Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pictures at an Exhibition

At last, some images have arrived from Outbreak, my solo show at the Smithsonian's Global Health Odyssey Museum at  the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Outbreak is an educational show, and for this reason alone you won't be reading about it in ArtForum anytime soon. It's didactic. Like my book of the same title, the shows turns on the idea  that epidemics have shaped us. The paintings, though framed and hung, are unapologetically illustrations. They tell stories.

The GHO curator, Louise Shaw, has taken concepts from the book and turned them into questioning super-graphics that provide context. I think it all looks pretty terrific.

Only 30 more days to see Outbreak in Atlanta. If you can't get there, enjoy these pictures.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The CDC contains an 'Outbreak' of cultural curiosities

November 20, 2008 at 9:30 am by Cinque Hicks in A&E
“Remember that you are mortal”).

DEATH BECOMES THEM: A skeletal death works in the world of pathogenic microbes in “Memento Mori” (translation: “Remember that you are mortal”).

Did the bubonic plague extinguish Europe’s feudal caste system and trigger the rise of the middle-class bourgeoisie? Did yellow fever end the trafficking of African slaves to the New World? Did the Spanish flu halt World War I? According to Outbreak: Plagues that Changed History currently on view at the CDC’s Global Health Odyssey Museum, the answers are maybe, maybe and maybe. And although it’s assuredly an oversimplification to attribute some of history’s biggest events to any single cause, Outbreak puts forth the intriguing notion that many of the defining currents of human social and cultural history around the globe have at least been influenced by some of the planet’s smallest inhabitants.

 is the artistic brainchild of painter and illustrator Bryn Barnard. Barnard’s 2005 book of the same name targets middle school children with lush gouache and oil paintings that bring to life key moments in world history. It shows how a slew of unimaginably destructive epidemiological disasters gave us the world we live in now. The current CDC exhibit comprises Barnard’s original paintings along with maps and text borrowed from the book. It’s the first collected public showing of the work, and as is typical for CDC exhibitions, Outbreak aims to make explicit connections between broad health issues and daily life.

Curator Louise Shaw glides though the exhibit, stopping here and there to point out a few noteworthy works. She pauses before a small painting of cholera victims being unloaded at the port of Jaffa in Tel-Aviv. Until 1912, cholera was one of the major hazards facing those who made the Muslim pilgrimage known as Hajj. “This is my favorite painting in the show,” says Shaw. “It’s sort of like a Gérôme.”

“Or Delacroix,” I add.

“Yeah, all those 19th-century French painters!”

Our obscure art historical references point out the tightrope Shaw and her CDC colleagues must constantly walk in their programming for the museum. A show designed for middle schoolers must also appeal to adults, tourists, CDC staff and government bureaucrats alike. Global Health Odyssey is a federally funded educational institution, not an art center, and even a casual visit requires an automobile search and a trip through a metal detector. But once visitors undergo the “CDC experience,” as staffers call the rigorous security protocol, the facility offers a slice of culture unavailable anywhere else in the city. Examining health by way of art, design and other cultural artifacts is where the CDC excels.

Shaw turns and we head away from the port of Jaffa and toward feudal Europe. The cholera illustration may be her favorite painting in the show, but her favorite disease is the so-called Black Death, which killed nearly 24 million Europeans between 1346 and 1351. (It’s not unusual for CDC staff members to have “favorite” diseases.)

Barnard has illustrated this ignominious moment in history with a painting of a doctor comforting a distraught young woman while a male relative lies dying in the background. The painting is loaded with historical and cultural details: the crucifix on the wall, the bowl used for bloodletting, the smattering of dead mice on the floor.

Perhaps most striking is the doctor’s period costume, which consists of a long robe, white gloves, a flat, wide-brimmed hat, and a mask with glass lenses and a long beak-like protrusion. The beaked masksurvives to this day in Carnivale and Mardi Gras celebrations, illustrating Barnard’s point: that the culture wrought in times of great disease and pestilence flows like a tributary into the sweeping river of history and lets out into the present in often surprising ways. In the Black Death’s case, feudal Europe was a festering stinkhole full of illiterates walking streets clogged with garbage and human waste. Meanwhile, universities flourished in the Middle East and the Aztecs traversed well-maintained roads complete with public pay toilets at regular intervals.

All that changed, however, when a third of Europe’s population succumbed to the bubonic plague over just five years. With a smaller labor force, wages increased, prices decreased, wealth was accumulated and, voila!, a middle class was born. At least that’s the short version of the story. Social history is far too complex to assert that the Yersinia pestis bacterium single-handedly created the middle class. But as an agent of history, its influence is undeniable.

Judy Gantt is the museum’s director. Her favorite disease is the Spanish Flu. That pandemic’s currently thought to be the deadliest in human history, racking up a hefty body count between 60 and 100 million worldwide. Gantt points to Outbreak’s power to help visitors consider what impact present-day diseases may be having on our culture now and in the future.

