For an artist who renders animals based on early scientific illustrations, the Montana Natural History Center proved to be a welcome temporary habitat.
For the past month, David Miles Lusk has been studying the American antelope, the wood duck, the beaver, the grizzly bear and the sagebrush, carefully translating their shapes and specificities into relief engravings.
Lusk makes art of animals, and sometimes oddities, under the name Anomal Press, a portmanteau of “animal” and “anomaly.” He applied for an Open AIR artistic residency with places like the center in mind.
“It’s so helpful to have the specimens right in front of me,” he said. To render a wood duck, he can sit in front of him with an iPad instead and study what his feet look like instead of spending time looking for pictures online.
His work, while realistic, is not intended to be strictly representative, although it draws inspiration from the field of scientific illustration and its long history. His work weaves a level of abstraction into his renderings and images.
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“These original science illustrators were mostly just inspired by nature itself,” he said. “I am inspired by this art and nature too.”
The Open AIR program places artists-in-residence at sites in western Montana. Launched four years ago, the nonprofit has grown to include spring, summer and fall sessions. They pair artists with organizations for place-based creation, whether the site is the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station or the Moon-Randolph Homestead. Open AIR has been working with the center for three years now. “It’s always a pleasure to connect with them and these amazing creatures around us,” said Stoney Samsoe, co-founder of Open AIR.
Lusk has spent the past month at the center. Installed at a work table in the exhibition space or in the garden, he can draw stuffed specimens or native plants. Classes of schoolchildren might swirl around the room for visits. Visitors might ask him what he is working on.
As part of the residencies, the artists will make a presentation to the public on site. Lusk spoke about the history of naturalism, printing, and scientific illustration in the West. He brought up the concept of a “cabinet of curiosities,” which is something of a “precursor” to the center, he said. Wealthy people would entertain their guests by leading them through a room filled with artifacts.
One person asked what kind of animals he likes or doesn’t like to draw. He likes more eccentric creatures, but “charismatic megafauna” like polar bears and bald eagles are called that for a reason, he said. As a full-time artist with a family to support, he can’t focus exclusively on niche creatures. (He did, however, make a print of a tardigrade.) Additionally, larger creatures like grizzly bears and eagles are “ambassador” species that draw public attention to environmental and health issues. climate crisis.
While engraving dates back hundreds of years, Lusk has added modern technology to its process. He started using an iPad for his drawings several years ago. The ability to sketch in separate layers allowed him to increase the level of detail in his compositions. For example, if he is drawing a leafy tree, he can create discrete layers for the branches and sets of leaves. He then transfers the design to a block of linoleum with a laser printer, and sets to work sculpting with a gouge. If he were to draw directly on the block with graphite, things like dense sagebrush thickets would be more difficult to achieve due to potential smudging and blurring.
The technology also lends itself to more vignette-like compositions. In his rendering, the pronghorn, North America’s fastest land animal, springs along sagebrush plains beneath a mountainous silhouette.
In his presentation, Lusk described how his art took steps down the naturalistic path. When he was studying for his Bachelor of Arts at the University of Montana, he signed up for a trip to the Grand Canyon. He just needed the money to pay. He asked his friends what their favorite animals were and printed a series.
The show caught the attention of the late Eduardo Chirinos, professor of Spanish and literature at the University of Montana, who contacted Lusk about a project. The Peruvian graft had written a collection of poems, “35 Zoological Lessons (and Other Didactic Poems)”, in which each entry adopted the perspective of an animal. He asked Lusk to do illustrations of his subjects, which include tanukis, dods, tapirs, solenodons, and more. for a 2013 publication.
Returning the animals with precision was “a challenge” that he set himself and which also satisfies his curiosity. For him, making art is “an exploration” and “a way for me to learn new things and make a living from it”, he said.
Lusk is working on a footprint of a wood duck, standing in profile. In the absence of the Natural History Center, he would have to study the images online. Here he can sit in front of one and draw it in 5 minutes. He became interested in sculpture earlier in school and thinks of printmaking in terms of 3D modeling. Rendering a bison’s fur, “sculpting” the flow in one direction to indicate depth, is easier if you’re looking at an actual animal than a photograph. “The hair pattern isn’t always very obvious in the pictures,” he said.
He and his partner have a toddler so the residency routine has been good with more time to focus. The fact that the center is open to the public doesn’t hurt at all, it “helps me to concentrate if someone could watch me”, a bit like working in a café.
Visitors might mistake him for an employee and ask questions.
“I know so much about the creatures of Montana from creating art that I can answer,” he said.
Working from home can feel like a ‘bubble’, so “it was really nice just talking to people and getting feedback from the public and the community. I think it has been very healthy for me.