Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Dance of the Honeybee

Honeybee Dance, 9.25" x 12.5", linocut by Ele Willoughby, 2016
Again this year, my friend Christine Pensa of Art That Moves will be curating a pollinator themed 'Bees (& the Birds)' show, May 18 - 29, at Graven Feather Gallery. This was my instigation to make my latest linocut print, though I've been thinking about the diagram which inspired it for years.

Years ago I read the most marvellous speculative essay by Ursula K. Le Guin, 'The Author of the Acadia Seeds' (written in 1974) about therolinguistics, the scholarly study of communication in non-human animals. There is translation of fragmentary ant texts, a discussion of a glossary of Penguin and its assorted dialects with comparisons to Dolphin and other Cetacean languages, Fish texts and so forth. The essay culminates with an editorial calling for the study of possible plant communication or art... but warning, "For it is simply not possible to bring the critical and technical skills appropriate to the study of Weasel murder mysteries*, or Batrachian erotica, or the tunnel sagas of the earthworm, to bear on the art of the redwood or the zucchini," - to give you a taste of this wondrous fiction. What I particularly love is that it is written not as science fiction so much as speculative science, much in the same way that I am trying to write about my imaginary miniature linocut menagerie in progress.  And of course, in the 40 some odd years since Le Guin wrote her essay, there has been a lot of actual scientific progress on animal communication - and in fact language. Not only are there non-human primates who have been taught to sign, but there is evidence that animals have words (including evidence of prairie dogs who "describe" humans by size and clothing colour, or gibbons who have specific words for cloud leopard or snake, and of course the incredible complexity observed in whale song, as explained in this great blog I stumbled upon while trying to recall the name of Le Guin's essay). For that matter, there has been significant progress in studying plant communication too!

You may have heard about honeybee communication and how they pass information from one another through dance. One of the sorts of dance is the subject of my print. A worker bee can return to the hive and through the way it aligns itself with respect to the sun and the honeycomb, the waggles and loops of its movement convey information on the location in terms of distance and direction of tasty flower pollen sources to its fellow bees.

'Bees of Toronto' and description and images of some of my bee art.
I am considering making a more complex piece which incorporates this print along with other types of bees, to submit to the show. Part of my motivation is to "think locally". Honey bees are not native to North America. While the Colony Collapse Disorder is of great concern and honey bees are very popular, if our aim is to protect pollinators, we should perhaps focus attention on native bees. In fact, as York University's Prof. Sheila Colla points out, European honey bees are in fact "fierce competitors for pollen and nectar and can transmit diseases to our wild bees" and that we should encourage biodiversity of pollinators for ecosystem health, rather than encouraging the honey bee. I've been thinking about all this particularly since I recently received copies of 'Bees of Toronto,' which has been in the works for a few years now.  Part of their ongoing series about biodiversity in the city, it includes information about the hundreds of bee species who live here, where and when you can see them and what you can do to help our beleaguered pollinators. It also includes some cultural history of bees in Toronto and features the work of local artists (visual art, sound and poetry) inspired by bees, including my linocut and multimedia bee series. I especially love the gorgeous photos from the bee researchers at York University. If you're interested in our urban wildlife and conservation you should check this series out! Full pdf of released volumes can be found online. Complete with introduction by Margaret Atwood (and I am chuffed to think my words are published in the same book as hers).

*This also makes me happy because as a child, my mother kept my brothers and I occupied by telling us stories on long car trips, and I'll always remember the lengthy gopher murder mystery she spun as we slowly crossed the Prairies.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

SciArt, women and wunderkammers

my linocut portraits of women in STEM, left to right, top to bottom:
Hypatia, Skłodowska-Curie, Nightingale, Atkins, Leavitt, Jemison, Merian and Lamarr

my linocut portraits of women in STEM, left to right, top to bottom:
Anning, Wu, Lovelace, Lehmann, Kovalevski, Tharp, Bell (Burnell), Meitner, Herschel

I'm sharing my women in STEM portraits for International Women's Day today. We're fresh off the second annual #SciArt tweetstorm, which is rapidly becoming a fabulous institution on Twitter. For the second year, the first week of March has been a celebration of the place where art and science intersect - everything from technical drawings and data visualizations to comics to fine art in all media to textiles and fashion and basically, whatever you can imagine. It's a great way to find like-minded creators and share your work, brought to us by the great team at the Symbiartic blog on Scientific American.

