Kate Breakey had lived in the Sonoran Desert for only six months when a bark scorpion attacked her in the middle of the night.
It crawled across her shoulder in the dark. Breakey woke up and tried to flick it off, and the unseen creature took the opportunity to sting her not once, but twice: on a shoulder and on a hand.
The pain was excruciating, the artist said one day last week at Etherton Gallery, where exactly 100 of her photograms of dead desert animals—including a bark scorpion—hang in ghostly splendor.
Her husband was out of town, and she was alone, separated from her new neighbors by four acres of desert. She knew she had to find whatever had attacked her, so she dismantled her bed, pulling off the sheets, tumbling the pillows out of their cases and, finally, in desperation, dragging the mattress to the floor. The scorpion tried to scramble away, and Breakey managed to catch it in a glass jar.
Still in pain, she consulted her new books on desert fauna and flora. She identified her attacker—and learned the reassuring news that the last fatality from that species had been way back in the 1950s. If it didn't exactly save her life, the artist's painstaking approach saved her from a scary trip to the hospital in the middle of the night.
"Deep down, I want to be a biologist," the Australia native says.
At the heart of Breakey's art is a scientist's curiosity about the natural world, joined with an artist's passion for its heartbreak and beauty. She's made her considerable reputation by documenting and photographing the desert's dead—the owls, lizards and birds she finds on her walks through the desert or gets from neighbors. She doesn't ever kill the critters; the bark scorpion in the show died a natural death, she says. She let her own attacker scurry out into the night.
For her acclaimed series Small Deaths, shown at Etherton over the years, she made giant photographs of the dead creatures, particularly birds, blowing them up to human size, and then altering them with painted marks and colored pencil lines.
"It's between painting and drawing and photography," she says. "I'm playing with perception, I'm muddying up, blurring the line between photography and painting. I like that."
The work in her new show once again depicts desert animals that have departed this mortal coil, but it's quite different from previous outings. (The exhibition, Poetics of Light, also includes work by Masao Yamamoto, and James Hajicek/Carol Panaro-Smith.)
The media in Breakey's new pieces are as mixed as in the old—she's covered the photographic paper with a layer of translucent golden paint and toned them sepia to give them a Victorian look—but they're not exactly photographs. They're contact prints, called photograms or photogenic drawings. No camera is involved.
Breakey drags the animals' actual corpses—including the big coyote that appears in different poses in three of the works—into her studio, lays them out on photosensitive paper and shines a bright light on them. Then she removes the bodies, for later burial, and gives the paper a chemical bath in the darkroom. The haunting outlines of the bodies—a roadrunner, a great horned owl, a desert cottontail, a rattlesnake, spiny lizards and that coyote—gradually emerge onto the shadowy paper.
"This is the earliest kind of photography," Breakey says. "I was first doing this way back in art school," at the South Australian School of Art. "It's the simplest, lowest form of making images."
Photography's inventors tinkered with the process as early as the 1830s. The Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot is credited with making the first photogenic drawings, putting objects on light-sensitive paper and exposing them to the sun. Set out in the light, a fern, say, would gradually appear as an image in white on the paper.
Breakey says her photograms are particularly inspired by the work of Anna Atkins, a 19th-century Englishwoman. Like Breakey herself, Atkins was fascinated by the natural world and wanted to present and preserve it through art. She documented seaweed and algae in beautiful cyanotypes, a kind of photogram that has a deep-blue background, like the sunprints that kids make in the desert light.
"I've known her images for years," Breakey says. And for years, Breakey's been making her own photograms in the studio almost as an afterthought. Photographic paper spoils if it's kept too long, "fogging" up into gray, and the photograms became an efficient way to use it up.
"I was doing this on the side to use up ruined paper, ages ago, and the work accumulated. I had those animals"—photographed for Small Deaths—"and I would make a photogram before burying them." Eventually, the pictures started looking like a new series.
Emphasizing their link to the past, Breakey writes the scientific Latin names of the animal—Canis latraus for coyote, Sylvilagus audobonii for the desert cottontail—in a silvery antique script on the paper, and frames them in ancient thrift-store frames.
She's best-known for her big birds, but Breakey has done all kinds of photography. Back in Australia, she made large-scale landscape photographs and life-size portraits of Aboriginal people. But she's never done cityscapes. She was always attached to the natural world, she says, after growing up in a country town in the south, in an extended family of gardeners, greenhouse builders and animal rescuers.
When she and her husband, a scientist, left home for the University of Texas at Austin in 1988, she panicked that she had lost her art sources as well as her homeland.
"What was I going to make art about? In Texas, I felt completely lost," she says. "So I went out into that natural world and saw new birds, animals and plants. I learned about it and loved it. It was a way of finding myself again, a way of making art again about what I cared about."
She did the same thing in Tucson, where she and her husband moved 11 years ago. She loves the desert, she says. "It's always in a state of longing. It wants moisture so badly. It goes to extraordinary lengths to survive."
And even if her first close encounter with a Sonoran Desert critter ended in two painful stings, she loves its animals, too. Neighbors and friends provide her with a steady stream of dead ones. A friend who is a caretaker at a local ranch "gave me the roadrunner. He found the little rattlesnake and the whiptail snake. He's forever calling me."
The coyote came to her via a neighbor.
The woman called to say, "There's a dead coyote in the road." It had been hit by a car.
"I went rushing out," Breakey says, because animals "don't last long in the desert." But it was so big, "I worried it wouldn't fit under my enlarger. I picked it up in my arms." Luckily, it wasn't too bloody, and she hauled it in her car to the refrigerator in her guesthouse, already full of animal corpses.
The next day, she made three reverential photograms of the coyote's body.
"My art," she says, "is about connection to all living things on Earth. The photograms burn into the photographic papers with light and love."