Coincidence or Cooperation? Amazon Feathers & Modern Jewels

Here at HMNS, we frequently offer exhibitions that showcase stunning and diverse artistry from cultures around the globe and throughout time. In working here, I’m privileged to be able to walk through each as much as I can while they are here, and absorb the colors, forms, and inspiration of thousands of years of human culture. I love design – modern, ancient, however humans have creatively assembled things. We’re a science museum – but there is just so much art in science. I’m constantly fascinated by it.

Amethyst Necklace,
designed by Ernesto Moreira;
on display in the Gem Vault.

Which was why I am delighted to share something I noticed recently – a commonality between the very modern design showcased in one of our permanent exhibitions and the design of several of the absolutely stunning works of feather art in our current Spirits & Headhunters exhibition – which, while created in relatively modern times (within the last 100 years or so) reflect a design tradition that goes back centuries – if not thousands of years.

Many of the pieces on display in the Smith Gem Vault were created by a local designer, Ernesto Moreira, specifically to showcase some of the worlds most striking and rare gemstones. Made circa 2005-2006, they were inspired by architectural elements – as Ernesto put it, “the ornamental ironwork on windows, doors, and street lights, so prevalent in European cities,” which he has spent many years observing, sketching and photographing.

In contrast, the unique feather art of the Ka’apor tribe is some of the most beautiful and delicate ornamentation produced in the Amazon. Produced for ceremonial use – and then discarded – these objects are created in two sets: one specifically for men, the other for women. The tukaniwar shown below is a “spectacular neck ornament,” made for women from “mythologically harmless bird feathers…the blue color connects the wearer to the sky where all the culture heroes dwell.”  (Check out the exhibit catalog for more info.)

As you can see from the image, there are blue feathers woven into the ornament that would have hung in the front – as well as the smaller ornament that would have hung in back, once the necklace was tied.

tukaniwar, on display in
Spirits & Headhunters

It would seem that these two objects – created by artists from very different cultural traditions – would have nothing in common. However, the hanging feathered ornament is extremely similar to the small jeweled ornaments that Ernesto designed into the clasp of his pieces in the Gem Vault (if you haven’t been in the Vault yet – trust me, you’re going to want to check it out in person).

I wondered if there could possibly be a connection – and when associate curator for Amazonia Adam Mekler was here to install the Spirits & Headhunters exhibition, I asked him. Sure enough – it turns out that Moreira had worked with Mekler many years ago when parts of this collection were first on display.

Pretty amazing coincidence, to be sure – but I had to find out if there was any merit to the theory that one had influenced the other. (This *is* a science museum, after all.) Here’s what Ernesto had to say:

” I can tell you right away Adam’s pieces did not have an immediate direct impact on my work. That said, I have noticed a pattern in the way my brain works in regards to creativity. When I was a teenager, I looked at Japanese prints and architecture… then in my early twenties I made a collection of one of a kind pieces called little people. One time during a solo Gallery show the entire collection sold out. The gallery owner told me it was sold to mainly Asian customers. Sometime later…I realized how Japanese my pieces actually were… in their geometry and their compositional balance. Most recently during the making of the museum Gem Vault pieces I began to adorn the settings with filigree… but not just the normal filigree… a more architectural version. This time it did not take me long to figure out that, once again, I was translating many of the images in my head into my jewelry designs since I had spent many years sketching and photographing much of the ornamental ironwork on windows, doors, and street lights, so prevalent in European cities (something I still do). So it seems I work best absorbing and letting be, then somehow, sometime the subject matter reappears in my work. I worked with Adam Mekler and his incredible Amazonian collection during many years and for months at a time I would handle these amazing works… absorbing as usual. I doubt that such resemblance between the indigenous works and my own are purely coincidental, yet I cannot claim an intentional link.” [emphasis mine]

So, not an intentional connection – but I was pleased to discover such a link between ornamentation designed by these two very different artists and cultures. It’s fascinating to see how artists are inspired and how very different cultures can influence one another, sometimes in seemingly random – but very delightful – ways. It inspires me to take a closer look at everything around me, in the museum – but also out in the world. Part of the joy in seeing real artifacts, up close, is having the opportunity to examine them for these little details that allow you to really experience the object first-hand.

So, how about you – what little things have you noticed about the world?

The Lester and Sue Smith Gem Vault is a permanent exhibition at HMNS – but you only have a few more weeks to see Spirits & Headhunters before the exhibition moves on. Don’t miss it! Before you come, you can learn more about these fascinating cultures in a preview video interview with curator Adam Mekler below.

Can’t see the video? Watch it here.

Get your hands on science!

Seeing our dinosaurs up close is exciting – but getting your hands on science is an even more amazing experience. Which is why we try to bring you hands-on, educational activities that make you the scientist.