“AIDS certainly is having an effect,” says Gantt, who also cites chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes as potential game changers. Both Shaw and Gantt talk about how “smart” the AIDS virus is, how it has learned to survive everything humans have thrown at it, and how it is certainly changing society in Africa, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Of course we won’t know the full impact of AIDS and other current epidemics on world culture for generations. Artists of perhaps the 22nd and 23rd centuries will have to take that up. But as the CDC’s scientists work toward the prevention of these diseases, we can hope for a day when red ribbons follow the same course as the plague doctors’ masks — the signs of inevitable death transformed by history into a symbol to all revelers that there’s reason to let the good times roll.

Outbreak: Plagues that Changed History. Through Jan. 30. Free. Mon.-Wed. and Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Global Health Odyssey Museum, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Road. 404-639-0830.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

CDC Exhibit Just in Time for Halloween

Issue date: 10/14/08 Section: Living

The Global Health Odyssey Museum at the Center for Disease Control just opened its newest exhibit, based on the work of Bryn Barnard on September 27, 2008. The exhibit centers on Barnard's book, Outbreak: Plagues that Changed History/The Work of Bryn Barnard, and its exploration of how infectious diseases have changed human history. 

The exhibit is divided into several sections with each beginning with a question about a particular disease. One question is, "Did cholera pave the way for modern cities?" The question is followed by a map of how the disease spread over time and includes vivid images of the agent that caused the disease. Barnard's illustrations from the book include information on how each infectious disease influenced history. 

In another section, Barnard questions whether yellow fever helped end the slave trade or not. A map is presented showing that yellow fever, which is usually transmitted by mosquitoes, started in Africa and spread to the New World through slave ships. Most of the slaves had survived the disease as children, giving them immunity as adults. However, many Europeans were sickened and killed by the disease. When Napoleon sent his men to Haiti to quell a revolt, many of them were inflicted with yellow fever, which led to Haiti being the first nation founded by former slaves in 1804. Microscopic images of the yellow fever virus are included in the display.

Other diseases focused on in the exhibit include smallpox, which killed up to 90% of Native Americans allowing the Europeans to conquer the New World, and tuberculosis, with symptoms of which many Europeans thought were a sign of artistic fire. Barnard's book prompted a compelling topic for museum curator, Louise E. Shaw. "Barnard talks about the impact of various diseases on history," said Shaw. "Including plague, smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, influenza, and HIV/AIDS. The Center for Disease Control works in all of these areas, so the exhibit is a perfect fit. Our ultimate goal is to educate the public about disease control and prevention, and a popular-based visual arts project such as this one is an accessible and compelling tool."

The images used in the exhibit from the book, can best be described as haunting. The Denver Post has called Barnard's work "the stuff of nightmares."

Julie Just of the New York Times described one illustration that depicts a medieval European doctor tending a plague victim in wide-brimmed hat, gloves and long-beaked mask with goggles. "The cure looks at least as deadly as the disease," said Just. 

Barnard claims his illustrations "span the range from magic realist landscapes, to scientific and historical tableaux, to children's book illustration." Each of his art works are thoroughly researched to ensure it accurately depicts historical events. Barnard's images, which he began creating in 1984, mostly consist of oil on panel, and he also uses acrylic and digital imagery. 

Trudi Ellerman, one of the main tour guides of the exhibit, views the exhibit as an opportunity to apply a scientific perspective to social history.

"Smallpox enabled the conquistadores to take over the new world more easily," said Ellerman. "The Black Death contributed to the fact that Europe has a middle class now and it's not just the serfs and the landowners. It's full of just really interesting perspectives like this. She added, "We pride ourselves on showing you some funky stuff you might not see anywhere else."

The exhibit runs until January 30, 2009 and the museum is open Monday through Wednesday from 10 a.m to 4 p.m, Thursday from 9 a.m. - 7 p.m, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free and a driver's license or passport is required for entry.

For more information, visit

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Of Dolphins and Document Readers

The Land of Smaerd book tour continued in Southern California with visits to Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach and Newport Elementary School on the Balboa Peninsula. Kim Newett of Epiphany Books organized the visits. 

What a reception! Both schools  displayed "welcome Bryn Barnard" banners. Each had arranged for the entire second through fourth grade student body to gather in the cafeteria. Both schools provided digital projectors for my Smaerd PowerPoint show-and-tell and document readers for my painting demonstrations. 400 students gathered in each school, row on row cross-legged on the cafeteria floor. A teachers hand went up, and 400 little hands rose like dandelions into the air. 400 voices stilled. That's crowd control. The children's patience and self-discipline was impressive, listening quietly as I read the story and demonstrated how to paint with acrylic.

This was my first experience with a document reader. About the size of a desk lamp, the reader has a base with USB connection, a long movable arm, and an adjustable lens that, like a video camera, captures an image and, via a digital projector, shows it on a screen. Essentially, this is an updated version of the old classroom opaque projector that displayed printed images or text on a screen. 

