An interview with a award-winning artist Paul Mirocha, with Gary Nabhan
Paul Mirocha’s elegant, precise and moving illustrations of monarchs and milkweeds have already begun to grace our website and public presentations, thanks to support recently received from the Compton Foundation. He is considered by many to be among the most widely respected biological illustrators in North America, and his work has been featured on many websites, in gallery exhibits, magazines and in books such as Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, Sara St. Antoine’s children’s books and The Forgotten Pollinators. He has been collaborating for several years with Chip Taylor on MonarchWatch maps and graphics, which have been widely used by many environmental education groups as well. Here Paul talks about his strategies for science communication and conservation through art.
1. As an artist, what messages about milkweeds and monarchs do you try to convey?
I usually try to keep to one big idea in a poster or other graphic design because that’s all people will absorb or remember, unless they already know what we are trying to communicate. Simplicity is also a major part of what makes something aesthetic or pleasing to the eye and mind, even if it is an illustration with a lot of detail, it can still have this harmony.
With “Make Way for Monarchs”, I focus on the relationship between Monarchs and Milkweeds. Almost everybody can recognize a Monarch butterfly, if they recognize anything at all. And almost everyone knows what a long-term relationship is. And yet few make the connection of the Monarch’s dependence on Milkweeds. That’s the one big idea I’d like to convey. One can extend this particular Monarch/Milkweed interaction to more understanding of interdependence in general and how the world works that way. Even humans are dependent on our environment.
Also, I like weeds. They deserve some PR.
2. How much biological knowledge do have to absorb to illustrate the way you do?
A lot. Research is the first step in beginning an illustration. I usually spend at least a few hours at it, travel to look at the subject live if I can, or visit a collection; sometimes it takes a lot of my time. I have a huge library I collected over the years of every field guide and nature picture book I found, mostly from used bookstores. But it’s essential. Now a lot of wonderful research photos are available on the Web.
I love science and every art project gives me a chance to learn something new. Once I know a little, I become more interested in the stories themselves, and I usually learn more than I need to in order to complete the artwork. Eventually I have to get to work. My biological knowledge pretty much follows in line with the things I have illustrated.
In designing the Monarch migration map, I learned quite a bit about Monarch biology. I had long talks with Chip Taylor about the migration paths, which became more complex the more I knew about them. Originally, Monarch Watch gave me two maps–one for each season- both black and white. My goal was to simplify the new map so both Fall and Spring migrations were on the same map, using overlays. That way, I thought viewers could get a whole picture in one look. There is a certain view of the whole you need to have before all the details fit together and make sense.
3. How can art help conservation?
I think most environmental organizations have rightfully communicated messages of danger to, and loss of the environment. But this is a fear-based message. It works too, but people eventually become numb and unresponsive to that–there is already so much doom in the news. We think, “what can one person do, it’s so overwhelming.” You can plant a milkweed. Planting a seed is itself a powerful archetype. It requires a trust in the future.
I like to use positive images of beauty as a motivator for action. Images are so powerful to the human mind, and beauty is possibly the highest ideal. One positive image like a thing of beauty, is more powerful than many negative images. Our brains latch onto images like a bee homing in on a flower.
Some examples of artists that have revolutionized public consciousness of nature are the Hudson River School of landscape painters, like Frederick Church, who were inspired by the scientific explorations of the American West, South America, and Central America in the 1800s. Photographic portfolios and essays by Ansel Adams had a direct effect on Congress setting aside national Parks in the West.
Think of the profound effect that the first image captured by Apollo astronauts of the full Earth from space had on how we see ourselves. That “Blue Marble” photo galvanized a whole environmental movement. A powerful image stays in our psyche for a long time, sometimes it’s from childhood, motivating our emotions, our understanding of the subject, and our behavior. Images from nature have a special healing quality to them.
4. Why do you think kids are enthralled by monarchs?
For one thing, they are so visible; and they move, which attracts our attention. Their colors and pattern are made to be noticed, a warning sign for predators, that the Monarchs are bad tasting. So we notice them too. They embody a mystery, they are like flying flowers. How can something so delicate fly so far? Where do they go? Humans are naturally attracted to color, and if the biophilia hypothesis is correct, we naturally use nature as our standard of beauty.
I think kids become emotionally attached to things like Monarchs, they naturally form relationships with nature that we adults can learn from.
Most kids books have photos or paintings of the hordes of Monarchs covering the trees in Mexico. I’ve painted some of these myself. It’s a powerful image. Once we notice one thing, like a butterfly, which is naturally appealing, we start to connect it to other parts of its environment, and we begin to notice more and more of everything. A Monarch, or almost anything, can be a door or a window into seeing the whole world where everything is connected to everything else.
5. Where have you seen monarchs in the field that have personally moved you to do what you do?
I now live in Tucson, Arizona, which doesn’t have a lot of Monarchs, but the few that come through here are quite interesting and still have some mystery about their movements. But I grew up in Minnesota where they were once as common as robins, part of everyday life. I remember a particular girlfriend who explained the whole monarch/milkweed relationship and the butterfly life cycle to me when I was about 21. After hearing how much she knew about butterflies, she herself became very interesting too. I have this strange attraction to women holding a field guide!