For an artist who depicts animals inspired by early scientific illustrations, the Montana Natural History Center has proven to be a welcome temporary habitat.
Over the past month, David Miles Lusk has been studying pronghorn, wood duck, beaver, grizzly bear and sagebrush, carefully translating their shapes and features into relief prints.
Lusk makes art out of animals and sometimes oddities under the name Anomal Press, a portmanteau of “animal” and “anomaly.” He applied for an open AIR artistic residency with places like the center.
“It’s so helpful to have the rehearsals right in front of me,” he said. To render a wood duck, he prefers to sit in front of it with an iPad and study what its feet look like rather than spend time searching for images online.
His work, while realistic, is not intended to be purely representational, although he is inspired by the field of scientific illustration and its long history. His work weaves a layer of abstraction into his renderings and images.
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“These original scientific illustrators were mostly just inspired by nature itself,” he said. “I’m also inspired by this art and nature.”
The Open AIR program places artists-in-residence in locations in western Montana. Founded four years ago, the nonprofit organization now includes spring, summer, and fall sessions. They connect artists with site-based creation organizations, whether the location is the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station or the Moon-Randolph Homestead. Open AIR has been working with the center for three years. “It’s always a pleasure to connect with them and these amazing creatures around us,” said Stoney Samsoe, co-founder of Open AIR.
Lusk has been at the Center for the last month. He can draw the stuffed specimens or the native plants at a work table in the exhibition area or outside in the garden. Classes of school children can twirl around the room for guided tours. Visitors might ask him what he’s working on.
As part of the residencies, the artists will give a presentation to the public on site. Lusk spoke about the history of naturalism, printing and scientific illustration in the West. He discussed the concept of the “cabinet of curiosities,” which was in some ways a “precursor” to the center, he said. Wealthy people entertained their guests by leading them into a room full of artifacts.
One person asked which animals he liked to draw or not. He likes quirkier creatures, but “charismatic megafauna” like polar bears and bald eagles aren’t called that for nothing, he said. As a full-time artist with a family to support, he can’t focus solely on niche creatures. (Though he did make an imprint of a tardigrade.) Even the larger creatures like grizzly bears and eagles are “ambassador” species, drawing public attention to issues related to the environment and the climate crisis.
While printmaking dates back hundreds of years, Lusk has added some modern technologies to his process. A few years ago he started using an iPad for his drawings. The ability to sketch in separate layers allowed him to increase the level of detail in his compositions. For example, when drawing a leafy tree, he can create discrete layers for branches and leaves. He then transfers the drawing to a linoleum block with a laser printer and carves with a tube. If he drew directly on the block with graphite, things like dense sagebrush thickets would be more difficult to achieve due to possible smearing and blurring.
The technology is also suitable for more vignette-like compositions. In his depiction, the pronghorn antelope, the fastest land animal in North America, emerges along the sagebrush plains beneath the skyline of a mountain silhouette.
In his presentation Lusk described how his art took steps down the path of naturalism. When he was getting his Bachelor of Art degree from the University of Montana, he signed up for a trip to the Grand Canyon. He just needed money to pay for it. He asked his friends about their favorite animals and printed a series.
The show caught the attention of the late Eduardo Chirinos, a professor of Spanish and literature at the University of Montana, who approached Lusk about a project. The Peruvian transplant had written a collection of poems, “35 Zoological Lessons (And Other Didactic Poems)”, in which each entry took an animal’s perspective. He asked Lusk to do illustrations of his subjects, including tanukis, dods, tapirs, solenodons, etc., for a 2013 publication.
Accurately rendering animals was “a challenge” that he took on, and one that also satisfied his curiosity. For him, making art is “an exploration” and “a way for me to learn about new things and make a living from it,” he said.
Lusk is working on it a print of a wood duck standing in profile. Without the Natural History Center, he would have to study pictures online. Here he can sit in front of one and draw it in 5 minutes. He was interested in sculpting from an early age in school and views printmaking as 3D modeling. Rendering a bison’s fur, “sculpting” the flow in one direction to indicate depth, is easier when you’re looking at a real animal than a photo. “The pattern of the hair isn’t always very obvious in pictures,” he said.
He and his partner have a toddler so the residency routine has been good with more time to focus. The fact that the center is open to the public doesn’t hurt at all, it “helps me concentrate when someone might be watching me”, similar to working in a coffee shop.
Visitors may mistake him for an employee and ask questions.
“I know enough about Montana’s critters because I’ve made art that I can answer that,” he said.
Working from home can feel like a “bubble,” so “it’s been really nice just talking to people and getting reactions from the public and the community. I think that was really healthy for me.”