Did you know that our 10 million specimens are a source of artistic inspiration?

Visual artist Mary Baranowski-Lowden routinely visits our collections at our research and collections facility to make drawings.

Mary’s main medium of expression is etching. She moved from the very urban city of Toronto, Ontario, and now lives in a pastoral setting along the Gatineau River in Wakefield, Quebec. She finds the nature that surrounds her inspired her work. Its complexity presents its own challenges.

It all began with a bird’s nest. The sculpture-like construction intrigued her. Driven by the desire to understand, be inspired by this “work of art”, and do justice to Mother Nature’s model in her drawings, Mary decided she wanted to learn more about the nest and the species of bird that created it.

Collage of nest, bird and plant images
Top left: Copper engraving of the first nest, drawn below. Right: Prized collage (Natural Elements II) containing the same nest. Images: Myriam Thibodeau © Canadian Museum of Nature, © Mary Baranowski-Lowden

In the spring of 2014, Mary made a visit to the museum. She met with Michel Gosselin, head of the Bird Collection. His scientific expertise and explanations helped Mary base her creations on a better understanding of nature.

This way, our collections have become a precious resource for her as well! By observing her subjects in minute detail, the artist discovers anatomical details that would otherwise not be detectable. These observations eventually become part of the larger picture in her personal interpretations specific to her surroundings.

A beaver's head.
A beaver’s muzzle is hairy! See how short the hairs are near the nostrils, growing longer and longer and changing colour as you move further away. This type of detail fascinates Mary Baranowski-Lowden and is almost impossible to capture in a natural setting. Image: Myriam Thibodeau © Canadian Museum of Nature

Over time, Mary has diversified and enriched her exploration of nature. The inspiration she derives from nature seems infinite. After birds, the artist is now taking an interest in the mammals in our collections. Her studies provide material for her River Diaries.

Illustration: A heron, flowers and insects.
River Diaries III, multi-plate etching with Chine collé and watercolour. Mary starts her work by drawing her subject. Using an etching tool on the copper plate, she exposes the area of fine lines that defines the image to an acid bath. The lines are engraved into the copper by the acid. Finally, the artist prints and arranges her works in much the same way as a patchwork. This process takes time to develop—much like nature itself. Image: © Mary Baranowski-Lowden

Since Mary’s childhood, a time when she loved drawing nature in the company of her mother, much water has run under the bridge. After a fulfilling artistic career teaching art to children, and after travelling to various countries, particularly in Asia, she has come back to her sources.

This is also an opportunity for her to reconcile science and art. Unlike her two sisters who both pursued scientific careers, Mary struggled with scientific concepts in school. Today, she uses chemistry in her work on copper plates. Her fascination with anatomical details can be likened to the scientific accuracy that informs biology.

That’s a good example of how art and science come together to make nature shine!

Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa recently awarded Mary the Gordon J. Wood Print Purchase Prize for two of her works: Natural Elements I and II. Jean-Claude Bergeron, one of the jurors and director of the gallery, commented on the quality of her works, stressing that Mary Baranowski-Lowden’s compositions are a witness to her love and understanding of nature.

Collage with a bird, feathers and plants.
Natural Elements I. Art and nature are bound together in the artist work. Image: © Mary Baranowski-Lowden

Natural Element II is showing in Ottawa at the Carleton University Art Gallery until August 23.

Also, on October 24, 2015, the Canadian Museum of Nature will opens the doors of its research and collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec. Visitors will be able to go behind the scenes and meet the experts who curate and study the collections. Admission is free.

Translated from French.