Monday, October 26, 2015

Maria Sibylla Merian, Entomologist, Scientific Illustrator, Explorer of Gardens and the New World

Maria Sibylla Merian
Linocut portrait 'Maria Sibylla Merian' by Ele Willoughby, 2015

This is a linocut portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), leading entomologist of her day, traveller and scientific illustrator. She is shown complete with pomegranate branch and the life cycle of a morpho butterfly from caterpillar, to chrysalis in its cocoon to butterfly, inspired by her famous work 'Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium' - a process she carefully documented and explained. Each print is 11" by 14" (27.9 cm by 35.6 cm), on white Japanese kozo paper with collaged or "chine-collé" hand printed Japanese papers in beige, umber for the cocoon, caterpillar and two views of the butterfly in umber and blue.

The German-born naturalist came from a Swiss family who founded one of one of Europe's largest publishing houses in the 17th century. This allowed her early access to many books on natural history. After she lost her father at age three, and her mother remarried still life painter Jacob Marrel. Her step-father and his students trained her as an artist. She began painting insects and plants by 13. She wrote, "I spent my time investigating insects. At the beginning, I started with silk worms in my home town of Frankfurt. I realized that other caterpillars produced beautiful butterflies or moths, and that silkworms did the same. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed".

She married her step-father's apprentice Johann Andreas Graff, they had a daughter Johanna Helena, and moved to his home city of Nurenburg. She was able to contribute to the family income by painting, creating embroidery designs, and teaching drawing lessons to unmarried daughters of wealthy families, something which also allowed her access to the finest gardens where she continued collecting and documenting. She published her first book of natural illustrations, titled Neues Blumenbuch, in 1675 at age 28. In 1679, she first published her insect research in a two-volume, illustrated book focusing on insect metamorphosis. She moved twice to be with her mother after her step-father's death, then to join her half-brother at a Labadist religious community. She also split with her husband. After her mother's death, she moved to Amsterdam in 1691 and divorced her husband in 1692.

In Amsterdam, she was able to observe some of the collections of insects which had been brought back from Suriname. She became curious whether the life cycles of the exotic butterflies and other insects mirrored those Europe species she knew well. She was able to secure the city of Amsterdam's permission and and travel grant to travel to Suriname in South America, along with her younger daughter Dorothea Maria. She further funded her travels by selling 255 paintings. She planned a five year mission to study insects, making her perhaps the first person to plan a proper scientific expedition!

She travelled throughout the colony sketching insects and plants. She criticized the Dutch planters treatment of indigenous people and black slaves (though she relied upon amerindian slaves in her residence and her excursions, and brought a young amerindian woman named Indianin back with her to Holland). She used local native names for the plants and described local uses. Malaria likely cut her expedition short and forced her return to the Dutch Republic in 1701. She sold her collected specimen and in 1705 she published Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium about the insects of Suriname.

She suffered a stroke in 1715 which left her partially paralysed and died a pauper in 1717. Her daughter Dorothea published Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis, a collection of her mother's work, posthumously. Both Dorothea and Johanna followed their mother's lead and became botanical illustrators.

Modern scholars now appreciate her pioneering scientific work as well as the beauty of her scientific illustrations. During her life time insects were still reviled and people still put credence in the Aristotelian idea that they were spontaneously generated or "born of mud". She meanwhile detailed the life cycle of 186 species and explained the poorly-understood or even unknown process of metamorphosis. Science was conducted in Latin and her publications were in the vernacular, making them more popular with high society than contemporary scientists. Despite her knowledge and original research contributions she was not really recognized as a scientist in her day (though Carl Linnæus (1707-1778), father of taxonomy, did cite her in his Systema Naturæ of 1753). It was very unusual for a woman in her day to pursue science, let alone travel the world in its pursuit. She was able to do so because she began her studies with the accessible - animals she could find in her own backyard, and become the leading expert on metamorphosis. During her great expedition, she also noted their habitats, feeding habits and uses to indigenous people. Her classification of butterflies and moths are still relevant today. She detailed plants, frogs, snakes, spiders, iguanas, and tropical beetles and was the first European to describe both army ants and leaf cutter ants as well as their effect on other organisms.

Her work had a strong influence on future scientific illustration. Her work shows great accuracy and she was the first to illustrate the complete life cycle of insects. In her time, funding her expedition and her unladylike devotion to insects was ridiculed, but she is remembered as one of the best insect and flower illustrators of all time. Her daughters and student Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) all went on to be renown botanical illustrators.

Shortly after her death, Peter the Great saw and purchased a large number of her works in Amsterdam. Her portrait was printed on the 500 DM note before Germany converted to the euro. Her portrait has also appeared on a 0.40 DM stamp and two American 32 cent stamps. Many schools, place names, a scientific research vessel and a crater on Venus have been named in her honour.

