Blowfish and Sycamore Seeds, Part Three

For the past two weeks I've been telling you about a new drypoint edition I made on some vintage paper I'd found in a Pennsylvania used bookstore. Today. I'd like to finish this little series by telling you what this print means to me personally. The beauty of art, however, is that no single interpretation, including the artist's, will encompass all meaning for a work, so if you see something else in this work, by all means embrace it.

Okay, get comfortable, because we've got some history to cover.

The easiest way for me to get at the larger picture for this print is to take a closer look at the individual parts first, so let's begin by exploring the blowfish.

My mother gave me this blowfish sometime in 2012, when I was still living in Vermont. It's a desiccated old specimen that had once been used as a teaching tool for biology classes, but was relegated to storage by the 2000s. Mother had been cleaning out old equipment from her classrooms, and since she knew I like weird things, she saved it for me.

The blowfish has appeared in several of my sketches and prints, and for me personally, I associate it with the the history of collecting and preserving the natural world, most obviously perhaps through the tradition of natural history, but also through its predecessor, the cabinet of curiosities:

Domenico Remps, Cabinet of Curiosties, 1690s, oil on cavas. Image courtesy of

The cabinet of curiosities, or kunstkammer, is a precursor of modern museums. They were the private collections of wealthy, educated individuals, and usually encompassed an eclectic range of what we'd consider both preserved specimens and art objects today. The distinction between art and artifact was blurred with these collections, as the primary focus was on wonder itself. Blowfish were sometimes included within these collections.

"Musei Wormiani Historia", the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm's cabinet of curiosities. Image Courtesy of

These collections arose in conjunction with world exploration, as the so-called discovery and exploitation of the Americans yielded an entirely new, hitherto unknown range of animals, people and cultures. A cabinet of curiosities demonstrated both your cosmopolitanism and erudition, and reached their height in popularity around the 17th century. Among the most famous extant cabinets today is Peter the Great's Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, which I had the chance to visit in 2009.

The Wadswoth Atheneum in Hartford, CT

Of course, cabinets were not museums in the sense that we know them today, both because their taxonomies were different and, more significantly, they were private collections. Still their interest in documenting and preserving the world does foreshadow the missions of future museums, and several places, such as the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT, pay homage to this connection by featuring recreations of curiosity cabinets. 

The Natural History Museum in New York.

So for me personally, then, the blowfish is a symbol of historical collecting practices, whether that be through the cabinet of curiosity, or the great old natural history museums.

Now let's take a look at the sycamore seeds. There are a few sycamore trees on the street where I walk to work every day, and I collected this seed balls at the beginning of 2014 in order to draw them. Aside from their own Fibonacci-esque beauty, these seeds also remind me of the natural history tradition, more specifically the history of botany.

The Hall of Plants at the Field Museum.

At the Field Museum in Chicago there is an extensive gallery called the Hall of Plants. This was opened in the 1930s, and featured painstakingly accurate models of the known plant species of the world. Many of these plants have since become endangered or gone extinct, so these recreations have become important objects of study. While the seedlings I drew were not models, I was still very much interested in the idea of recording and preserving these objects, as I knew I would eventually take them out of the house again. Over several months then, I drew numerous studies, documenting their shapes, their patterns their individual seeds formed, and their texture. The presence of these seeds then, for me at least, is a reference to that tradition of documentation.

The yarn was from an infinity scarf that a friend of mine had knitted for me. When she sent the scarf she also mailed the extra yarn, and I've been using it as a prop ever since. Scarves are something of a cliche when it comes to art historians, but the yarn also makes me think of preservation, in part because this friend of mien has gone on to become a historic preservationist

Image courtesy of

The yarn also reminds me of living history museums and their emphasis on live demonstrations. Years ago I visited Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts, and I still remember watching volunteers spinning yarn. The performance of historical crafts was also a focal point at one of the first museums I worked at, the Museums of Old York (now the Old York Historical Society).

I didn't see this lady specifically, but you get the idea. Image courtesy of

So what is the sum of all these individual parts? On the one hand, it's about preservation, whether of history or natural specimens. All of the objects in the print were preserved in one form or another for posterity, while making visual references to broader preservation traditions. Even the sheets of paper I used were historical objects, having been printed over a century ago. 

Yet preservation is only part of the equation for me. These prints are also about the transformation of history, as myriad objects from the past are put to new uses and given aesthetic meaning through a twenty-first century lens. This isn't anything novel of course, lots of artists explore the relationship between history and making in their own work. Gail Rieke, one of the artists I featured in last year's exhibition The Art of the Book, has made this a cornerstone of her practice by collecting historical ephemera during her world travels with the intention of transforming them into art objects. 

Gail Rieke, Artifact, image courtesy of

For me, however, the extra layer in this exploration in the preservation and transformation of history is the role of museums, since this is such a major part of my daily life. On the one hand this seems paradoxical. Museums are supposed to present objective views of history, aren't they? Since museums are the products of subjective humanity, however, interpretation and representation will always be involved. True, we've been working on expanding out narratives to be more inclusive, as well as confront the dark sides of history, but as long as we remain human, our work will never be entirely objective, and our respective lenses will always to a degree transform the material at hand.

All that said, my print also acknowledges the importance of maintaining the museum's association with objects and artifacts. Museums have become increasingly interactive over the last several decades, putting more experience on hands-on activities that engage visitors rather than inundate them with static displays. As much as I agree museums should interact with visitors, however, at heart I am an objects person. I was drawn to work in museums precisely because of those wonderfully, stuffy old objects, and will continue to emphasize the importance of artifacts in my own practice.

Image courtesy of

For me then, this print is manifold in its meanings. It's a meditation on the history of collecting, and the preservation and transformation of the objects comprising the world around us. It's also a personal rumination on the ongoing role of objects in museums, from the viewpoint of a curator working with historical objects. In yet another layer it's an assemblage of objects excavated from the archaeological site of my personal life, and brings up memories of places I've visited and people I know.  It's got layers of meaning, and is one of the more meta prints I've done.

Moving into the future, one thing is for certain. I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for vintage paper, as it proved more stimulating and gratifying to work with than I had ever anticipated. 

Here's to you, Charles Scribner's Sons, and your Thistle Edition of Robert Louis (and Fanny) Stevenson.