Visitors search for shark’s teeth in our Paleo Hall

Several mornings a week we have a volunteer on-hand in our Hall of Paleontology to help you experience the work of a paleontologist and malacologist.

Come by soon – you can help us sift through the shells and gravel collected by our teams in Bryan, Texas for fossils that are from the Eocene era, from species that lived over 35 million years ago. Help us separate the fossils – old snail shells, clams, mollusks, otoliths, coral and gastropods – and view them in tiny detail under the magnifying glass. Hold barracuda, manta ray and shark teeth in your hands, and help us to categorize them while you learn about ocean life both past and present.

Sift through shells, gastropods, and teeth
that are over 35 million years old

If sorting through our shell collection isn’t hands on enough for you, sign up to go on our family or adult day excursions with one of our curators. Go bird watching with Dan Brooks or collect your own shells on a malacology trip with David Temple. Sign up at hmns.org, and keep your eye open for future science trips.

Mastodons in Manhattan? Or, Pachyderms of the Pleistocene

South Street Seaport...
Creative Commons License photo credit: 708718

It’s hard to imagine it now, but the world’s largest cities – the places where humanity’s impact on the Earth can be seen most vividly – were once overrun with prehistoric wildlife so large and fascinatingly diverse as to boggle the mind. Depending on where you live, your own backyard may have been home to mastodons, giant beavers, a herd of fearsome Postosuchus, or Ice Age bears.

A new Discovery Channel series profiles six cities across the United States, each with their own unique story to tell about the richness of prehistoric life. With stories ranging from the Triassic to the Pleistocene, the variety of life that came before us is truly amazing.

Mastodon Skeleton, from the side
Creative Commons License photo credit: The_Gut

Check out this video to see the HMNS visiting curator of paleontology, Dr. Robert Bakker, discuss the “hairy monsters” that once roamed the boggy forests that would be transformed – by both natural and human forces – into modern-day Manhattan. Watching the cityscape melt away into verdant wetlands of the Pleistocene is pretty amazing, as is seeing the ancient plant life still growing through modern sidewalks.

You can see more when “Prehistoric New York” airs locally, this Sunday, June 28, at 8 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.

The Sphinx Moth: A Work of Art

Today we have a special guest blog from Chad Erpelding, Assistant Professor of Art at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.  He teaches 2D Design and Painting there.  This fall the Cockrell Butterfly Center is hosting an exhibit of some of his students’ paintings that were inspired by sphinx moths.  Here is what he has to say about the project.

The overlap between art and science is a subject rich with potential and currently being investigated by many artists.  Damien Hirst suspends animal specimens in large tanks of formaldehyde.  Olafur Eliasson, who is currently having a major survey of his work at the Dallas Museum of Art, explores weather systems and natural phenomena.  Mel Chin worked closely with a scientist in realizing his piece Revival Field, which uses plants to remove toxic metals from a polluted site.  So when Dr. William Godwin, entomologist at Stephen F. Austin State University and adjunct curator at HMNS, brought up the idea of a joint project between the Biology Department and the School of Art at SFA, I jumped at the opportunity.

We decided to organize a competition for the art students centered on sphinx moths (family Sphingidae), several members of which are found locally in Nacogdoches and throughout east Texas (see Nancy’s recent blog on these fascinating moths.)  Dr. Godwin gave a lecture on the characteristics and life cycle of sphinx moths, giving the students the base of knowledge needed to understand their subject.  From here, I stressed to the students the importance of finding the balance between accuracy towards the moths and the inventiveness that happens in the studio.  The restrictions we put on the entries were only on size and weight of the pieces themselves.  We wanted the students to have the freedom to explore their own interpretations and realize their creative impulses. 

I was thrilled with some of the pieces the students created. Carolyn Norton, a graduate student from Lufkin, won first place for her piece “Sonic Defense,” an ink drawing that follows the paths of a bat and moth in battle, including an explosion of scales – a trick that moths do to fool their predators mid-air. 

Margaret Pledger, a senior from Brenham, received second place for her “Pupa Ring,” a copper ring based loosely on the shapes of sphinx moth pupae.  Chad Hines, a graduate student from Temple, received third place for his “Sphingidae,” a drawing that simultaneously explores the patterns of the moths and the joys of making marks on paper. 

The truly fascinating part of this project for me was to see the many different directions that the artists took.  You never know from where inspiration will come.  While some of the students looked at the patterns and shapes of the moths, others were interested in their habits or specific characteristics.  A few explored broader cultural connections, using the moths as a metaphor for the human experience.  Whatever the source, I think this was a great opportunity for both the science and art communities to see how our fields can interact.  It encourages us to continue to see the world in new and awe-inspiring ways.

Please be sure to stop and take a look at these interesting works of art on your next visit to the Butterfly Center.  They are in the lower level (just around the corner from the mosquito display) and will remain on display until March, 2009.

Sphinx Moth art, on display in the lower level
of the Cockrell Butterfly Center.