“Nature” is full of sounds: Birds chirping and singing; leaves rustling in the breeze; ocean waves breaking onshore; river whitewater; twigs and dried leaves crunching underfoot; thunder rumbling, pealing and cracking. Yet, nature is also seemingly silent: a butterfly dancing among blossoms; raptors soaring high above; fish and marine mammals gliding beneath the surface of Planet Earth’s waterways.
By Jason Laurenzano | September, 2022
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Through her vast array of watercolor paintings Peggy Macnamara exquisitely captures nature’s sounds, silence and movement. She presents multiple species in the context of their aesthetic appearances and their natural habitats and nesting architecture.
Having enjoyed one of her virtual presentations I wanted to profile her passion for bringing natural world to life through watercolor. I was excited to accept her invitation to visit her at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.
On a chilly, sunny December morning I drive south on Lake Shore Drive from Evanston to “The Field”. With me are my wife Susan and also Jennifer Schuman, a friend and excellent portrait photographer. Ms. Macnamara (she insists that we call her “Peggy”) is an artist-in-residence at The Field Museum.
Peggy greets us at the door with warmth and enthusiasm. After an exchange of pleasantries with the security guard we are lead to a private wing of the museum, on a floor below the public galleries. Her “studio” is a modest space, converted from a business office. No matter because the entire museum, its galleries, public displays and private rooms containing troves of artifacts have served as her working studio. Should you visit you might see Peggy seated at an easel or art table sketching or painting an architectural feature or an exhibit of birds or mammals. Don’t hesitate to say hello and ask a question or two. “I like when people show interest and are curious. I’ll always remember one child who was watching me paint. Really watching. We chatted. ‘I want to be you someday’ she said. That really touched me.”
We enter what I imagine Mother Nature’s office might look like. Surrounding us are vibrantly colored paintings in celebration of Planet Earth’s non-human life. Most are completed and framed, others are works in progress. Several unframed paintings are neatly stacked atop one another or rolled and stored. I want to unfurl each and every one. Behind them, in lovely glass fronted cabinetry, are many artifacts and natural history displays.
Many of Peggy’s creations are on permanent display in The Field’s public spaces. She has exhibited her work in many countries, at dozens of galleries and events. I’m tempted to ask if I could purchase a rolled up one, sight unseen. I resist. Instead I vow to myself that I will visit her online gallery at www.peggymacnamara.com.
Peggy’s creations act like a transporter to climates and habitats occupied by magnificent birds, mammals, marine life, insects and reptiles.
I feel a chill as I look at the Snowy Owl staring at me with penetrating yellow eyes.
I feel warmer when I see the vibrant shades of pink in a pair of Spoonbills in the midst of a splashing mating dance.
Go into any paint store, walk over to the display of color cards and you’ll find shades of white you’ve never heard of. You won’t find Peggy’s whites there. Only her Swan and Ross’ Goose get to flaunt them.
Humans aren’t the only creatures that are laser-focused on their dwellings. Peggy is fascinated by the variety of nests constructed by birds, insects and mammals. Her website includes a collection of watercolors focusing on the beauty and architecture of shelters across the spectrum of species. Her book Architecture by Birds and Insects: A Natural Art was published in 2008 with a Foreword by David Quammen, the prolific author and three-time National Magazine Award winner, and with contributions by museum curators John Bates and James H. Boone.
Some of her paintings show the interaction of the dwelling and its occupants, others are studies of the stand-alone structures.
If you are disinclined to scale steeply pitched, rocky slopes in North America or trek the craggy mountain passes in Tibet or China, Peggy can introduce you to the Mountain Goat or the shaggy-coated Yak from the comfort of your lap.
No snorkel or SCUBA gear is needed to enter the depths of the sea. My mask doesn’t fog up while staring at a Sea Turtle as it approaches me over colorful coral, scattering the iridescent tropical fish in its path.
As I look at Peggy’s presentation of seahorses I can’t help but wonder if any one of them is a pregnant male, about to give birth out of its pouch to over 2000 babies at a time.
Did you happen to see the Oscar winning documentary “My Octopus Teacher”? I love Peggy’s expression of Octopi changing skin color.
Since our visit, Peggy’s most recent book From the SEASHORE to the SEAFLOOR was published by the University of Chicago Press. It is authored by Janet Voight with a Foreword by David Quammen.
The published books appropriately identify Peggy as the “illustrator” but, she clarifies, she is not a “scientific illustrator”. Her intention is not to represent her subjects in completely accurate scientific detail, but to interpret their beauty and essence.
Peggy paints on large, heavy bond (“300 pound”) watercolor paper. It is expensive but more forgiving. The watercolor paint can be more widely manipulated than is possible when using thinner paper. “I see what works and what doesn’t work and I’m continually correcting as I go.”
Watercolor paper comes in three finishes:
Rough, Hot Pressed and Cold Pressed.
Rough (Most absorbent).
