Sometime before Oct. 5, treat yourself to an hour of solitude in the world's rain forests and get to know more than 250 recently discovered plants and animals through the eyes of Isabella Kirkland - at the Toledo Museum of Art.
Yes, it may seem like taking the outdoors indoors, but this is a must-see exhibit, entitled "NOVA, New Species," for individuals who care about stewardship of the planet and understand the complexity, reach, and inter-connectedness of life.
Kirkland, who once was the only licensed taxidermist in New York City, presents three composite panels of plants and animals, all found just since the mid-1990s.
She freely admits in a recorded audio tour of the exhibit that she has placed her subjects in an imaginary rain forest. That is because the plants and animals she has so meticulously detailed - ants, butterflies, fish, deer, orchids, trees - come from many different countries - Madagascar and Gabon to Myanmar, Laos, Costa Rica and more.
It took the artist three years, poring over journals, corresponding with field researchers, and visiting museums around the world to paint these canvases, which respectively depict life on the forest floor, the understory, and the canopy. At one point in her recorded commentary, Kirkland notes three times she sanded out the central portion of the panel dealing with the forest floor because she was dissatisfied with her rendering of fish and salamander beneath the surface of a stream.
"I actually spent about an hour along a coastal stream in Costa Rica," she says, "and took dozens of pictures of how the light bounced off the surface, and how it reflected the colors - the sky, the leaves - what kind of sand, what kind of pebbles would be there.
"So, it was a very tricky bit of painting, actually. And as with everything, I can see what I did wrong," she admits, adding with a chuckle: "Hopefully you can't."
The Toledo Museum of Art is the first to show Kirkland's exhibit, according to spokesman Sara Stacy, and as befits the museum's world-class reputation, the show is superlative.
The fact that the panels are composite of many species from many habitats should be no distraction. In fact it is encouragement to allow your own imagination - and perhaps memories of personal rain forest experiences - to synchronize with Kirkland's.
In the panel on the forest canopy, the artist portrays spongy mats of mosses, a heavy-jawed mouse which as yet has no name, and a beetle in flight, among other species. The understory panel alone depicts 91 species, all new to science, from a yellowish porcupine and a monkey from the Amazon to a night-blooming gentian tree.
A winged lizard is painted backlit to illustrate how it spreads its thin ribs to form "wings" on which to glide. A tiny spider, discovered in Brazil in 2004, dangles on a silk strand in front of a rodent-like Panay cloudrunner, found in the Philippines in 1996.
The panel of the forest floor includes dozens of species of birds, insects, and animals, the artist noting the leaf deer (Myanmar, 1999), is presented at half its life size.
The stream contains pain-stakingly detailed members of the smallest known fish species in the world, and the floor features four species of ants, one with the intriguing common name of blood-sucking Dracula ant (Madagascar, 1994).
Be sure to listen to the commentary, and use the panel key-cards hanging next to each painting to help identify particularly eye-catching plants or animals. After absorbing the exhibit and commentary for awhile, you feel a part of it, a participant.
So "NOVA: New Species" is pleasing to the eye and educational as well.
You will come away refreshed, and wondering about such facts that only 10 to 15 percent of all living species have Latin names and are scientifically classified.
A posted statement by John C. Sawhill, past president of The Nature Conservancy, puts a fine point on Kirkland's exhibit:
"In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create but also by what we refuse to destroy."
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