The natural world and animals are a huge part of your work. You’re in the Chicago area now, in Evanston. But were you surrounded by nature growing up?
I grew up about 30 miles northwest of Chicago proper. I grew up in the late ’70s and ’80s. Kids were still spending a lot of time outdoors. That was the default. We also knew a couple of farming families growing up, one somewhat in the area and one in southern Indiana. Because of those two connections I spent a lot of time in rural areas and out in nature.
I’m guessing you get a lot of different bird species in Evanston, seeing as how you’re on Lake Michigan.
We do. And in fact, just over the last few days, we’ve had a lot of sandhill cranes flying over our house. It’s a major flyway. We get a lot of migratory species through the area.
For ten years I volunteered in the bird department at the Field Museum of Natural History. What I did there was taxidermy. I prepared specimens of migratory birds that had died colliding with buildings downtown. So I became very familiar with the huge diversity of species we have coming through the area in the fall and the spring. And that’s certainly true where we are. We get quite a bit in our backyard.
What amazing training for an artist.
It really was. At the time I was pretty ambivalent about my own career. My interest in natural history, in biology and zoology, was increasing. I worked with some amazing people over there. It really blew my mind in terms of science and what I learned. That in turn was really the main driving force for inspiring the body of work that has continued to now.
How did you learn to be a taxidermist?
I’d always wanted to volunteer at the Field Museum. I tried for a couple years to find an inroad. Then a friend introduced me to the custodian of the birds collection, Dr. Willard. We hit it off. He wanted to train me immediately to do this type of taxidermy. It’s not like true taxidermy. This is a more specific and simplified form of taxidermy where you’re trying to preserve the plumage and some of the bone structure and architecture of the bird’s body, but it’s laid out in a way that it fits easily into flat file drawers, so when researchers come in they can take their measurements.
When Dr. Willard found out I was an artist, he said, “Our best taxidermists in the past have been artists. They have good hand-eye coordination and good attention to detail.” It took a couple months for him to train me before I was fully up and running.
Switching gears ... I have a technical question. The black figures in your art. Are they done with gouache?
The main medium for those is gouache and India ink. Some are done on watercolor paper, but a lot of them are done on clayboard, which really soaks up the moisture from when you’re painting. It creates a drier way of working.
Gouache is really just a more opaque, pigmented form of watercolor. It’s the same ingredients but a higher ratio of pigment. So gouache is normally more contained than watercolor, but even more so on a medium like clayboard. I can get a sharpness of detail I can’t get with paper.
When words are part of a piece, are they part of your conception of the art from the beginning?
No. It’s very stream of consciousness. The image comes first. My own personal work, I almost never do thumbnail sketches. I might have a very general idea of what I want to do in my head, but it comes together very organically. And then the text is usually the last element added. And it’s done very much in response to the visual.
Where do you see your art in five years or ten years?
Oh lord. [laughs] It felt like the last few years I was just trying to survive, like everybody else. I had very little time to do my own work, my personal work. It was really only children’s book illustration that I did. That will continue over the next five years, I hope. But what I’m hoping and thinking is to carve out more time for my personal work, my personal paintings, because I need that. And to find better ways to get that out, to share that with people.
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