Category Archives: Art

Google Prompt and Metamorphosis

Embarrassingly enough, I’m finally posting this because of Google. I’ve had notes for ages, but I’m not always good at scrunching a complicated life into a handful of lines, so I’ve been procrastinating on writing about Maria Sibylla Merian. I saw one of her books on display at the Library of Congress last week. Then I saw the Google doodle proclaiming her birthday, and was finally shamed into it!


I have a lot of unusual reference books on my shelves. Perhaps the one that gets the most second glances is my copy of Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam, nestled between my art books.


It is by Maria Sibylla Merian, whose work I first saw years ago at a Rembrandt House special exhibit.


Merian (1647-1717) was one of the first documenters of insect metamorphosis.


She was born into an artistic family–her father was an engraver and publisher, and her stepfather a still life painter who encouraged her talents and taught her along with his (male) students. She was interested in flowers and insects and observed the life cycles of both.


She married her stepfather’s apprentice, moved to Nuremburg, had children, continued painting, designed embroidery patterns and took on (female) students of her own. By teaching their children she got access of the gardens of the elite and studied their insects.


In her time scholars still held onto spontaneous generation–basically the belief than insects and other ‘lower’ creatures were spontaneously created from mud or other debris. For example, that flies came to life from rotted meat.


She illustrated the metamorphosis of insects-showed that caterpillars wove cocoons and turned into butterflies. She painted the stages of these transformations and their host plants. These were collected into her first book in 1675.  The New Book of Flowers ultimately took three volumes to complete. It showed each flower distinctly so that it could be used as a reference for artists and designers of embroidery patterns.


She had a second daughter, published a second book and returned home after her stepfather died. After his estate was settled she left her husband to live in a religious commune.


There she met the governor of the Dutch colonies in Surinam and was introduced to its flora and fauna.


She later moved to Amsterdam, where her work was noticed by the scientific community. She was able to study the collections gathered by the intelligentsia. Her older daughter married a merchant and moved to Surinam, and Merian sold her belongings and was partially sponsored by the city of Amsterdam to travel to Surinam with her younger daughter, Dorthea Maria. They spent two years there studying the local animals and plants–recording the native names and uses–and collecting specimens. She contracted malaria and returned home, publishing books about her experiences and selling the specimens she collected.


She suffered a stroke and died in relative obscurity. It was Peter the Great who ultimately saved her for posterity. He had seen her work before, and heard that the then ailing artist had many works in her collection. Dorthea Maria sold 300 of her mother’s remaining paintings to an agent representing Peter the Great.


He opened his country’s first museum to exhibit them. He also invited Dorthea Maria and her family to Russia. She designed one of his largest scientific exhibitions and her husband became a court painter. After their first exhibition, most of Maria Sibylla Merian’s paintings were closed away in the libraries of St. Petersburg. This kept the delicate paintings safe from sunlight and abuse until their rediscovery centuries later.


It was an adventurous life for a woman of her time. (Anyone, anytime actually.) She traveled long distances to collect information and samples nearly a century before scientific expeditions became the norm. Her studies and use of native names influenced the European terms for some of the creatures, though since she published in the common tongue at a time when science was Latin only, her influence was limited and her observations against spontaneous generation largely ignored. She was a talented outsider rather than part of the scientific community. (If you’d like to read more on her and other early adventure/naturalists, check out Eaten by a Giant Clam, by Joseph Cummins. You’ll probably learn alot about a number of names that sound vaguely familiar.)


Filed under Art, Books, Natural Science

Happy Birthday Dr Seuss!

Seuss was one of the pseudonyms of Theodore Seuss Geisel.


He’d started using it in college when he’d gotten caught drinking (breaking Prohibition) and was forced to quit editing the college humor magazine. He also used L. Pasteur and D. G. Rossetti. (Makes you wonder if the teachers weren’t paying attention or were turning a blind eye…)


When he graduated and started doing cartoons for magazines he signed his work Dr. Theophrastus Seuss. A year later he shortened it to Dr. Seuss. He tried to make a name for himself as a cartoonist and sort of fell into advertising, which became his career.