Surface traps watercolor pigments creating an even watercolor wash. Works well with all painting consistencies, from very diluted to undiluted. Color vibrancy is not the best on rough paper. Not great for lifting and corrections. Best for dry brush technique and best suited for aggressive brush techniques. Not for highly detailed works as the surface texture does not allow small details to be painted in the correct shape.
Cold Pressed (Medium absorbency).
The vibrancy of colors is good as long as glazes are kept to a minimum. Works well with all painting consistencies, from very diluted to undiluted. Washes come out almost as good as rough paper. Dry brush technique works to some extent. Some amount of lifting and corrections can be done. It can take most of the aggressive brush technique well. A good amount of detailed work can also be done on this.
Hot Pressed (Least absorbent).
This is the best paper for retaining the vibrancy of colors. Does not work well with undiluted paint. Washes turn out uneven, but it gives a nice juicy look. Dry brush technique just won’t work on this. Best suited for lifting and corrections. Brushwork has to be light and delicate. Aggressive brush work really does not work on this paper. Best suited for highly detailed work.
Andrea Aguirre; https://artful-living.blog
She describes her approach to painting as being somewhat “business-like” or “mechanical”. By that she means that she plans ahead, maps out and conceives the images and meticulously superimposes layers of paint to form subtle, silky visuals.
The Path to "The Field"
Peggy’s pathway to becoming an artist-in-residence is interesting and humorous. Thirty plus years ago she was a teacher at a college and the mother of several children. Five of them were under the age of 5 at that time. Finding the time and energy to sketch and draw in her home was a challenge. Upon learning that parking at The Field Museum was free for teachers, the museum became her respite. She began spending 3-4 hours there nearly every day, sitting and sketching anything and everything in view. She tells us that this serene routine balanced the high energy of the classroom and her family home. Peggy promptly gives credit to her day care provider and her supportive husband.
She would sit for hours in this or that area of the museum sketching and painting artifacts such as these of Chinese origin.
I like the way that Peggy combined still life with the museum’s architectural features. Look at these two 30” x 40” creations done in colored pencil.
Peggy befriended several scientists and curators on staff. The passion that they have for their research and projects fuels her own. She was given access to numerous stored artifacts to study and paint. You can see her Museum Artifacts Art Collection on her website.
At the request of Dr. Debra Moskovits, the museum’s V. P. of Science and Education, Peggy placed several of her paintings on public display. For over three decades she has been the museum’s Artist-in-Residence.
During our visit I ask what it was that drew her to painting fauna and flora; the majesty of living things. To my surprise she says that she didn’t have a particular interest in, or artist’s curiosity about, animals or birds, etc. In her humorous and humble way she says “They were all right there, in display cases, sitting still for me!” Okay, then!
Taxidermy is the practice of creating lifelike representations of animals, most commonly birds and mammals, by the use of their prepared skins and various supporting structures. The principal motive for its development into an art was the growth of interest, especially from the time of the Enlightenment, in natural history and the consequent appearance of both private collections and exhibits in public museums of birds, beasts, and curiosities.
By the early 18th century, chemical means of preserving skins, hair, and feathers from decay and insects made possible the first crude attempts to re-create the appearance of live animals by stuffing the sewed-up skins with hay or straw. The rapid improvement of methods of preparing skins and the invention of new techniques of mounting them were followed closely by a trend toward realistic display—the animals were shown in lifelike scenes and even whole habitats were simulated. In the 19th century, taxidermy became firmly established as a museum art.
The techniques for constructing and sculpting anatomically correct manikins of clay and plaster that were developed at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, N.Y. remain the basis of modern taxidermy; subsequent developments concerned mainly the treatment of reptiles, insects, and soft-bodied creatures and the introduction of such new materials as celluloid and other plastics.
Sometimes an event or happenstance leads to a creation. We enjoy hearing about how a live tarantula had escaped containment somewhere in the museum. A frantic search for “Rosie the Tarantula” was on! Peggy was energized and enthralled by the adventure. The result is a terrific children’s book about Rosie. In collaboration with Peggy’s daughter Katie Macnamara, an English Literature teacher, roaming Rosie takes children and adults on an entertaining and informative tour of one of our country’s best natural history museums.
Sources of Inspiration
Peggy’s inspiration has come from many sources, not all of the stuffed variety. Some of her colleagues at the museum have had an enormous influence on her. For example, the entomologist Jim Louderman: “Jim’s devotion to the science of entomology, and to the recording and meticulous cataloguing of insects for the museum’s collection really intrigued me.”
So, she started painting insects. All sorts of those creepy crawlies. Spiders, bees, beetles, ants, mosquitos. Her depictions of caterpillars and centipedes, true bugs and rove beetles are anatomically accurate, or so they seemed to my untrained eye. This lead to a collaboration, which lead to another book celebrating these creatures, Illinois style.
It is one thing to paint museum exhibits of wildlife and quite another to be inspired by what is seen in a habitat. Over time Peggy incorporated into her works the surrounding environments and subjects seen in those habitats. She shows us some examples. They are vivid and moving.
