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Art and Biodiversity

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by Worldchanging SF local blogger, Gwen Rose

You may recognize Isabella Kirkland's work, which graces the front and back covers of E.O. Wilson’s book, The Future of Life. The Sausalito local is an accomplished artist -- this year her work can be seen at TED2007, the Natural Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. and she'll be featured in a book by UN World Museum called "Art in Action."

I’ve absorbed more about the intricacies of ecosystems and the complexities of biodiversity by standing in front of the paintings of Isabella Kirkland than I’ve been able to eek out of an entire college semester on the same subjects. (And I mean that more as a testament to her amazing body of work than a statement about my academic prowess.) Lest you think I’m exaggerating, peruse her website,, and you’ll find at least six paintings from her TAXA series available for viewing in rich detail. A great educational resource in itself, the website includes a species key for each painting and narratives for select species (did you know that we have Viagra to thank for reducing demand for Black Rhino horns?). Each painting can take more than a year to complete –- and that probably doesn’t include the time spent studying each of the subjects.

As I started my research for this post, I found a story by Stewart Brand on the artist, first printed in the Whole Earth Magazine in 2000. I’d be hard-pressed to say it better than Stewart Brand, so here is an excerpt from that article:

Some species lose, some win. Isabella Kirkland's remarkable paintings reflect the current state of play. With rare objectivity, one painting shows a bouquet of 61 species described as "descendant" (i.e. endangered), the other hands us an equally beautiful bouquet of 67 "ascendant" species (usually described as "invader" or "weed" species). The ring-billed gull is busy winning these days, and the golden-cheeked warbler is busy losing. Fade up background music of the old disco tune -- "Ah, ah, ah, ah. Stayin' alive. Stayin' alive."

Is there a so what? It's such a pleasure in these paintings to see species endangerment put in perspective. We get to revisit why we care. 1) Winning is always temporary; extinction always permanent -- that ratchet forces our attention toward the extinction side. 2) These particular winners are major displacers; when they arrive, other species disappear, often resulting in net impoverishment of local biocomplexity. 3) The current high rate of displacement and extinction is our doing; we're the ones disrupting habitat so much that "weed" species get the advantage; we're the ones globalizing species dispersal to the great advantage of invaders.

In the "ascendant" painting, where is the most displacing species of all, homo sapiens? (Typical statistic: there was once 99 species of land birds in the Hawaiian islands; the arrival of Polynesians and then Europeans reduced that number to 32, and 19 of those are approaching extinction.) The human in the picture is the one behind your eye.

The other human manifest in both paintings is the artist. Kirkland adopted the oil and varnish techniques of the old European masters so she could combine great permanence in the images with fine depiction of detail. The original paintings are 3 feet by 4 feet, yet they reward study with a magnifying glass -- in fact study that close is needed to complete the "Where's Waldo?" game of finding every species in each painting. That's appropriate. Finding those species in the real world is even harder. The story of species is also a detective story.

-- from the All Species Foundation website.

Isabella’s next project is Species Nova -- a study of significant new discoveries made of heretofore unclassified specimen (in some cases families, genera) and the website should have additions soon from the forthcoming series.

Image: Detail of Kirkland's "Gone" (2004) from her TAXA series

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