Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pictures at an Exhibition

The Outbreak show at the National Museum of Health and Medicine opened on Halloween. It's a beautifully curated exhibition that uses my work in interesting ways to tell the story of public health, intermingling my art with objects from the Museum's amazing collection. On December 5th, I spent a day at the museum presenting a series of talks on my work and the history of public health and a demonstration on how to paint a vibrio cholerae. Despite the snow, audience members came from as far away as Philadelphia to see the shows.

Originally, Outbreak was slated to close on January 22. NMHM recently decided to extend the show another month and a half. So until March 8 you still have a chance to see some of the creepiest pictures in the world of illustration.

The NMHM is a remarkable institution housed on the campus of Walter Reed Hospital. It houses over 24 million artifacts related to medical pathology: historical microscopes, protheses, glass slides, casts of facial reconstructions, photographs, even the actual bullet used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Only a fraction of the collection is on display.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Imagination Takes Flight

About six months ago, I entered a public art competition, organized by the city government of Beaverton, Oregon, to design a piece of art for the municipal library. This airy, wood-and-glass structure is designed to look like a stylized rain-forest. It's beautiful and welcoming. But adult traffic tends to flow from the ground floor entrance straight ahead, into the children's area, rather than up the grand double staircase where the grown-ups belong. The art was wanted as a gentle way to separate the flock.

194 people entered the competition, and after several rounds of winnowing, I won the commission.

My idea is a wrap-around portal mural entitled Imagination Takes Flight that depicts a sort of literary flight deck, with animal aviators scrambling a squadron of books into the skies. It will consist of a diptych flanking the doorway. The composition is based on a cover I did many years ago for Spider magazine. This portal mural is complemented by a long frieze, that will show the animals flying through the clouds on books, papyrus rolls, cuneiform tablets and possibly a laptop or two. There's also a wrap around mural for the children's reference desk, where squirrels with pencil navigation wands guide the action.

To paint the portal mural on stretched canvas, I needed a big space taller than my studio. As it happens, Friday Harbor Middle School has an empty sixth-grade classroom and as of this year, no formal art program. I asked if I could use the space in exchange for visits by students and teachers as Imagination takes Flight takes shape. The idea is to paint the mural on stretched canvas in Friday harbor, then, when complete, roll it up and transport the canvas to teh library. Portions of the mural will be installed like wallpaper. The portal mural will be restretched.

So far I've been FHMS artist-in-residence for two weeks.

Here's my progress so far.

11/1/09: Stretching the canvas

I built stretchers out of 2x4s purchased at our local lumberyard, Browne's, and fastened together with star-drive screws. The stretcher is 63 inches wide by 135 inches tall. The canvas is a roll of Winsor and Newton, 63" x100 yards, gessoed, from Dick Blick. This is shorter than the actual portal, so I wrapped the top part of the canvas around the top of the stretcher. When I've finished the lower portion of the portal mural I'll unstretch it and move the canvas down.

Once the canvas was stretched, I sprayed the back of the canvas with water so it would tighten up.

11/4/09: Toning the canvas

I bought a gallon of a warm violet Benjamin Moore interior flat latex house paint, and applied it with a roller. This creates a middle value base for the painting. Instead of the classic bolus ground (a brick red used by Renaissance painters) chose violet to harmonize the relatively saturated, warm to cool palette. From this middle tone I will paint up to lights and down to darks.

11/5/09: Squaring up the drawing and beginning the underpainting.

Squaring up is a venerable method that has been used by artists for centuries to enlarge a drawing. I created an 8.5x11 inch color sketch of my composition and gridded it with 1/2 inch squares. On the canvas I gridded 1 foot squares, then transferred the drawing square by square.
Once that step was complete, I began blocking in the major shapes of the composition in acrylic, starting with semi-transparent washes and working up to opaque passages. I have a lot of ground to cover so I'm using 16 oz. jars of Golden Acrylics and a 2 inch house painter's brush.

11/8/09: Refining the underpainting.

At this point I'm still working in acrylic, refining the silhouettes of the major figures. and changing portions of the composition. The stacks of books and the size and position of the giraffe have undergone several changes to get to this point. I've also moved the position of the turtle's arms. I'm nearly ready to switch to oil.

