The science of art

Isabella Kirkland: Stilled Life on display at Dayton Art Institute

By Sara Mastbaum

Seventeenth-century Dutch painters, artists from the “Golden Age” of Dutch painting, often used the still life to display technical skill. Not only technique, but also symbolic elements were key to these paintings. The memento mori, Latin for “remember that you will die,” was a popular motif for these cheery folks, who created vanitas (vanity) paintings to emphasize the ephemeral nature of life.

California-based artist Isabella Kirkland, whose first major museum solo show, Stilled Life, is currently on display at the Dayton Art Institute, was inspired by these Dutch painters both in technique and theme. Kirkland’s ideas about the brevity of life, however, are distinctly modern.

“They’re all very environmentally conscious pieces,” said the exhibition’s curator, Aimee Marcereau DeGalan. The flora and fauna in Kirkland’s paintings represent species that have been impacted by man in some way. “It’s a quieter form of environmentalism,” DeGalan added, explaining the paintings are multilayered and can be enjoyed for their beauty before the viewer digs in for the deeper meaning behind them.

This is the first time Kirkland’s work has been shown on such a large scale. The exhibition includes more than 50 works – no small task, considering the larger paintings take a year or more to complete.

“Because her process is so meticulous,” DeGalan said, “the research involved also takes a lot of time. Every bird and snake and butterfly has been researched, and they relate to different themes in her work.”

To give viewers an idea of just how much research goes into each painting, Kirkland’s preliminary sketches will be on view alongside her large-scale finished work.

Kirkland discussed the particulars of her research process. “Each painting has an overarching theme,” Kirkland said. “I’ll start with reading a lot about a subject […] and I’ll devise a list of potential candidates that fit into that category, then begin researching the ones I want. I’ll go to a natural history museum or an aquarium or a garden and try to look at the original objects. Most of the things I look at are in the preserved state. I spend about three to 12 months just doing research before I even think about what the painting’s going to look like. Once I have several pictures of plants and animals, I start to think about how they might be arranged in some kind of compositional way that balances colors and shapes and so on.”

Prior to creating paintings, Kirkland worked as a sculptor. Yet, no matter the medium, environmental issues have always been one of her main thematic concerns. “When I left New York [in 1990] and came back to California, I made the intellectual decision I would only create work about biology,” she said. “It was very deliberate. What kind of brought it all together was that I received a mailer from the Sierra Club, who used to do a list called the ‘100 Most Endangered Species in the United States.’ […] It struck me to think how many things were on that list.”

The idea of preserving endangered species coincided with the turn of the millennium, when the idea of keeping a historical record was at the forefront of the collective conscious. Long-term thinking – time capsules, for example – was extremely popular. “At the turn of the century, that whole sort of Zeitgeist was in the air,” Kirkland said. “The thought stayed with me the animals might not survive, but the maybe the painting would.

“I was intrigued with that idea of longevity,” she continued. “When you look at some of the Dutch still-lifes, you can tell exactly what insect it was; they’re so exact. I was very inspired by that.”

Kirkland emphasized the layers of meaning in her work. “It doesn’t ram an idea down your throat,” she said. “It’s open to anyone who wants to look at it. You can just enjoy it as a pretty painting. I do offer a lot more if people want to read more or look more; the scientific information is there alongside the images themselves.”

Overall, Kirkland said she hopes people will become more mindful or caring after viewing her work.

“Their own actions will affect the rest of life on the planet,” she said. “There’s a precarious balance man is going to have to walk between protection and destruction. There has to be a middle path, and that’s what I’d like people to try to find in their own lives.”

In addition to seeing Kirkland’s work, viewers will be able to see firsthand the style of artwork that inspired the paintings in “Stilled Life.” DeGalan is also curating a companion exhibition, In Bloom, made up of flower paintings from the museum’s permanent collection.

“This is where Isabella Kirkland is coming from; she’s drawing inspiration from these Dutch painters not only in their technique, but in their themes,” DeGalan said. “The companion exhibition is to kind of connect that dot for the viewer.”

The Dayton Art Institute presents Isabella Kirkland: Stilled Life through May 18 at the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North. For ticket and other information, please visit


Reach DCP freelance writer Sara Mastbaum at

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