Illuminating Forms: Shedding Light on Endangered Species

Our first resident artist of the year is building a set of internally lit sculptures depicting endangered local species

Published09/26/2019 , by Gretchen Zampogna

As part of the Bell Museum’s 2019-20 resident artist cohort, sculpture and fiber artist Anna Cerelia Battistini toured our collections and galleries to discover ways of connecting her art to our scientific specimens and other offerings.

In our Minnesota Journeys exhibit, the passenger pigeon diorama and the white silhouettes nearby captivated Battistini, who had an early interest in extinct species. The Field Notes on the gallery walls also caught her eye. These drawings by Minneapolis artist Adam Dennis bring sketches from real scientific studies to life by recreating them as enlarged paintings throughout our galleries.

“And the space is just perfect for my lanterns,” she says. “The dark corners, the natural materials. I could totally picture my work there.”

Battistini specializes in large lanterns created in the tradition of British lantern festivals. She initially planned to use her residency to highlight extinct or endangered species, but soon she narrowed that focus to endangered species local to Minnesota. “If I’m drawing attention to something, it might as well be something that’s still here and that should have attention drawn to it,” she says.

Lanterns for the Bell

Her first sculpture will be a six-foot rusty patched bumblebee—which is, coincidentally, also Minnesota’s new state bee. Battistini spent some time in the Touch & See Lab looking at insects for inspiration, studying such small specimens that gallery coordinator Heather Cummins pointed Battistini to a website with diagrams to help make her create accurate models.

“I started with bees, and went down a real bee rabbit hole,” Battistini laughs. “I got a bumblebee sheet printed from the UMN website and laminated it both sides, and now I’m like a birdwatcher with bees. I am very proud to say that I have three verified sightings of rusty patched bumblebees.”

A handful of other lanterns will join her bee, including a Blanding’s turtle and a Higgins eye pearlymussel … and a piping plover.

Many museum visitors are excited to come across a diorama that represents a place they have a connection to, and Battistini, who used to live near Lake Pepin, is no exception. The Sand Point diorama tapped into her memory of watching shorebirds by the water there, lending her plover piece a special meaning for her—she hopes to display her plover near the Lake Pepin diorama.

Science for artists

One of the important parts of the Bell’s resident artist program is special access to our collections for participating artists, providing them a scientific lens for their art.

“The whole collections tour was super inspiring,” Battistini says. “It’s an incredible resource.” Somewhat to her surprise, the University of Minnesota Herbarium turned out to be the part of the tour that engaged her science brain the most. “We all loved the herbarium tour,” she says.

She says scientific specimens are an important tool for understanding how an animal is put together.  “But looking at a specimen doesn’t tell me how an animal moves or its postures when it’s alive,” she says. “I’ve been working on lady slippers, and I want to look at all sides of the flower—a flat specimen in the herbarium doesn’t give the angle I need.”

Having a subject’s physical construction right isn’t the only thing that’s important about to Battistini when it comes to her sculptures. She’s also interested in what else is it that makes it the animal to viewers, and this is the conversation she’s been having with Bell visitors.

Making art together

At our August After Hours, Battistini spent some time studying and sketching specimens in the galleries in preparation for her lantern making. Visitors had the chance to watch her artistic process, and she enjoyed the chance to interact with people.

“What things make it art, and what things make it the animal? What makes my bee lantern a bee? I’m removing the materials, texture, and color, so what’s left to identify it? People had really great responses and were really thoughtful, and that’s sort of a lofty art conversation,” she says.

“The audience at the Bell approaches art from a different place than visitors to an art gallery—that’s been my favorite thing so far about this residency. Bell visitors are there to learn something and they approach it with curiosity. When I was sketching in the galleries, people had the best questions, with no fear.”

During our September After Hours, Battistini held a workshop where visitors made their own ornaments. These simplified versions of Battistini’s lanterns were fashioned out of sticks and tissue paper and hung together in a collaborative project—a giant mobile. After their evening at the museum, participants returned to the mobile to take their own pieces of the project home with them.

“This is a super accessible medium,” Battistini says. “You can generate volume fairly quickly and that’s really exciting to people.” The way art can engage and connect people is what excites her most. “What I want to make with my art is this community—that engagement is the finished product.”

When to visit

The show opens October 16 at our After Hours event, where you can also join Bell resident artist Erin Sharkey for a poetry reading from new work under the stars in the planetarium. An installation of Battistini’s work will be on view throughout the Minnesota Journeys gallery on the second floor.

Visitors will also have a chance to view Battistini’s lanterns at the October 25 Ghostly Garden event.