The Plague Doctor is In


While the H1N1 pandemic rages and our lawmakers debate the merits of national healthcare, my exhibit Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History, has a new home for the next three months: the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC. The 30 paintings and 7 maps are from my book Outbreak, published by Crown in 2005. As you may recall from previous posts, Outbreak focuses on six diseases: bubonic plague, smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera, yellow fever and influenza, with sidebars on toxoplasma, malaria and AIDS. As the title suggests, this is not just a recounting of epidemics, but a social history of public health through the lens of disease.

Armistice Day, San Francisco, 1918

The NMHM started out in 1862 as the Army Medical Museum, a division of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. It is on the campus of the Walter Reed Army hospital. To complement the paintings, the staff selected a few items from the Museum's collection of 24 artifacts. Visitors are greeted by a life-size costumed model of a beak-masked plague doctor. The Museum also installed four exhibit cases with artifacts and specimens related to the diseases in the book—a wax model of the face of a 15-year-old boy with lesions resulting from small pox, a tuberculosis-prevention brick engraved with the words, “Don’t spit on sidewalk ,” a lung that shows signs of bronchopneumonia resulting from the 1918 influenza pandemic, and the microscope of Walter Reed himself, the man who led the team that determined the etiology of yellow fever.

Memento Mori

The show opened on Halloween (it runs through January 22). For the opening, children made and wore medieval plague masks stuffed with dried rosemary, and created macaroni skeletons engaged in the "Dance of Death."

I'll be speaking at the Museum on December 5.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Imagine Cascadia

I've been included at several shows at the Port Angeles Fine Art Center. Jake Seniuk, the director, is a generous, imaginative and innovative curator. His shows include "Disaster!" (works about environmental catastrophe), "The Seed" (paired works showing early artistic promise and current output) and now "Imagine Cascadia" (utopian and dystopian works about the Northwest). My contribution to this current show, which runs through the summer in Port Angeles and then moves to Olympia, is a painting of the seventh day of the Genesis story, published several years ago by Time-Life Books. I painted the image the month I moved to San Juan Island and first experienced the unimaginably clean air, the vivid sunsets, the damp cedar forests, the tiny island deer, the ubiquitous blackberry brambles, the chill waters of the Sound, and the remarkable orcas, pandas of the sea.

It really did seem like Eden.

The Seventh Day

Swine Flu High

Last spring, I was invited to teach a painting class at Friday Harbor High School. Our art teacher of 30 years, Pat Speer, had retired and her replacement, Andy Anderson, had yet to arrive, so the district had cobbled together a temporary program. My job was to teach one class, an hour a day for the semester. Although I've taught at several colleges over the years, and I've been a guest speaker in many elementary and secondary school classes, this was my first daily interaction with high schoolers. I had a class of 25 kids, from freshmen to seniors. It was an illuminating experience.

Alex McDonald

As the semester progressed, reports of a swine flu epidemic, first in Mexico, then worldwide, became increasingly prevalent in the media. The school staff received daily briefings on the outbreak from the state health officials and the school administration. I brought a dispenser of hand sanitizer to the classroom and spent a few moments of class time discussing the truths and falsehoods circulating about the epidemic.

Student chatter and texting began to include talk of H1N1. Although many students were outwardly casual and dismissive of the fuss, their comments laced with overtones of irony and teen ennui, I detected, among some students, an undercurrent of anxiety. Who was well? Who was sick? Hadn't a student on neighboring Orcas Island been sent home with swine flu? Weren't the Lopez Island schools going to close? Day by day, my supply of santizer diminished.

Shanti Neff-Baro

I gave the students a lecture about artists of the past who had responded to the events of the day with memorable art: Da Vinci, Goya, Sargent, Kollowitz, Shahn. I todl them about my book Outbreak, and its chapter on the 1918 Spanish flu. And I gave the students an assignment: on a 16x20 piece of illustration board, create a piece of art about swine flu. Unlike previous assignments, which had focused on compositional, aesthetic and technical concerns, this assignment was open. Students could do as they pleased, as long as it was about the flu.

By semester's end, not a single student at Friday Harbor High School had come down with H1N1.

Casey Lehman

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Six Days in the Hole

I can't remember when I first wanted to hike the Grand Canyon. Possibly since my first car visit to the Rim with my parents, when I was a child. Possibly when I drove cross county and stopped for a look over the edge with my wife, Rebecca. But whenever the desire was sparked it's been one of those experiences I've longed to try. 

