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  • The Dreams of Martha

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    Tags: extinct, extant, ivory-billed woodpecker, carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon

    Created: 1/27/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

    We’ve asked watercolor artist Kristina Knowski to tell us about her inspiration for depicting the beauty of birds. Currently, our exhibit, The Dreams of Martha, features Knowski’s artwork and connects us to the Nature Museum’s year of the Passenger Pigeon, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of the extinction of what was once the most abundant bird in North America. Keep reading to learn more about Knowski’s creative process and her love for nature!

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    Kristina Knowski, Tenebrous Flight, 2013, Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, Extinct 1914, Watercolor on paper adhered to canvas, 3 panels of 25.5 X 37.5 in

    Kristina Knowski, Tenebrous Flight, 2013, Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, Extinct 1914, Watercolor on paper adhered to canvas, 3 panels of 25.5 X 37.5 in

    There was always that unsettling footnote at the bottom of the books picturing some of my favorite bird species. My most memorable was just after I had fallen in love with the Ivory-Billed and what would have been the largest woodpecker in North America. It was a beautiful image: a rich black bird contrasting with large white primaries and a thin streak of feathers trailing from its chin to its back. To top it off, a long pointed crest streamlined its head, the male of its species wearing his in a brilliant crimson. Yet the footnote was there, the disclaimer at the bottom, stating that this species was most likely extinct.

    Kristina Knowski, He prayeth well, who loveth well, 2012, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, Believed to have gone extinct in the 1950’s, Watercolor on paper adhered to canvas, 41.5 X 31.5 in

    Kristina Knowski, He prayeth well, who loveth well, 2012, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, Believed to have gone extinct in the 1950’s, Watercolor on paper adhered to canvas, 41.5 X 31.5 in

    Since I have discovered my passion for birds, extinct species have always been a main focus for me as an artist. Birds represent something natural, fragile, and beautiful. Extinct birds represent those same things, but also something that has been lost. I enjoy creating work that questions our ideas of reality and sense of existence, and extinct birds have become a personal element in my work in conjunction with other nonexistent beings. The paintings included in The Dreams of Martha exhibit focus on both extinct and extant birds of North America, some which can be found in your backyard, while others haunt their old habitats with empty skies. I wanted to create for the viewer a sense of compassion for these animals. While the images are mostly identifiable with some level of detail, those details become more and more, faded like an old memory. The bird seems to vanish into the background, losing its sense of physicality and wholeness. Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers, Carolina Parakeets, Passenger Pigeons, Ryukyu Kingfishers, Bush Wrens, and other extinct birds are now inhabitants of my theoretical world where nonexistence reigns supreme and “nothing” is everywhere. 

    Kristina Knowski, Lady Jane and Incas, Close again, 2012, Carolina Parakeet, Conuropsis carolinensis, Extinct 1918, Watercolor on paper adhered to canvas, 21.5 X 17.5 in

    Kristina Knowski, Lady Jane and Incas, Close again, 2012, Carolina Parakeet, Conuropsis carolinensis, Extinct 1918, Watercolor on paper adhered to canvas, 21.5 X 17.5 in

    September 1, 2014 marks 100 years since the death of the last recorded living Passenger Pigeon, Martha. While this is a tragic reminder of the destruction humanity is capable of, it is also a remembrance to a vast and unique species that we will never encounter again. This day should serve as a severe warning to not repeat history and to treasure the species we are still sharing this planet with. A seemingly limitless species, such as the Passenger Pigeon, can be wiped out within less than a century. I humbly paint to aim as a reminder of this tragedy and hope for a less tragic future.

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    We hope you have a chance to see her exhibit, which is located on the Museum’s second floor south gallery. You can also view more of Kristina’s work at: kristinaknowski.com

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  • Year of the Passenger Pigeon

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    Tags: project passenger pigeon, year of the passenger pigeon, joel greenberg, passenger pigeon, extinct

    Created: 1/20/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    2014 is the centenary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. It was almost three years ago that thirty or so people convened at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum from around the country to discuss this poignant milestone. They represented a range of institutions including Smithsonian Institution, Cornell University, Michigan State University, the Indiana State Museum, Wesleyan University, University of Wisconsin, University of Louisiana, National Council for Science and the Environment, and the Illinois Natural History.  We were there to formulate plans to mark the 2014 anniversary of the pigeon's extinction. What emerged was Project Passenger Pigeon (soon given the shorthand moniker “P3”)  with the 3 part mission of familiarizing people with the passenger pigeon as a species and a phenomenon, using that story as a portal into consideration as current issues related to extinction and humanity’s connections nature, and the need to create sustainable relations with other organisms.

    Project Passenger Pigeon Logo
    Project Passenger Pigeon Logo

    A lot has happened since that first meeting. Over 160 organizations have formally joined P3 with many contributing content to our website, passengerpigeon.org and planning for public activities throughout 2014. In addition to these institutional members, many individuals are planning commemorative activities. Joel Greenberg and Steve Sullivan have talked to a wide range of special interest and professional groups over the last year, ranging from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to the Illinois Science Teachers Association and many individuals in such groups have let us know that they intend to spread the message of P3 through their own activities like newsletters, art projects, and even library story time. 

    Passenger Pigeon Specimen
    Passenger Pigeon Specimen

    Other far-reaching P3 projects that are nearing completion include the documentary From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction directed by David Mrazek. This documentary will likely air on public TV stations across the US. In addition to a compelling depiction of the passenger pigeon story, it features some Academy passenger pigeon specimens. Also, Stan Temple has been working with students at the University of Wisconsin to digitize all known sightings of the passenger pigeon. This data set should be of interest both to people with a casual interest in extinct species as well as scientist looking to better understand how such a wide-ranging and numerous species could have gone extinct so quickly. School teachers will also be able to use these data in classroom lessons that use the interesting stories of biology to teach mathematical concepts.

     Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction book cover
    Joel Greenberg's new book

    At the Nature Museum we will begin the year’s activities on January 23 with a reception for the new book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction. by renown Chicagoland author, Joel Greenberg. You can hear stories about his journey to gather information for the book and learn about his most important discovery—that of a  previously undocumented specimen of passenger pigeon. This specimen was right here in Illinois at Millikin University. We are fortunate to also have David Horn from Millikin to show this well-preserved specimen to the audience. Not only is it a beautifully preserved mount, it is now the last known wild bird. Following the brief presentation, visitors will be able to view the bird and Joel will sign his book. If you’ve never read a Greenberg book, don’t take our word for it that he’s a great writer, you can read reviews in places like The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Reader, and Maclean’s or listen to interviews ranging from local (The Mike Nowak Show) to international (the Diane Rehm Show) and international (Newstalk Ireland).

    Todd McGrain Passenger Pigeon Sculpture
    Todd McGrain Sculpture

    Later we will post details about some of our other P3 activities including a new exhibit  in March Nature’s Struggle:  Survival and Extinction, a large art installation by Todd McGrain, and a weekend symposium in May Why Prevent Extinction? that will feature exciting speakers like entomologist May Berenbaum and ecologist Joel Brown. In the meantime, stop by to see some beautiful watercolors by Kristina Knowski that depict passenger pigeons as well as ivory-billed woodpeckers and Carolina parakeets.


    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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