have 13 people sitting in total silence sketching a goshawk," Lee explains. "From then on, they will never look at one flying past without much, much more understanding."

Based in New York, Lee is among a number of top-shelf visiting artists with the museum's new School of Natural History Art. This is a lofty program with a simple point: teaching people to paint wildlife will teach them to appreciate and protect wildlife.

Given record-busting animal extinction rates, the quiet contemplation of nature with paintbrush and pencil might seem a trifle esoteric as conservation measures go. Au contraire, says Lee. "My belief is the minute you get people to really look at any species--to really look at them and touch them and feel them a little bit--there is an immediate bonding with that animal. And people really do start taking care of that species. There's an awareness that develops."

She believes this to be the only environmentally oriented fine art program in the nation. The school grew out of discussions dating back several years, between former museum director Rick Daley and friends when he was head of the Denver Botanic Gardens. The notion migrated south when Daley was appointed to the Desert Museum post in 1998.

Now in its second season, the program funds an artist-in-residence "who will paint us an original piece," says Susan Williams, education director for the museum. "These instructors are all world class in their particular subject areas."

While this expertise doesn't come cheap--the five-day masters workshops cost $895 for non-members of the museum--the program also offers ongoing, six-week courses for children and adults at $325.

This year's live-in artist is internally acclaimed Susan Labouri, and the Smithsonian's John Anderton taught a course in early April.

The ambition behind this project doesn't stop there. According to Williams, the school has begun a permanent collection of pieces donated by visiting artists and, occasionally, students. "We also may purchase some pieces, depending upon what's available," she says. "We're trying to build a natural history art collection. It would really be a taxidermic record, and could also be a traveling exhibit that could be of great interest to people anywhere."

In addition, the school plans a "seventeen-course certificate program where, if people stay with us for about a three-year period, they will graduate with a degree in natural history art and illustration."

Williams says the program will expand this summer with an art camp for disadvantaged inner-city children. Even as it grows, however, the school will remain true to its original goals. "The concept from the very beginning was to bring in students of all ages, including children, and train them in how to observe nature," she says. "In a sense, you're really creating a deep connection with nature, and you're creating conservationists."

Lee's class is taking a breather, when animal keeper Stacy Spurgeon strolls in with a six-inch screech owl adorning her leather wrist cuff. Wide-eyed and no doubt a little floored, the owl swivels its head to take in the room, the feathers of its neck fluttering like fine gray ash. Not sensing much in the way of prey amidst this huddle of paintbrush-wielding women, it stares straight ahead with an unflinching gaze.

Some students snap photos, until Lee asks them to stop. Taking a few pictures is fine, but it's better to take notes--to really see the animal: "I don't want a lens between you and the owl," she says.

"Today, because we have an owl in here, and it has such specific feather patterns around the eyes, I'm asking (the students) to sketch and to write down their observations," she tells a reporter. "Many times when you're out in the field, especially with birds, you don't have time to draw. All you have time to do is write. What it does is keep both sides of the brain engaged."

For example, "Yesterday, I noticed that the size of the beaks students were drawing were coming from here (she points to her head), rather than from here (pointing to her eyes). They were being drawn from old thoughts rather than from actual knowledge. So we've been discussing the lengths of beaks and the size of gapes. On the owl, this becomes even more difficult, because you don't see the whole beak."

Also dispensing tips on how to really see animals is Doug Moore, a Tucson natural science and wildlife illustrator. He totes a long résumé, but is perhaps best known locally for his book, The Nature of Madera Canyon. "You can look at a woodpecker a thousand times, and just say, 'Oh it's a woodpecker,'" he says. "But with this level of observation, the students become intensely involved with the subject. They get to know it, and develop connections. Once people really start seeing things, it makes them start to care about those things.

"One student who took my class said 'You've ruined me! Now every time I walk by a flower I have to stop and see how it's made, what color it is.'"

Priscilla Baldwin was among those who first hatched the idea for this school, with Rick Daley back in Denver. She's nursing a broken toe, but is still game enough to sit in on today's class, which she is funding. "We think we can arouse interest in the whole ecology of the Sonoran Desert," she explains, "and as we go along and build our collection from visiting artists and students, our plan is to send it on an international tour to other museums and zoos, as a way to help them preserve the ecology of their own areas."

Now the students are back at their desks, where Pat Gilchrist has developed a healthy interest in portraying Lee's painted quail wing. A local dog breeder, Gilchrist says this challenge carries an altogether different bite: "I'm trying to get the color down, and it's going to take me awhile."

Gilchrist says she's "loved animals all my life." She also harbors a longtime habit of drawing, "and I finally decided to spend the money to learn how to do it right."

But again, learning art is only part of the educational process at the School of Natural History Art. Lee, Moore and other teachers here are fostering a reverence for all creatures mean or magnificent, from the most elegant falcon to humble dung beetles. "We break it down to the bottom of the chain," Lee says. "We've brought in insects and spiders and ants, and when people really start looking at them and falling in love with their parts and how they move, they find they don't want to step on them anymore.

"You simply can't portray any of these creatures without wanting to protect them."