By Whitney Harder
(Oct. 28, 2015) — Home to laboratories, aviaries, research fields and ponds, the University of Kentucky Ecological Research and Education Center (EREC) is also now home to larger than life-size art that illustrates the beauty of the science studied there.
Painted by Italian muralist Hitnes and a group of community members and UK students, the mural merges art and science to reflect birds Hitnes observed while he retraced the journey of John James Audubon.
"Like all of the best public art, the EREC mural has both beautiful and challenging elements, here in the engaging style of Hitnes and his master class," said Philip Crowley, director of the EREC. "Because we study physiology and behavior of birds at the field station, having an Audubon-inspired mural is a perfect fit and allows us to provide something special for our neighbors to enjoy as well."
Black-necked stilts, house sparrows, crows, purple branches and more colorful paintings now line the back exterior walls of the EREC, a special sight for researchers working in the aviaries across the field. The mural, as well as the downtown Lexington mural Hitnes painted during the same visit, is part of "The Image Hunter" project.
Hitnes said it is a work on obsession, and birds are an intriguing and beautiful symbol of obsession.
"Audubon is, as a matter of fact, a fantastic demonstration of it, since he dedicated his life to this obsession," Hitnes said.
Audubon (1785-1851), a naturalist and painter, is best known for his extraordinary four-volume "Birds of America," a collection of 435 life-size prints based on the birds he observed while traveling across the United States. Audubon lived and worked in Henderson, Kentucky, for some time before embarking on his quest.
"Most of that, while it's very beautiful, was designed to describe what these animals look like for people that might not have seen them. It was a scientific way of documenting them. So a lot of his (Hitnes) work is inspired by that," said Jacqueline Dillard, a doctoral student in the biology program who took part in Hitnes' mural class.
Dillard has been an artist since before her interest in science peaked. She also works in the EREC a few times a week and conducts experiments at the field station.
"This just seemed like a really good opportunity to sort of combine art with science," she said.
While Hitnes sketched an outline, mostly branches and trees, to get things started, he gave students the liberty to create any bird they wanted. Drawing inspiration from her lab's area of research, Dillard painted a house sparrow.
"I thought it would be cool to have some representation of our lab group here," she said.
"Hitnes' visit was especially exciting as a means of connecting UK students to his broader sustainability efforts and including Lexington among his mural locations," said Jerrod Penn of the UK Student Sustainability Council (SSC), which helped fund the events.
In addition to the SSC, Hitnes' visit was sponsored by the Central Kentucky Audubon Society, PRHBTN and the UK Department of Biology.
"Birds are everywhere," Hitnes said. "Birds are on the move. So you can follow them and they are adventurous as humans; they are explorers; they migrate."
But a vibrant mural of birds at the EREC is here to stay, reminding UK students, faculty, staff and the community that art and science often cross paths, and do so beautifully.