Faculty Guest Blogger: Dr. Linda Dugan Partridge
Dr. Linda Dugan Partridge: When I was in graduate school, I once shared a cup of tea with two older and wiser academic women. I asked them which art history dissertation topic I should choose: art from an interesting, war-stressed era in America’s history—or John James Audubon’s bird drawings, blending art and science, which I could foresee crossing boundaries into my love of animals, the outdoors, and environmental advocacy. I fully expected them to throw the question back to me, but my friends must have been hearing a passion I was unaware of, or was trying to rationalize. Their instant advice? Option 2. Follow your heart: that’s a message I try to share with to my students now.
Audubon was one of the most recognizable names in his own era for his Birds of America illustrations and in ours for a namesake environmental organization, the Audubon Society. I still find this artist an almost inexhaustible springboard for exploring diverse artistic, scientific, historic, and cultural topics. Recently, I have been researching his watercolor of three Greater Prairie Chickens and a stalk of lilies in a western landscape. These birds, especially interesting for their mating displays, are suffering shrinking populations and alarming habitat loss today. Audubon saw the species as important, and dwindling, even in the 1820s and ‘30s. This was one of his most complete compositions and I argue it was motivated by not only ornithology, but his hunting interests, animosity for other scientists, and his longing to explore the American West. I am also following a parallel line of research relating his persistent allusions to Native Americans to national politics.
One of the many specific places where my personal interests mesh with research is this lily. I grow native plants (they’re beautiful and support native species, like pollinators, that need all the help they can get); and of course I’m especially attuned to plants that Audubon represented nearly 200 years ago. Cultivating the Lilium superbum, seen in my photo here, has educated me to its growth cycle. It has actually helped me re-think the whole prairie chicken composition and ask new questions about the specimen he could have used, its bloom time, and where he might have been when he drew it. For comparison, I’m also showing a very different version of the same species illustrated in a natural history book available to Audubon.
Nearly every art history course offers exciting opportunities to examine how we as humans use art to express our relation to the world, including the natural one. I co-developed and co-teach Green Piece: Art and Nature in America with my colleague, Pamela M. Parsons. As a combined art history and studio course, it is unusual for any university curriculum. Green Piece is especially fun to teach because of the unplannable elements, like literal “field” trips and other unique opportunities that fall our way. For instance, we study national icons like bald eagles, fierce animals, and majestic old-growth trees that appear in art across the centuries. As realities, though, these lie outside most students’ life experiences. So this past spring, thanks to generous assistance from PA Game Commission officers, we not only visited an active bald eagle nest and 500-year-old hemlocks, but students had the chance to “pet” and even tag a young bear that had just been trapped (and sedated) for relocation. It was probably one of the most unorthodox art field trips on record!
Pamela Parsons and I also co-direct the Fresh Perspectives-New Solutions Visiting Environmental Artist Series. For years we have built an association and friendship with Patricia Johanson, one of America’s first—and premier—environmental artists, who has visited campus a number of times and has worked with our students. Johanson creates art on the land while literally healing it, at the same time respecting its human history. A number of years ago she designed Mary’s Garden for Marywood, with funding from the University and the Willary Foundation. The result would provide multi-use spaces for outdoor classrooms, a spiritual retreat, and passive water filtration ponds, all in the shape of a sacred lily and rose. The project would remediate mine-scarred campus land behind the playing fields while paying homage to the region’s mining heritage and to the University’s founders, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We have hopes that it will be constructed as a beautiful, appropriate, and needed campus asset.
Whether it’s about art from hundreds of years ago or for tomorrow, option 2—that decision I made years ago—continues to be fascinating and rewarding!
Featured image: http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/pinnated-grouse