We live in a very competitive world, constantly reminded that there are far too many people and far too few successful opportunities to go around. Being bombarded with that ideology can cause the average person to become hopeless and complacent. And yet, in the midst of that despondency, there are still those managing to not only succeed but actually forge entirely unique career paths for themselves- and in the arts, no less.
Ashley Cecil is an artist and illustrator based out of Pittsburgh, PA who focuses on paintings of flora and fauna. Her paintings illustrate the interconnectedness between the natural world and its inhabitants. Ashley has created a new career path for herself with a unique combination between the art world and the sciences. She participates in a series of residencies with various scientific institutions and does art projects based on what she learns at each institution (as well as her own research).
Though this can be fairly broad, the subject matter she focuses on gets far more specific based on which residency she is engaged in, “So in the case of [my most recent] residency with the Richards-Zawacki Herpetology Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, clearly the focus is on amphibians. An overarching theme of these residencies is telling a story of nature conservation. So in the case of the herpetology residency, that’s been focused primarily on the spread of a disease that is wiping out amphibian populations worldwide. Others are about habitat loss and, what would I call, last-ditch conservation efforts.”
According to Ashley, the kind of work she now experiments first began overseas. She lived in London for a period while attending grad school and this was when she fell in love with the arts & crafts movement as well the natural world as a subject. Though her passion began in London, it didn’t fully emerge until she was back in the states, “It didn’t really solidify into practical application in my studio until I moved to Pittsburgh in 2011. I learned how many amazing institutions we have here.
Like our National Aviary, a top five Natural History Museum, Phipps. So I started fusing the two… As I started to spend more time at these museums, I learned more and more about [natural species] stories. Like how they’re endangered, what they have to do with our own health and wellbeing and food systems. And that truly was the hook. I felt like there was something there to run with. Which is why I started to do these six-month projects with these various institutions to dive deep into their collections and into their research and also their outreach as well. So like trying to use the art as a tool to engage their audiences.”
Though Ashley has now clearly found her calling, it wasn’t always so easy for her to reconcile between her love for both the arts and sciences, “It’s kind of ironic, really. As a kid, I was horrible at the sciences. I wasn’t a good test taker… it just wasn’t my thing. I’m horrible at memorization…so even though I had an interest in animal medicine… I realized at a young age that wasn’t going to be a viable path for me. I really pivoted towards far more suggestive fields where I thought I could make it work.
So art was obviously appealing to me, but it wasn’t until my thirties where I started to feel that I had a place at the table in the sciences. That I didn’t need to succeed in math or chemistry or biology to participate. So it’s funny that I’ve kind of created this path for myself where I hang out with scientists all day and I read scientific articles and I’m trying to communicate that really dense material in a way that is digestible to the public- which I wish someone had done for me.”
During her 2015 residency with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Ashley learned a great deal about the problem with bird-window collisions. These collisions are one of the leading causes of bird fatalities, causing up to one billion birds to die annually in the US alone.
There are bird-safe windows and window films that can be installed to prevent these deaths, but Ashley noticed that the market was missing something. “It struck me that there was a real void of anything with an aesthetic value to it, which is why I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time for a more decorative version of this?’” Ashley hopes that creating a more visually pleasing version of the film will result in more people putting them up and, thereby, less bird-window fatalities.
Ashley has just begun her latest in a long line of exciting opportunities. “I’m going to be doing a project focused on plant ecology at Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens. I could be touching on things like the importance of pollinators- basically the importance of plants to our own human health and how we are impacting those species.”
Ever the ambitious and driven one, Ashley plans to continue to participate in similar types of residencies in the future as well. “Each one of those projects will have some key components that will be consistent through all of them. One, there will be my original artwork made and inspired by research. It will be exhibited for the public, that’s always one key component.
And then I typically always turn that original artwork into patterns… resale products will sometimes end up being sold in the gift shops of these museums if that’s applicable to the project. And that ends up being mutually beneficial to both of us for our income- it helps support my residencies as well as their programs. And then there’s always a really strong focus on education and outreach.
I typically work on education and outreach staff to create a themed workshop that teaches a theme of science or nature conservation through a hands-on art activity. So it’s another tool for them to then pack up and take to maybe festival or a children’s museum so that we can interact with the public through art to talk about science.”
In a world where it’s easy to feel despondent and it’s difficult to dream, a story like Ashley’s gives us hope. Ashley has accomplished so much in terms of creating a unique career path for herself and she encourages young artists to possess the same sense of tenacity that allowed her to do so, “I would encourage them to take trips, to travel, to get to know people who are doing work of interest.
I think people have been surprised that I have been somewhat bold about inviting myself into places where maybe artists have typically not been. And I’m always kind of surprised how shy people can be about that. I often tell people, ‘No is not going to hurt you.’ Someone says no, life will go on, it’s OK. But ask…just ask. Can I come see your collection? Can we meet for coffee? Or just travel and go see the thing that inspires you….Apply to [programs], take in as much as you can, and ask people if they’re interested in collaborating. People will say no and that’s OK- just keep asking.”
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Also, follow Ashley on Instagram or Twitter @ashleycecil