This year, over Spring Break, I finally got my chance. I hiked the Canyon with my son Parks. This was the annual Grand Canyon trip of the Friday Harbor High School hiking club, led by history teacher Jim McNairy. Twenty-two  people went, sixteen kids and six adults. This was two large a crowd to get a single hiking/camping permit. We split into two groups. Mine was led by Cheryl Opalski and her husband Kent. I added an extra set of grown-up eyes. We hiked from Hermit's Rest to Hermit Creek, then to Hermit Rapids, Boucher Rapids and Granite Rapids, with a final night at Monument before hiking back to Hermit's Rest.  The hiking was hard. The scenery was aridly gorgeous - right on the cusp of spring, with wild flowers just beginning to bloom. The weather perfect: blue skies, temperatures in the 70s, not a drop of rain, the occasional light breeze. Chamber of Commerce weather. 

I sketched every day in my Moleskin sketchbook. The cream colored pages are heavy enough to accept water color without wrinkling and the cover was robust enough to handle the rigor of the Canyon's razor-edge topography. I sketched in pencil and painted with my Cotman watercolor set.  Here's a view from Granite Rapids at sunrise and another of  our fearless leaders, Cheryl and Kent.

Two views from Hermit Creek: sunset and moonlight.

Kent challenged me to paint an especially interesting boulder next to our Hermit Creek campsite, covered in multi-colored lichens. It was challenging.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What I did on Superbowl Sunday

"Smaerd" Illustrator Visits Village Books

by Dave Wheeler2/3/2009 11:15:12 AM
Something curious is afoot, and Bryn Barnard wants to show you what it can look like. Each night you sleep, whether you realize it or not, you are visited by the inhabitants of a land called “Smaerd.” Regional sister-act Andrea von Botefuhr and Angela Russell have created a literary world beyond their own Bainbridge Island that stretches to the furthest corners of your imagination. Partnered with Know Wonder Publishing, who commissioned Bryn Barnard as illustrator, Smaerd has become a reality you can take home and explore.
On Sunday, February 1, 2009, Village Books hosted Barnard to promote The Land of Smaerd, an inspirational picture book for all ages about dreams and the power of positive thinking. Geared toward younger audiences, Smaerd uses fantastical art and bright verses to show children how they might shift their perspective to manifest a new, positive reality around them. The collective creators of Smaerd hope to empower children to face their unique nightmares and bad dreams, and to actively engage them through art.
"The Land of Smaerd"
The Land of Smaerd, illustrated by Bryn Barnard.

The tricky part, said Barnard, is to “take the author’s verbal ideas and manifest them as images.” With his experience primarily centered around illustrating his own books on catastrophes, Dangerous Planet and Outbreak, Barnard was elated to discover the myriad fantasies and word pictures in Smaerd. This is his first project in the realm of metaphysical ideas. He worked closely with von Botefuhr and Russell to develop illustrations that resembled the pictures floating in the ether of their heads.

He pointed out a depiction of a girl standing below a whale soaring on butterfly wings. “This is one that they were very specific about.” While initially Barnard had conceptualized five different protagonists for his illustrations, all of different ethnic backgrounds, the writers encouraged him to compress all the features into a single character, one in which all children might recognize themselves.
Bryn Barnard
Bryn Barnard read from The Land of Smaerd at Village Books. 
Photograph by Dave Wheeler

The book is a veritable wonderland of enchanting landscapes, and, as one looks closer, one might agree with poor Alice, who found herself in a different Wonderland, thinking, “Curiouser and curiouser!” In the artwork, Barnard embedded dragons hiding in hillsides and emphasized the natural complexities of spiraling Fibonacci sequences. The intricately designed mandalas featured in the book were created by Russell, one of which she created shortly after her original conception of Smaerd in the fifth grade!

After reading the story, Barnard sat to paint an image from the book. He described his layering technique using acrylic and oil paints while intermittently narrating a sneak peak at his forthcoming book for fall 2010, of which he is both writer and illustrator, The Genius of Islam: How Muslims Made the Modern World, from Knopf Publishing. The new book will describe the magnificent innovations Muslims have made throughout history, from crank-shafts to sandpaper.

Bryn Barnard
Barnard demonstrated his technique in creating the illustrations. 
Photograph by Dave Wheeler

Visit Bryn Barnard Studio to learn more about Barnard, his art, and his books. For information about upcoming author events, visit Village Books or Activities.