Before World War II he wrote a piece that became his first children’s book:And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.


During the war he concentrated on political cartoons and doing propaganda and training animations for the military. His work was very supportive of Roosevelt’s handling of the war and went on the offensive against those who criticized Roosevelt back home. (Interestingly, he did cartoons about how racism against the Jews and African Americans was damaging and how it hurt the war effort, yet in his cartoons he treated all Japanese Americans as traitors. The dedicated one of his later books to a Japanese friend. Complicated man.)


After the war he returned to writing children’s books. Why children’s books? His story was that it was the only type of writing that his advertising contracts didn’t forbid. Biographers wonder at the timing-his first book was written the year his wife found out that she couldn’t have children.


The Cat in the Hat was the result of a challenge from Ellsworth Spaulding, director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin.


Spaulding had read a report on illiteracy among schoolchildren which concluded that they didn’t like learning to read because it was boring. Geisel seemed like the right man to change that. Spaulding came up with a list of what he thought were the most important words for first graders to know and narrowed it down to the 250 words, which he gave Geisel.


Nine months later Geisel gave him The Cat in the Hat, using 236 of those words.


It was an enormous hit, and its success inspired Geisel and his wife to start Beginner Books, a division of Random House. (Besides his own work, they published the Berenstain Bears and my childhood favorites, the P.D. Eastman books.)


Green Eggs and Ham came from another bet-write a book using only 50 different works.


He wrote these beginner books with their limited palette of words, as well as continuing to write books with a point. The Lorax dealing with environmental destruction (as he put it-it’s anti-pollution and anti-greed-it’s a powerful book, still challenged in some places and banned in others) and the Butter Battle Book dealing with the terrifying ridiculousness of the nuclear arms race.


Oh, The Places You’ll Go was Geisel’s last book, written in 1990. And left it with good parting advice.


“You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.”

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Losing Altitude

An adorable barn owl plush Arras made awhile back.

Losing Altitude is a kickstarter project I’m tangentially connected with. It will be a collaborative art book highlighting endangered bird species from all over the world.


Arras (animuspanthera on both deviantart and etsy) has gathered dozens of artists (also from all over the world) to illustrate their favorite endangered species in their own unique styles. Each illustration will be accompanied by information about the species.


There’s already have a tease of some of the gorgeous and exuberant art that will be included.


Pia Ravenari is working on some intricate and stunningly colored parrots.


And Tania Avila Villalba has a strikingly austere Javan hawk-eagle.


Not having the illustrative skills to contribute directly I offered some of my tree and key pendants to use toward incentives.


I’m excited this is finally live, kind of silly, but I made a bird treasury on etsy in honor of its inception. I hope it goes, I would really love to see this book in print! (I have a place on my bookshelves all picked out…)


Filed under Art, Books, Natural Science

Topaz seems to be winning…

Erte’s Topaz, a part of his Precious Stones Suite, is a November gem of a different sort. It’s inspired by one of November’s traditional birthstones. (The other two being citrine and tigerseye. Since topaz also inspired a piece by Mucha, I think topaz is hogging the limelight…)


I’ve known of Erte for a long time, and in many ways he’s my touchstone image for Art Deco, but outside of knowing his style I never thought much too much about him.


So I hadn’t stopped to think about that iconic name, as streamlined and deco as his art. Not a surprise that it’s a pseudonym. I always link Erte to Paris, so it was a little more of a surprise is that he was born in Russia. His birth name was Romain de Tirtoff. He used the French pronunciation of his initials to distance himself from his career military family.


Erte was famous for his Art Deco fashion and set designs. Born in 1892 he was lucky enough to not only enjoy being part of the emergence of deco in the 1920s, but lived help its revival in the 1960s and his enduring influence on art and the fashion industry.

