Sonoran Salvation: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum combines art, conservation in new book

Part museum, part zoo, part art studio, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has brought Tucson residents closer to desert wildlife for more than 60 years. Beyond an appreciation for the beauty of our surrounding landscape, the Desert Museum aims to help visitors understand and connect with nature through live animal demonstrations, classes and community events. “Treasured Legacies,” a new book from the Desert Museum, traces Tucson conservation efforts within a crossroads of art and education. 

The book features large, vibrant scratchboard illustrations from local artist Priscilla Baldwin, as well as archival photographs, interviews with local biologists, and a history of the museum.

All of the illustrated animals in the book are native to the Sonoran Desert and are either currently or formerly housed at the Desert Museum. Many of the animals were previously featured in “Desert Ark,” an outreach program started in the 1950s where Desert Museum member Hal Gras brought animals into schools and clubs to give residents in-person education about desert animals. 

“Many adults today will tell the tale of Hal coming to their classroom and as they were leaving the exhibition, all the students would reach out and touch the animals he brought, like a snake. And for some of them, that was the first time they touched a snake,” said Anne Warner, who co-authored the book and is a longtime supporter of the Desert Museum.

The book also highlights the Desert Museum’s ongoing “Raptor Free Flight” program, where birds like falcons, ravens and owls fly over visitors. 

However, the book is based around Baldwin’s scratchboard art: a unique form of “subtractive art” where bits of colored clay are sliced off to reveal different colors beneath. Baldwin’s incredibly detailed art is almost photorealistic, such as depicting the individual hairs of a sleeping mountain lion on the book’s cover. 

“Priscilla Baldwin was the muse behind the book,” Warner said. “She’s a very talented scratchboard artist, and she became a co-founder of the Art Institute at the Desert Museum. Priscilla, in her work, became fascinated with the conservation work of Hal Gras and the Desert Ark from way back at the beginning of the museum. She really wanted to capture the conservation message it epitomized.”

So the story goes, Baldwin’s friends wanted to see a collection of her work. The idea gradually grew, and soon the Desert Museum staff decided to put together a book that captured several elements of the museum, such as historic conservation, art, and modern conservation efforts.

“We realized we didn’t just want to look at the history of the museum and conservation at the museum, but we wanted to look at what the museum and other museums might face as challenges in the future,” Warner said, who worked on the book for roughly two years. “The museum does have a loyal following, and we want to foster that support for the museum and conservation efforts. But having said that, we also hope new readers and visitors will be drawn into the amazingly graphic art of Priscilla, and also the conservation efforts.” 

Other conservation efforts from the Desert Museum include a captive breeding program for the Mexican wolf to reintroduce them to their natural habitats, the Save Our Saguaros campaign to fight invasive grasses in the Sonoran Desert, and a program to support migratory pollinators. 

“We want to give people a feel for what conservation can look like. And that’s one of the things the Art Institute does so well,” Warner said. “Because you can take a class at the Art Institute and watch a live animal interact with its keeper. Once you begin to look at the way nature expresses itself, you have the opportunity to be drawn in more and more.” 

Warner says Baldwin serves as the ultimate example of this transformation. In the book, Baldwin explains how she came to a realization while doing a botanical illustration—a realization that would eventually lead her to co-found the Desert Museum’s Art Institute with her husband in 1998. 

“She was always interested in conservation, but it was more in the back of her mind,” Warner said. “But then she began to take art classes and watched a wasp interact with a flower, and she told me a lightbulb went off. She said, ‘This is the gift of life that I want to convey.’”

Other contributors for “Treasured Legacies” are Desert Museum librarian and archivist Peggy Larson, executive director Craig Ivanyi, and former executive director Bob Edison. 

 

“Treasured Legacies: Conservation, Art, Education, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum” is currently available at DesertMuseumArts.com/treasured-legacies-book

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