Influences from each of her parents led Isabella Kirkland to blend science and art in such a remarkable way.
Her lush and detailed paintings are an intricate kind of “Where’s Waldo?” for both art and nature lovers. In this case, Waldo is replaced by Golden Toads and Tennessee Purple Cone-flowers, Satanic Leaf-Tailed Geckos and Brown Tree Snakes.
“Isabella Kirkland: Stilled Life” opens at the Dayton Art Institute this weekend and will be on display through May 18. The exhibition features more than 50 of Kirkland’s works, as well her preparatory drawings and studies in a variety of media. In conjunction with the exhibit, the DAI is presenting “In Bloom,” selections from the museum’s permanent collection, supplemented with loans from private collections that feature nature in bloom.
Another aspect of the show comes from a partnership with the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery.
“Part of the history of still life in the 16th and 17th centuries speaks to history of collecting and assembling rare and exotic species to keep in a home cabinet,” explains DAI curator Aimee Marcereau DeGalan. “We’ve assembled our own cabinet with some of the specimens found in the paintings, and others that you might find in your own backyard.”
Kirkland’s early influences
Kirkland says her love for art comes from her mother.
“My mother was very artistic and capable, she did pastel portraits and woodblock prints,” says the artist, who grew up in Richmond, Va., and now lives in Sausalito, Calif. “She had art materials around the house and I made things always. My family knew by the time I was five that I would be an artist — if there was something broken around the house, I would turn it into something else. I knitted, embroidered, sewed, sculpted.”
Kirkland says her mother taught her perspective years before she would have learned it in school.
From her father, she learned to love nature and the out-of-doors.
“My father was a born naturalist, he hunted and fished and gathered wild greens and we had access to a lot of farm country.”
Finding her niche
After attending Guilford College in North Carolina, Kirkland headed to New York’s Lower East Side where she painted and sculpted for 15 years.
“I watched friends make a million dollars overnight, but I was on the wrong curve at the time,” she says. “I was building complex installations that had thousands of parts, all hand made, but they weren’t selling or showing.”
Fed up with New York and the art world, in 1990, Kirkland decided to move to California. Instead of concerning herself with what was trendy in art at the moment, she decided to paint what she really cared about — the natural world. She began experimenting, she says, with “smaller and more discreet” painting, including Mughal miniatures, and also worked as an art director in the film industry.
It was an exhibition of 17th-century Dutch still life paintings that changed her life.
“I missed my flight and was in Raleigh, NN.C., and I accidentally happened to go to this show,” she remembers. “That was a culminating moment.”
Seeing those paintings in the late 199os, she says, triggered thoughts about the coming of the next century.
“I wanted to leave a permanent record of something that was contribution to our long-term picture,” she explains. “The Dutch still life method is a great way to make something last a long time.”
When she began researching the chemistry that allowed the Dutch paintings to survive, Kirkland began experimenting and came up with a technique that would work for her.
“I paint on a fine-textured French polyester,” she says, explaining the material is typically used by art conservationists to stabilize a painting. “I use it because it remains flexible, and I paint using alkyd medium — a type of oil that’s very stable and holds together.”
Kirkland spends a year on each painting, conducting extensive scientific research. As many as 60 or 70 species can be incorporated into one work of art.
“Each painting has a theme,” she explains. “So in one painting, for example, everything is extinct. In another, everything in the painting has gone to the brink of extinction and has been refound or brought back.”
She conducts her research in libraries and in natural history museums.
“I now have access to the collections at my local institutions, so I’m able to see things that aren’t on the museum floor,” she says.
She measures everything herself, taking notes, making drawings, snapping photos. You’ll see some of her fascinating little sketch books on display.
“Then I try to represent the plant and animal life-size and as accurately as I can to make it look alive.”
As a result, viewing a Kirkland painting can provide quite an education.
“You can walk away and think it’s lovely, or you can go as deep as you want,” she explains, adding that there are keys that explain the species in the paintings and why she has chosen them.
Kirkland’s work is exhibited at both science and art museums.
“I like having one foot in each of those worlds,” the artist says.
Coming to Dayton
The DAI exhibit came about through curator DeGalan, who first heard about Kirkland’s paintings from a colleague at the Toledo Museum of Art.
“Toledo showed a couple of her paintings in 2008 and the response was overwhelmingly positive,” says DeGalan. “People were spending so much time looking at those paintings.”
DeGalan says Kirkland’s paintings are fascinating because there is so much to see in them.
“On the surface they are stunningly gorgeous paintings,” she says. “They are so dense with animals and flowers and there are so many layers.”
DeGalan says Kirkland is as much a scholar and scientist as she is an artist.
“She studied and emulated the Dutch painters who were masters at developing translucent glaze,” she says. “She uses the techniques they did, painting on panels, and her ability to create depth and space and do these multiple layers of glazing is just unbelievable!
DeGalan says every single one of the animals or plants in Kirkland’s work has been impacted by man in some way.
“For example, in her series called “Taza,” there are six paintings in a cycle that feature plants and animals that are all in decline in the United States, Hawaii or Central America.”
DeGalan says Kirkland is a very thoughtful person who is passionate about environmental awareness.
“It’s a quiet form of environmentalism,” says DeGalan. “Part of her gentle message is that if we aren’t careful, all that might be left are these paintings.”
Kirkland, in town for the exhibit opening and to kick off the lecture series last Thursday night, insists she has found her place in the world.
“This is what I love,” she says. “I feel like I’m making a lasting contribution because if these paintings survive, they are a record of things we’ve lost and a snapshot in our time of our mindset about our relationship to nature.”