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What you need to know for 08/21/2017

Q & A: Artist’s modern-day effigy has an ancient connection

Q & A: Artist’s modern-day effigy has an ancient connection

Every two years, when “Focus on Nature” appears at the New York State Museum, visitors are treated t
Q & A: Artist’s modern-day effigy has an ancient connection
This mixed media work, titled “Chumash Indian Fish Effigy” by David Russell Wheeler of Mechanicville, is part of the exhibition “Focus on Nature XI” at the New York State Museum.
Photographer: Courtesy of the artist

Every two years, when “Focus on Nature” appears at the New York State Museum, visitors are treated to an astounding array of artwork depicting plants, animals and ancient cultures. From beetles and birds to milkweed and monkeys, the natural history illustrations are created by artists from all over the world.

This year’s “Focus on Nature XI” features 93 works by 73 artists from 13 countries selected by a panel of jurors.

From the Capital Region, there’s David Russell Wheeler of Mechanicville and Sue deLearie Adair of Schenectady. James Gurney of Rhinebeck, author and illustrator of “Dinotopia” children’s books, also makes an appearance, with an imaginary prehistoric scene in which a 40-foot-long snake attacks a giant crocodile.

Wheeler’s highly detailed illustrations have been juried into every exhibit since 2000. This year’s “Chumash Indian Fish Effigy,” made with color pencil, graphite and ink wash, won him a jurors’ award, and he was among only 13 artists who received this honor.

‘Focus on Nature XI: Natural History Illustration Exhibition’

WHERE: New York State Museum, Madison Avenue, Albany

WHEN: Through Oct. 31


MORE INFO: 474-5877 or

A Vermont native, the 61-year-old Wheeler has an undergraduate degree in art education from Pratt Institute and a master’s in sculpture from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

For 20 years, he traveled to Alaska to teach science illustration to children. In the Capital Region, many students remember Wheeler as the visiting art teacher who brought The Ice Man, his life-size replica of a 5,300-year-old mummified human, to their classroom.

Wheeler teaches art history at the Pratt Institute campus at Munson-Williams-Proctor in Utica; is a part-time art and design professor at Empire State College; and does occasional teaching stints at Russell Sage College.

Wheeler talked to the Gazette by phone from his studio, which is inhabited by The Ice Man, now retired, and a multitude of shells and fossils.

Q: Your award-winning image is curious. What is this object?

A: It’s called an effigy, which is a representation of a person or animal, especially in the form of sculpture or other three-dimensional form. It’s from the Chumash Indian people, some of the first people to inhabit North America. Their homeland lies along the coast of California between Malibu and Paso Robles. That area was settled about 13,000 years ago. They were famous for trading with one another, an act that was made possible by seagoing plank canoes.

Q: What does the object look like?

A: It’s stone. It was found roughly in the shape that it’s in now. And then it was carved to resemble a fish. And the eye and some of the patterning that shows the scales, etc., was etched in. It’s somewhere between 13,000 and 2,000 years old, when the Chumash were at their height.”

Q: Where is this artifact?

A: It’s in the Santa Barbara Natural Museum of Natural History, which is where I saw it.

Q: Why were you so interested in it?

A: I have this abiding interest in stones that have stories to tell. Just within a few miles from my house, I found a Mohawk hammer stone, which looked like a dark potato when I saw part of it in the ground. That was used for grinding corn or general hammering. And two weeks ago, I found a rather large fossilized mussel near Lock 4 in Stillwater. The best estimate on that one is 350 million years old. One of my prized possessions is a gastrolith, which is a stone that was ingested deliberately by a Brontosaurus millions of years ago in what’s now Montana. Dinosaurs would ingest rocks the way chickens do, so the stones would bounce against each other and help grind up their stringy vegetable diet.

Q: How long did it take to make “Chumash Indian Fish Effigy”?

A: It took me a very short time, an hour or two, which is lightning speed. Most of my drawings, large or small, will take 18 to 20 hours. This came together in a hurry. It doesn’t have the infinite, intricate, precise detail of some of the others. It’s more impressionistic, maybe.

Q: If we could see your illustration side-by-side with the artifact, what would we notice?

A: The object is small. It’s not much larger than a human hand spread out. It’s a three-dimensional object that you can hold. My drawing is large, it’s 20 by 30 inches.

Q: What can we learn by looking at your image of this artifact?

A: If you look at the artwork of seafaring cultures, like the Minoans, for example, or the Phoenicians or the Chumash, their murals, paintings or sculptures almost always reflect the rigors of life at sea. In the artwork, you’ll find expression of movement and liquidity and vigor, things that sailors are accustomed to. These qualities are evident in the Chumash Fish Effigy, in it’s subject matter and in the vigorous carving.

Q: What are you doing this summer?

A: During the summer, I transition into my underwater persona and hit a number of places in Maine, teaching there. I’m doing a one-week course for Maine’s Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine. Then I go on to the Acadia Institute of Oceanography in Seal Harbor, and then on to MECA, which is the Maine College of Art in Portland. In all these cases, I’m teaching marine science illustration. Then my wife and I are heading to the British Virgin Islands, where we will swim among the nurse sharks and tropical fish.

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