The Naturalist Artist

Fortune has smiled upon my work as a graduate student in environmental education and research. It can be exemplified no more clearly than the access I have to the work of Charles E. Burchfield, much of whose remarkable legacy is housed so close at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) on the campus of SUNY Buffalo State. The influence of courses that involved the BPAC has been profound (as explained in a Burchfield blog post). Burchfield, much like Roger Tory Peterson, was torn between devoting life to art or nature. Fortunately for all of us, they both found a way to compromise their conflict by combining both passions. Even more fortuitously, their individual depictions of nature allow for us to learn from two different perspectives.

Peterson’s work, made famous through the introduction of field guides, offers up the scientific angle of understanding the physical nature of the focal species. His exacting and anatomically correct representations of animals and plants are the backbone of any naturalist’s library.  A graduate assignment to evaluate a museum brought me to the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, NY where I discovered the staggering immensity of this naturalist/artist’s volume of work. His passions for all things Nature and attention to detail is evident in every piece he produced. Were it that I could represent such a diverse collection of species in my own field journaling. Yet Peterson went far beyond just offering us the opportunity to learn the physical anatomy, his work began connecting that anatomy to the cycles of the seasons, behaviors and both inter- and intra-species interactions.

Burchfield’s  abstract work, on the other hand, brings to light a number of important aspects for this naturalist:

  • Habitat studies: Burchfield rarely isolates a species but instead shows us the habitat itself allowing us to see the organism in its natural setting which encompasses the important interactive relationships and potential ecosystems services at play.
  • Stretching the imagination: Because the art is abstract and more complex our minds are afforded the opportunity to view Nature in a more abstract and complex way, the very nature of Nature itself!
  • Nature inspiration: Burchfield’s work provokes such emotion for this viewer. His use of color and form draws you in, making an abstract work feel entirely real. One can easily sense the invisible elements in his art, such as temperature, air, wind, etc.

So let us cheer and laud the naturalist artists.  How fortunate that we have the ability to study Nature through not only our own senses but also through the vision of these talented and inspired explorers.

Peterson's attention to detail encompasses every aspect of his works. Not only are the birds exacting, but the apple branch and blossoms included are perfect representations as well. Rose-breasted Grosbeak (1978). Image courtesy of http://galleryone.com)

Peterson’s attention to detail encompasses every aspect of his work. Not only are the birds exacting, but the apple branch and blossoms included are perfect representations, as well.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (1978). Image courtesy of http://galleryone.com.

Asters are a vitally important wildflowers for migrating butterflies. Burchfield's "other" career as a naturalist is often demonstrated in his paintings. The Monarchs feeding on the asters here is yet another example. Wind-Blown Asters (1951). Image courtesy of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Asters are vitally important wildflowers for migrating butterflies. Burchfield’s “other” career as a naturalist is often demonstrated in his paintings. The Monarchs feeding on the asters here is yet another example of incorporating habitat, niches and ecosystem processes in his art.
Wind-Blown Asters (1951). Image courtesy of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

2 thoughts on “The Naturalist Artist

  1. This post was so timely for me. My friend Gwen shared it, knowing I had just returned from a visit to the Peterson Institute. Peterson and Burchfield are two of my inspirations for my own art. Thank you for you wonderful connection of the two.

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