Art and science converge in UT scientists’ animal prints

Trevor Heise

The work of two UT scientists who use Japanese printmaking techniques to create images of a variety of insects, mammals and birds will be highlighted in two art exhibitions in November.

Adam Cohen, collections manager of ichthyology at Texas Natural History Collections, and Ben Labay, research biologist at the Texas Natural Science Center, started by making prints of fish, but have since expanded to larger and more complicated subjects.

“We just picked up a fish and started going for it — it’s all history from there,” Cohen said.

Using Gyotaku, an art form historically employed by Japanese fishermen to chart the sizes of catches, Cohen and Labay apply paint to their animal subjects, then dab off the excess drizzle before pressing the animals against paper to create a print. The results, scanned and readied for gallery showing, are presented through their “Inked Animal” project.

“Adam and Ben are the only people I know who’ve extended this method [to] other animals and insects — in that sense, it’s really unique,” said Hayley Gillespie, founder of Art.Science.Gallery., a museum that highlights the intersection between art and science. “They have this uncanny ability to make their prints lifelike, even serene.”

Cohen and Labay’s work will be featured Nov. 16-17 and 23-24 in the 12th annual East Austin Studio Tour. The self-guided tour showcases Austin’s small, local studios and provides people the opportunity to chat with artists and to make their own prints.

The Art.Science.Gallery. will also feature the scientists’ latest work on imaging insects in an upcoming exhibition called Eclosion. The exhibition features 57 works by 44 artists and aims to highlight the interactions of insects within the natural and modern worlds — hoping to increase public understanding of arthropods’ lives.

Labay said the work can be gross at times, but is rewarding and fun. The two artists said they hope their prints make people think about the ordinary and ugly sides of animal life that they might otherwise ignore. 

Feathers, fur, guts and roadkill come to life in ways that are intriguing, and even beautiful, in the Gyotaku-inspired prints, Gillespie said.

“Mainly, we come at this project as lovers of nature — to show people perspectives of animals they wouldn’t normally see,” Labay said. “Some of the aspects of our work are more approachable in a gallery context.”

Looking forward, Cohen and Labay said they hope to expand their methods to larger and more challenging subjects. The duo is working on new projects that include a series of concentric negative prints that study the decomposition of opossums and attempt to image mammals as large as horses.

But, Cohen said, the two hope to keep the feel of small-scale experimentation alive as they tackle new subjects, galleries and exhibits.