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Fibonacci and Spirals

Okay, now this is an *old* poem that I confessed I’d written after someone had asked me if I was familiar with the fibonacci sequence, since it related so well to the ammonites I like to work with. I mostly get the basics but can’t think of a concise way to sum up the importance of the sequence, so I’m cheating and linking to the wikipedia article and a really fun Khan academy video on doodling and spirals and Fibonacci, sorry.


Short explanation, we were given an assignment to write a math and/or science poem. So, being me, I couldn’t decide and did one on the sequence, trying to create an image of its visual impact in a poem where each line contains the number in syllables. (The other was about stamping on Newton’s grave.)


Fibonacci sequence





rose vines, tightening.

the snail in his spiral shelter.

seeds, corkscrewing, maximum life in minimum space.

magical, methodic, unwinding from the center; distance growing greater with every turn.

a silken snake, ready to strike; divine division, a treasure map of beauty’s proportions;

     logarithms trapped in the equiangular coils of nature.

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Tea Break

I posted my ramble on tea the other day, then saw that one of the artists I follow on deviantart had posted a wonderful, elegant digital piece called Tea Break. I just had to share it here!

And since I started following Sayuri over her wonderful sumi-e (and because I love bunnies) I’m practically obliged to show off her rabbit sumi-e too…

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Extinction and Engraving

We saw a northern white rhino (well, the rear of one) at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The guide told us that they’re extinct in the wild, that the last ones left in zoos are too few (and too old) to breed. Conservationists tried to quasi-release some under guard in the wild again some years ago, hoping maybe that would encourage some last minute breeding…

It wasn’t even subtle human messing about with environment or land encroaching so much as poaching. One more species humans hunted out of existence.


For horns.


How do you react to that? I mean, really?


The guide was saying that they’re as happy as animals can be, they’ve food, a lot of land to wander in, and they’re safe. They don’t know that they’re the last of their kind.


My first thought was how surreal it is, to see something alive and *know* it’s extinct. That it’s past the point of no return and will be gone in my lifetime. Fossils are one thing, they’re long gone. I admit that I don’t get pangs working with ammonite fossils. I feel rather more disgusted with our species looking at the bones of megafauna that humans killed off in prehistoric times, though with that at least you can plead ignorance.


It was hot and sticky out and I still had that wet blanket feeling dropped on me feeling. Sometimes it’s really embarrassing to be human. Like you need to apologize to every other species on the planet. (Okay, except perhaps for rats, pigeons and mosquitoes, they’ve done well off of us!)


That was thought one on seeing the rhinos.

Thought two? Durer!







Powerful first impressions,

whispers down the lane…

exotic gift from afar-

mythical beast lost at sea.


When I saw the Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros at the San Diego Zoo I decided that for never having seen one and being really inaccurate, Durer did an excellent job capturing the general power and texture and feel of a rhinoceros. You can’t entirely fault him for adding rivets and plates to the cobblestone hide.

They’re not attractive (okay, so maybe they’re a little cute in an odd way when nibbling at leaves) but boy are they impressive. The ground was dry enough that they were making little dust storms on every exhale.


Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was a German artist with a workshop in Nuremburg. (Though he work was greatly influenced by his travels through Italy.) He worked in a broad range of media-drawing, painting and printing. (Two of my favorite pieces are his young hare and owl, both of which are watercolors.) The delicacy of his lines across styles always astounds me.


Durer’s Rhinoceros is actually a woodcut, not an engraving. It recorded the first arrival of a rhinoceros in Europe in 1000 years. That particular rhinoceros was a gift from an Indian ruler to governor of Portuguese India who then gave it to the King of Portugal. It arrived in Lisbon in May 1515. The king then sent it as a gift to the Pope, but it died in a shipwreck. (Poor thing, talk about regifting!)


A description of it reached Durer in Nuremburg, probably with some sketches.

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