One last tidbit (or two) for you history of science buffs: Dorothea's daughter, Maria Sibylla Merian's granddaughter married mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707-1783). Maria Sibylla Merian was also first cousin to Jacob Christoph Le Blon (1667-1741), painter and engraver who invented the four colour printing process (using an RYBK color model similar to the modern CMYK system).

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Botanist and Photographic Pioneer Anna Atkins - for Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace, 3rd edition
Ada, Countess Lovelace, 3rd edition linocut by Ele Willoughby
Today is the 7th annual international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology, science and math, Ada Lovelace Day 2015 (ALD15). I'm sure you'll all recall, Ada, brilliant proto-software engineer, daughter of absentee father, the mad, bad, and dangerous to know, Lord Byron, she was able to describe and conceptualize software for Charles Babbage's computing engine, before the concepts of software, hardware, or even Babbage's own machine existed! She foresaw that computers would be useful for more than mere number-crunching. For this she is rightly recognized as visionary - at least by those of us who know who she was. She figured out how to compute Bernouilli numbers with a Babbage analytical engine. Tragically, she died at only 36. Today, in Ada's name, people around the world are blogging.
You can find my previous Ada Lovelace Day posts here. 
This year, I thought I'd take the opposite approach from last year. I wrote about Marie Skłodowska-Curie last year, despite her fame and the risk that she was likely the only women in STEM that many people can name. I chose to write about her because it was artificial to avoid her; she really did make incredible discoveries and lived an extraordinary life. This year, I've selected a scientist who is rather new to me, and who was not an icon of science. She was nonetheless a pioneer. I've selected her because she is precisely the sort of scientist we forget - especially if female. What she did was important, and cutting edge in her time, and while it may not have been epochmaking it was the sort of important, incremental, methodical work which represents much of the scientific entreprise, and most of the advance of science throughout history. I believe the concept of the "paradigm shift" might be useful, but it is often dangerously simplistic and leads to a false narrative of a series of great men (almost invariably it is a man who is selected to represent the bringer of the new idea) revolutionizing science. Science, and its history, is more often much more involved, non-linear, over-lapping and interwoven than this type of narrative presents. Lastly, I love that this particular scientist was working at the intersection of art and science.

Anna Atkins with ferns
This is a portrait of English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1871), née Children. It combines both a hand-carved lino block portrait in dark silver ink, and a screenprint of the silhouette of fern leaves in cobalt blue ink, mimicking the cyanotypes she was known for. It is printed by hand on lovely Japanese kozo (or mulberry) paper, 11" x 14" (28 cm x 35.6 cm). (c) Ele Willoughby, 2015

Anna Atkins (1799-1871), née Children, was an English botanist and photographer. She is the first person to have illustrated a book using photographs, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in October 1843. Note that: not the first woman, the first person. She lived at a time when it was possible to be a self-trained scientist, especially if you were middle or upper class and received an education and the financial freedom to devote your time to pursue your subject. (The Mary Annings of the world, who managed to make a name for themselves in science despite her class, religions and complete lack of financial ressources, are rare indeed). She was raised and instructed by her father, a naturalist, and her social circle included those who were developing (no pun intended) the latest, brand new photographic technology. So, she was at the right place at the right time. But that doesn't take away from the fact that she had the knowledge, skill, insight and ability to immediately see the utility of the method for descriptive science and to document a specific field of sub-field of botany, with her collection of the algae (seaweeds) of Britain. I think this should be understood as equivalent to a modern-day scientist keeping abreast of other fields of study and rapidly mastering a new high-tech tool to apply it to her field. Even William Henry Fox Talbot, who who invented the salted paper and calotype processes, precursors to modern photographic methods, was not able to publish The Pencil of Nature the first commercially printed photographic book, until eight months after she produced Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

Her mother died when she was still an infant, but she was close with her naturalist father and received a much more scientific education than was common for women in her time. Her 250 detailed engravings of shells were used to illustrate her father's translation of Lamarck's 'Genera of Shells'. This translation was important to the nomenclature of shells, because her illustration allowed readers to properly identify Lamarck's genera. She married John Pelly Atkins in 1825 and devoted herself to botany and collecting specimen, including for Kew Gardens. In 1839, she became a member of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, one of the few scientific organizations open to women. She became interested in algae, after William Henry Harvey published A Manual of the British marine Algae in 1841.

Through her father, she was friends with both William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel, who (amongst other things) invented the cyanotype photographic process in 1842. Within a single year of its invention, she self-published the first known book of illustrated with cyanotype photographs and was likely one of the two first women to make a photograph. She recorded her seaweed specimen for posterity by making photograms by placing the unmounted dried-algae original directly on the cyanotype paper. Atkins self-published her photograms in the first installment of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in October 1843, and two further volumes in the next decade. She collaborated with Anne Dixon (1799–1864) to produce further books of cyanotypes on ferns and flowering plants and also published other non-scientific or photographic books. In 1865, she donated her collections to the British Museum.

