by June Pichel Cook
GREENSBORO – The ecological interdependence critical to all life forms, including homo sapiens, is a subtle theme permeating “A Critical Balance” art show at the Highland Center for the Arts. A viewer’s conscience is provoked from its nostalgic somnolence when studying the works of art.
“A Critical Balance” is a show by eight artists that depicts a variety of animals, fish, amphibians, birds, mammals, and insects facing extinction in the wild, not only in our backyard but worldwide as well. Curator Maureen O’Connor Burgess, in her opening remarks, commented on the need for public awareness and involvement as being key to maintaining and balancing a diverse natural community.
“In order to protect something,” she said, “We need first to understand it.”
Environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s introduction to “A Sand County Almanac, 1949” sums up the art show in essence: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes — something known only to her and to the mountain.”
It is the eyes within the paintings that compel and draw one into the work of art. Whether it’s Sharon Murphy’s “Porcupine Caribou” or :Red Wolf;” Adelaide Murphy Tyrol’s “Reticulated Giraffe;” or Michael Boardman’s “Black Rhinoceros,” the sense of loss and aloneness that these living entities face in the wild and natural world permeates. A chilling label, EW (Extinct in the Wild); CR (Critically Endangered; EN (Endangered); VU (Vulnerable) marks each painting.
Vermont’s threatened specie crisis is part of the show. Heidi Broner’s, one-inch long ‘Boreal Chorus Frog’ and Linda Mirabile’s Sedge wren are losers as wetland habitat disappears and is fragmented, temperatures rise and water levels drop. The frog was last heard in Vermont in 1999. Gabriel Tempesta’s Rusty-patched bumblebee, a common sight 20 years ago, is now declared federally endangered. Tyrol’s “Northern Brook Lamprey,” a non-parasitic fish, is losing to the use of lampricides to control the parasitic sea lamprey in the Lake Champlain basin.
The body language of Mirabile’s Humboldt penguin is striking and symbolizes the grim future each of the depicted species faces. The penguin’s body stance and exposed throat have a vulnerability that cries out in silent desperation. The penguin, hunted for its meat, oil and skin, faces extinction as its food sources disappear. Marine pollution and predation hasten its demise.
From Boardman’s large “Black Rhinoceros” and Heidi Broner’s “Sumatran Elephant” (weighing up to 10,000 lbs.) to Tyrol’s tiny “Sicilian Garden Dormouse” and “Blue-eyed Black Lemur”, each faces a dark future. Slash and burn agriculture, forest fragmentation, human developments, loss of habitat, and poaching accelerate each creatures’ disappearance.
The beautiful “Araripe Manskin” and “Chinese Crested Tern,” both acrylic on paper by Mirabile, have populations numbering 50 to 100 individuals. The Araripe’s loss of habitat is compounded with agriculture clearing and holiday home construction; the terns’ loss is compounded with illegal egg collection.
Broner’s “Cheetah with cubs” depicts a furry passel of color. The soft textures urge one want to reach out and “pet.” Human-wildlife conflict has hastened the cheetah’s demise. Cubs are captured illegally and smuggled to illegal farms operating in the gulf states of the United States.
The North Atlantic Right Whale, hunted to near-extinction in the 1700s, has a population of about 400 individuals today. The entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes threaten the whale’s survival. Parmenter’s paintings are interactive, allowing the viewer to see the animal or mammal in its natural habitat. The whale’s disappearing body is prophetic as we glimpse only the whale’s flukes.
A beautiful collection is Tyrol’s hummingbirds in their brilliance of color and fleeting motion. Of the eight she has painted, two are extinct.
The show will continue until November 22. Local schools and home schoolers are encouraged to contact Burgess at HCA for educational programs relating to the display.
“A Critical Balance” brochure states that scientists estimate between 150 to 200 species – plant, animal, insect, bird, and mammal – become extinct every 24 hours. The loss is almost 1,000 times the natural or background rate. The world has not experienced such loss since the vanishing of the dinosaurs nearly 65 million years ago.
Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum reminds us at the outset of the show: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, [w]e will love only what we understand, [a]nd we will understand only what we are taught.”