So after reading the story and showing the illustrations to the assembled crowd I did a short acrylic painting demonstration. And I mean short: in deference to young attention spans, each presentation was only 45 minutes long. I had only about half that time to apply brush to illustration board. The document reader showed both my 16x20 inch illustration board and my butcher tray painting palette. I could zoom in or out as needed. I could mix colors and apply them to the board, explaining my actions and choices as the image developed. For many kids this was their first experience of acrylic, so we practiced colors altogether: "al-iz-ar-an criiiiim-son.," ul-tra-mar-ine bluuuuuuue," di-oxi-nine puuuurple." The kids seemed to enjoy the funny color names.

The subject of both demos was a girl on a flying dolphin (the Smaerd cover image). This proved especially appropriate for Newport El.  The school is situated right on the edge of the Pacific. Students can see the ocean from classroom windows, and sometimes see dolphins playing in the waves.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Land of Smaerd

About a year and a half ago, I was asked by Jack von Eberstein of  KnowWonder Publishing to illustrate an adventure in verse called The Land of Smaerd. "Smaerd" is dreams spelled backwards, and The Land of Smaerd is a picture book for children, a journey through the land of dreams where readers learn affect the course of their personal reality. Angela Russell came up with the idea when she was a fifth grader. Decades later her sister Andrea von Botefuhr recreated the story as a poem. It took over twelve months of sketchbooks, layouts, and paintings to turn the poem into an illustrated book. In September of this year it was published.

Know Wonder organized two promotional tours. One for Andrea and Angela in Washington and Oregon and another for me in California. My Land of Smaerd promotional campaign commenced with a month-long solo exhibition at the Island Museum of Art on San Juan Island that ended September 17, followed by an interview on September 23 with Dr. Roxanne Daleo on the Mindworks for Children radio show. In October I traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area for several area invents, including book signings at the Oakland Convention center and illustrated talks at Books Inc. in Alameda and Book Passage in Corte Madera.  Publishers Weekly  ran this "Picture of the Day" from my visit to Books Inc. Thanks to Lydia Bird for the portrait of me and Natalee. 

Before leaving the Bay Area I was interviewed by Denny Smithson on the KPFA radio show Cover to Cover. Anneli Rufus wrote a sumptuous article about my visit in the East Bay Express, reproduced below. None of this happened by accident, but through the tireless efforts of  Alice Acheson, the organizational genius behind Acheson Public Relations.

Pigmentation Station

Bryn Barnard ponders parasites, dreams, and modern orchestras' Muslim roots.

October 1, 2008
Bryn Barnard.

The world's most successful parasite is toxoplasma gondii. Producing a chemical that slows our reaction times, it infects half the world's population, including half the US population, where we are likeliest to get it via soiled kitty litter and raw meat.

That's not the sort of information you'd expect to get from an award-winning fine artist, but Bryn Barnard acquired it while writing and illustrating his 2006 book Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History. Diseases are verboten in The Land of Smaerd, a children's book written by poet Andrea von Botefuhr and illustrated rously by Barnard about a magical realm where dreams wait to be dreamed. ("Smaerd" is "dreams" backward.) "In Smaerd," writes von Botefuhr, "they don't have hospitals, because no one gets bugs. The doctors cure bad dreams with kisses and hugs." A Fulbright scholar who graduated Phi Beta Kappa fromUC Berkeley, Barnard created otherworldly landscapes, skyscapes, and mindscapes for the book — levitating seashells, zebras aloft inside soap bubbles — in sherbet-soft colors that seem to glow. First developed during the Renaissance, "the technique I used combines opaque painting with multiple layers of oil glazes," Barnard explains. ".... When light hits this surface, it travels through the glaze, touches the surface, and bounces back into the viewer's eye." Each illustration took thirty to forty hours to complete. His favorite shows a boulder-studded mountain that, on closer inspection, is actually a dragon: "I like the two ways the image can be read — as a landscape or as a dragon sleeping so long that houses, villages, castles, and palaces have been built on its slopes," says the artist, who will be at Books Inc. (1344 Park St., Alameda) on October 4. That idea was inspired by volcanoes in Indonesia, where Barnard lived for several years. "Villages and cultivated fields on the island of Java ... spread up the fertile slopes of active volcanoes, right to the edge of the craters. The volcanoes might not erupt for a hundred years. They [are] like sleeping dragons waiting to roar."

Set to be published by Knopf next year, Barnard's next book is The Genius of Islam: How Muslims Made the Modern World, which he both wrote and illustrated. "I lived for over five years in the Muslim world," he explains. "I was shown extraordinary hospitality there and gradually learned about the deep debt our world owes to Islamic civilization. ... Modernity would be unrecognizable without Islam." One chapter details how "nearly all the instruments in the modern orchestra are descendants of instruments that originated in the Muslim world." In Mozart's day, he says, the percussion section "was called the Turkish section." 11 a.m.