I've shown her based on an early photographic portrait, along with some fern leaves which I've worked with directly, much how she illustrated her own specimen.

Have a look at her cyanotypes and a video of one of the surviving copies of her book.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Minouette at the Big Magic Pop-Up Toronto Etsy Street Team Market

Earlier this year, Penguin Random House Canada contacted the Toronto Etsy Street Team and to ask for help staging a little pop-up market. They let us know that they were planning the book tour for  Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, the worldwide bestelling author of Eat, Pray, Love, and since this book was all about creativity, what it is and how to nurture it, how to welcome ideas and how everyone can live a creative life, they thought that partnering with Etsy sellers was a great fit. We loved the idea of welcoming creativity into your life, and celebrating Gilbert's book with a handmade market. Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for the invitation and our hosts Indigo at the event! The audience at the Isabel Bader Theatre on Monday, September 28th had a chance to shop the market of a variety of 22 different handmade sellers before and after Gilbert discussed her book.
They kindly sent me an advance copy of the book. I had thought I didn't need a pep talk about creativity, since I tend to feel compelled to create, but it was so enjoyable to delve into the question of the nature and source of creativity and ideas. My thoughts are a bit more hard-headed and unsurprisingly scientific than hers. I heard her interviewed on Q where she joked about her own pre-Enlightenment magical thinking take on ideas, which (whom?) she almost personifies - or imagines as a daemon. Thus I enjoyed her stories about her own experience interacting with ideas the way I love magical realism in fiction. The pragmatic advice, kindness and compassion which she brings to her exhortation to pursue the creative outlets that make you truly you is something I needed more than I knew, and I would recommend to anyone. You can read more about what Elizabeth Gilbert has learned about creativity and shares in the book on the Etsy Blog

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Minouette at Etsy: Made in Canada Toronto 2015

Me at the minouette table at Etsy: Made in Canada, September 26th at MaRS (photo credit: Peter Power)
Well, we pulled it off for a second year running! I'm really proud of the tremendous show we put on this Saturday. Totally exhausting, but it looked fabulous, there was a great crowd and a great feeling to the show. I love seeing that thousands of Torontonians come out to see our great local (and some farther afield Canadian) sellers and shop their handmade and vintage wares. I had several people stop and talk with me and when they realized I was an organizer of the show, volunteer that they felt it was the best craft show in the city.

Our enthusiastic fans began arriving at 5:30 am for a chance at getting a swag bag! This is the line outside MaRS at 7:30 am, when we already had 69 lucky people who would get one of the 100 swag bags. The swag bags were pretty awesome. I saw some of the incredibly generous donations from sellers before the bags were stuffed and was blown away... in fact, I started to worry that my swag offerings were inadequate. Some people really outdid themselves. (photo: Ele Willoughby)

photo credit: Peter Power

photo credit: Peter Power
photo credit: Peter Power

Throughout the day, there were eight workshops, free to the public - both DIY handmade items and how to assess and care for vintage items. I'm so impressed with what people will take on. One teacher volunteered despite also getting married and having her honeymoon this month. Another teacher sadly had a family emergency, but handled the situation with consideration and grace and quickly helped us find one of her friends and colleagues who could take her place. I'd like to thank all the workshop leaders and these three in particular (you know who you are!).

We had some minor snafus (last minute security requests for tables to be moved, brief electrical disruptions, missing chairs), but nothing we couldn't handle and we were able to get help from our hosts.

The crowd was as engaged as last year. I got questions like, "Is this woodcut? And this chine collé?" which pretty much tells me they are educated about printmaking. One shopper got excited and asked if a portrait was of Jane Austen. I had to tell her though it was the right era, the portrait was of astronomer Caroline Herschel, to which she replied, "Well, that explains the comets." There was a great mix of people of all ages. At one point, I ran into my son's pediatrician, who asked, "What are you doing here?" and I replied, "I'm running the show!"

photo credit: Peter Power
I think I should maybe sleep for a month now! But no rest for me. I had the Big Magic pop-up market already, on Monday (more on that soon), and I have my sights on the One of a Kind Show in November.

I've written a longer post about Etsy: Made in Canada Toronto on the team blog here. You should check out our #EtsyMICToronto hashtag on Instagram to see some of the amazing things which were there.

Thanks to everyone who came out, and made this possible! Especially my super fabulous collection of fellow organizers from TEST and 416Hustler, who are the best. Period. Thank you to all the talented vendors who made the show look and feel amazing and for all your kind words. I really appreciate it. Thank you to the volunteers (especially Becca, who helped me in particular), Pete for the great photos, and of course, Etsy Canada, MaRS, and our sponsors.