This Friday October 22nd is the public opening for the new public display cases located outside of the Insect Museum. Everyone is invited to attend the opening starting at 4:00 p.m (in the hallway outside 4302 Gardner Hall, NCSU).
One of the display cases at the North Carolina State Insect Museum is now a curated exhibition space for small paintings, drawings, sound, video and original photographs from artists enthusiastic about insects. The display case is ‘revitalized’ following the artist’s instructions and becomes a short-term public exhibit for the Insect Museum. Ripley Whiteside is an obvious choice for the first artist in the series because his work deals directly with old collections and giving them new life; reworking the past into the present. Ripley also worked in Chapel Hill North Carolina until recently so his inspiration comes from our native species and our infrastructure refuse (notice the stamp on the collection box pictured below). Ripley’s work will be on exhibition until the first of the year and is viewable to the public during normal business hours.
Interview with the artist Ripley Whiteside:
Q: There is a long tradition of natural historians as illustrative artists including John James Audubon, Ernst Haeckel, and many, many others. Who of the characters that are both artist and natural historian do you admire? Are any of them still working?
Ripley: The entire league of naturalist-artists is a major source of inspiration for me. I’m a great admirer of these two, especially Audubon. I got to see the double-elephant folio editions of Birds of America, which rendered me totally awestruck. William Bartram is especially of interest because of the work he did in the Carolinas. The contemporary take on artists as natural historians is fascinating – these artists do not have the duty of furthering science, and the realm of their art becomes a critical playground. Of many, a few I admire most are Mark Dion, Cornelia Hesse-Honeggar, and Nina Katchadourian. Dion once made a piscatorial exhibit of specimens collected exclusively in Chinatown. Hesse-Honeggar is a scientific illustrator who makes beautiful watercolors of mutated insect specimens she finds in nuclear fallout areas. I’ve only recently come across Katchadourian. She has repaired spider webs with red thread, replaced dainty leaves with even more dainty insect wings, and dressed a rat as a snake and a snake as a rat. She’s got a great website: http://www.ninakatchadourian.com
Q: Did you grow up in a collection atmosphere or visit a lot of museums when you were young? How do you feel modern methods in natural history has changed the ‘feeling’ of collections? Do high-resolution photographs have the same response as ink drawings?
Ripley: I had a formative experience as a boy when my family and I were given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Museum of Natural History in NYC. A friend of my grandmothers showed us around what seemed like miles of hallways, lined floor to ceiling with drawers full of specimens. This immediately struck me as infinitely more interesting than the exhibits on the other side of those walls. Another important visit was to the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. They’ve got a stuffed dodo. It is also a site featured prominently in Chris Marker’s La Jetee. Both my parents are collectors of sorts so picking something up and bringing it home feels natural. My dad has assembled a couple of decks of cards entirely from cards he and enlisted friends have found on the street. My mother is an advocate for artisan groups scattered across the globe and she makes a living trotting around the world collecting interesting and beautiful things.
Q: How do you feel modern methods in natural history has changed the ‘feeling’ of collections?
Ripley: From my not very informed perspective it seems like natural history has fallen victim to the same issues of specialization that are affecting much of the arts and sciences. The retrospectively simplistic system of collecting, observing, and preserving seems to get lost, or maybe at least loses significance. While mountains of data are vastly increasing our knowledge as a whole there is maybe ground lost when it comes to the individual and their relationship to their subject of study. That relationship – the specimen and the scientist- is especially interesting to me.
Q: Do high-resolution photographs have the same response as ink drawings?
Ripley: I think photography and natural history have a strange relationship. Roger Tory Peterson (the author and illustrator of the first modern field guide) said, “A drawing can do much more than a photograph to emphasize the field marks. A photograph is a record of a fleeting instant; a drawing is a composite of the artist’s experience” (1980). The drawn image is more informative. Of course, the field of photography has made leaps and bounds affording control down to the minutest level, but there is something irreplaceable to be found in the hand drawn image made from observation. The artist with pen in hand may have a more intimate experience of the specimen than the artist with the camera.
Q: Part of your artist’s statement inspirited a lot of curiosity in me. Can you explain further your meaning behind the statement “The tension that arises from conflating incongruous notions of nature – a mechanistic as well as a romantic, idealized concept – is a guiding principle for my artistic project”?
Ripley: I’m fascinated by how we define nature and how these definitions can contain contradictions. On the one hand nature is a self-perpetuating entity. I’m in agreement with the speculation put forth by the Deep Ecologists that says human beings will be the most short-lived of the dominant species this planet has known. (The dinosaurs ruled for millions of years and we were hardly here 100,000 years before we discovered the methods necessary for destroying ourselves. I think that when we’re gone there will still be something here). We’re being swept along with everything else. Then there is the perception of nature that involves the bucolic and the nostalgic. The sublime is found in nature. We have this amazing capacity to see ourselves as distinct from (not within) nature, something separate from what we really are.
Q: Do you feel an association with the aesthetics of ‘steam punk‘? As if James West and Artimus Gorden from the Wild Wild West TV show were naturalists and not a spies?
Ripley: Aesthetically I do have a fascination with old things (things that have “survived” and how these can be reconsidered and re-purposed), but I’m not too familiar with this genre as a whole. Artistically speaking nostalgia can be a slippery slope. I am very taken by science fiction. The story ‘The Roadside Picnic’ by the Stugotsky brothers is crucial for me (as is the film Stalker, which it inspired).
Q: Insects are used predominantly in your work. Is there something about the insect as specimen, or the insect in a collection that is particularly attractive? What other taxa have you worked with in the past? Did you have any formal training in biology?
Ripley: I was originally attracted to insects because of their accessibility. Once I started looking for dead bugs they seemed to be everywhere. Then after a bit of a collection was established I began to get to know them anatomically by drawing them. So it became a fascination with both the specimen and the collection as a whole. Each insect had something new to see within it; how it worked and how it died. The collection became a opportunity to zoom in. The insect collection was really a first for me. And I’ll still pick up a dead bug if I see one. These days I’m working on seeds and fish. My formal biological training is practically nonexistent. I think I might have scraped by with a C in high school but my artistic approach to science has initiated some self-guided research that has been informative although infantile and probably completely out of date.
Interested in displaying your insect inspired work as part of the Artist in Entomology Series? We have an open call for applications.