Like other participants I'm really thankful for this opportunity to connect with a greater audiance. This just blows my mind. I've shared my leaf prints before and usually get great feedback, a few favorites and retweets, but during the tweetstorm this was the response:

Though my friend @faunalia likes to think I'm some sort of craft celebrity, I'm not remotely famous and 107 retweets and 130 favorites are astronomical numbers for me! The tweetstorm brought my art to the eyes of chemists and plant scientists. It really has the power to help bring people together and forge a SciArt community.

Some SciArt from TEST teammates: The Vexed Muddler,
Slashpile Designs, nanopod, The Chemist Tree, Honey Thistle,
HOPSCOTCH, Tanya Harrison Photo and Wild Whimsy Woolies
During February, the Toronto Etsy Street Team did a daily #WeBeTEST Instagram challenge, and that too was great for community building. On Valentine's we shared some love of our teammates work and amongst other things, I wrote about other science-artists on the team. I've long been a fan of the otherworldly jewellery and sculpture metal and glasswork of Tosca from nanopod. You can see that Haeckel is a influence to her too, along with myth and some of the more astounding natural history. You can find radiolarians, jellyfish and other biomorphic forms in her work. She's decided to add a some retail to her studio and teaching space Nanotopia (322 Harbord St, at Grace). She's invited Honey Thistle and Never Wares and I to also sell a cabinet of curiosity of items, along with her works, minerals, fossils, bones, taxidermy and other strange ephemera! So I brought her some small prints of weird (real and imaginary) creatures as well as some stuffed animals (extant and extinct) today. Next week, two women from Brooklyn's Morbid Anatomy Museum and Evolution store will be in town and teaching Entomology 101 and Jackalope and Squirrel taxidermy mounts at Nanotopia. The retail space is planned to coincide with their visit March 11 -13. If you're in the neighbourhood you should go check it out! To be honest, this is pretty well my definition of cool and it was all I could do not to squeal with delight and act like I'm a professional grown-up doing something normal and every day, because how cool is that?

This is a photo I took of the window of Evolution, NYC, June 18, 2011
The Morbid Anatomy blog, by the way,  is somewhere you could loose hours of your life if you too are inspired by the intersection of art and science, or love magpie&whiskeyjack but wish it were more gothic.

Tosca said she would like more stuffed things and I think I really must make tardigrades. By the way, I printed a linocut tardigrade last week. If you don't know, these mighty microscopic creatures of 0.5 mm (0.02") maximum in length are found in environments from mountaintops to the deep sea, from tropical rain forests to the Antarctic, and can survive conditions leathal to most other animals including: temperature ranges from near absolute zero 1 K (−458 °F; −272 °C) to about 420 K (300 °F; 150 °C); roughly six times the pressures found in the deepest oceanic trenches on Earth; ionizing radiation at dosages hundreds of times what would kill a mere human; the vaccuum of space. That's right; these animals have been to outer space and lived to tell the tale (or, at least lived and had someone tell the tale). The can go without food for 30 years, dehydrate, and then just rehydrate and go about their lives.
Tardigrade, linocut 8.5" x 11" on Japanese paper, Ele Willoughby, 2016

Tardigrades have short, plump legs and are prevalent in mosses and lichens and feed on plant cells, algae, and small invertebrates, hence their second nickname in case "water bear" isn't cute enough for you: the moss piglet. Tardigrades have been around at least 530 million years to the Cambrian. Don't you think it would make a cuddly plushie?

When you're done catching up on the #SciArt hashtag on Twitter, be sure to look up #5womenartists - another great one for this #WomensHistoryMonth. It occurs to me that all the work I'm writing about here today are all by women artists, and if you like what I do, you'll love their work too.