And then there are the birds. I first learned of Peggy while watching her online presentation presented by the Evanston North Shore Bird Club of which I am a member. Her Birds Collection includes species at rest or interacting within a habitat. I particularly like how she portrays movement, such as her paintings of migrating birds “on the wing”. “Most of my students at the Art Institute of Chicago are animators or cartoonists. They inspired me to do several paintings that reflect movement, like in the flight of birds.”
As an art history major in college Peggy developed an appreciation for the great masters. One professor had the astute observation that Peggy seemed better suited to creating art. “I appreciated Leonardo but I wanted to be Leonardo.”
Sometimes a person’s passion is evident to others. The visual arts, the performing arts, or political or social activism to name a few contexts. When it evokes emotional responses, passion is in its most powerful form.
Often the passion is felt and expressed privately and not shared so openly.
My focus in writing Profiles in Passion is less on the nature of the hobby or activity and more on how the passion is internally experienced. Where did it come from? How does it affect the overall satisfaction of daily life? How does it impact others who are exposed to another’s passionate expression?
In meeting and writing about these most interesting people I do find a commonality. With some exceptions they have not given this a whole lot of thought. The passion is so ingrained and so innate that it flows naturally. When asked these questions some pause and reflect in an attempt to “connect the dots”; to find the words.
Articles written about Peggy Macnamara address her creative works, her inspirations and her intentions. While proud of her work she is also charmingly humble: “I just am who I am and I do what I do. There isn’t something all that special about it.”
I get more specific. I ask if a block of time sketching or painting effects how she experiences the balance of that day. She gives us an unexpected response, but one that makes good sense. “For example, when my kids were young children the activity of painting made me a better mother.” How so? “After having done some painting, I was more present when I was with the kids. I was more fully present than I otherwise might have been because I had my ‘me time’ by then.”
Painting is meditative for her, transitioning her into an emotional, spiritual and most happy place. The stressors from daily life fade away. Her body relaxes, tensions dissipate. If taken away from painting, for even a couple of days, she feels tense. “I can’t imagine not painting. It is so much of who I am, what I am about. I’d be way too difficult to be around if I couldn’t paint.” She explains that when she reflects back it is clear that it would've been a mistake to put off an important part of her own development until after her children were grown.
We laugh as she tells us about having felt withdrawal symptoms when her daughter’s wedding kept her from her paints. “It was worth it though, a most happy day!”
We all want to know what moved her to sketch and paint. “My mother wasn’t a particularly hands-on mom to me and my many sisters, and she didn’t cook. I was a bit of a crabby child, and to deal with that she enrolled me in art lessons and I began sketching. Turns out that sketching soothed me. Looking back on it, I know that it changed my life.”
It is never Peggy’s intention to call attention to herself but it is gratifying that her paintings are appreciated. She hopes that they can motivate others to be sensitive to the environment and protective of wildlife. That was taken to another level when wildlife conservationists reached out. She readily agreed to allow her paintings to be used as illustrative exhibits at legislative hearings on conservation policy. She is particularly proud to have played a role in Dr. Moskovits’ efforts that lead to the creation of a national park in Peru.
Closer to home, she illustrated a book that chronicled the plight and the recovery of the Peregrine Falcon population in Illinois. Peggy continues to create and inspire a deep appreciation of the environment and its inhabitants.
The Bird Room
As our visit winds down Peggy becomes animated and asks us to follow her. She leads us out of her room and down a short corridor. At the end is the “Bird Room” as it is known. I’m expecting to see a display of her brilliantly colored art.
I was wrong. We follow her into the room. We are introduced to a small handful of friendly ornithologists. Some are standing, others sitting around a long stainless-steel table-sink with vertical edging several inches high. The table-sink has a drain on one end.
We are not prepared for what we see. Set out before them are several bird carcasses: dead birds. The group is engaged in various stages of inspecting the birds with gloved hands. The birds are banded and tagged noting the date of recovery, the Latin or Greek scientific, taxonomic name that identifies the genus (the bird “family”) and the epithet (the species, which is the subordinate unit within that genus). I see a bright red bird with black wings, a Scarlet Tanager, perhaps.
It is a lot to take in but fascinating. As unsettling as it is at first, we soon learn the critical importance of the project.
We ask a few questions, and the team is happy to explain what is going on and why. Lead by ornithologist Ben Marks, the project has been ongoing for over 40 years. It involves the collection, examination and cataloguing of thousands of birds who have died as a result of flying into the windows of tall downtown Chicago buildings. Local residents are encouraged to bring the birds to the museum. This is a serious problem in all major cities with skyscrapers.
Very palpable in the room is the devotion that the team has to the research needed to aid in avian conservation. From the types of birds, the count of each, the gender and the time of year important information can be identified that can help answer important questions. For example, how does climate change and environmental factors affect the birds’ migration patterns and pathways? How is the food supply affected? How can urban planning, the placement of buildings and the selection of building materials be more sensitive to the health of migrating birds? Can existing buildings be somehow retrofitted to minimize the carnage?
I am interested to learn that for many bird species the females arrive in the Chicago area before the males.
The feathers are removed and the carcasses prepared for the next phase. A most interesting one. We are led towards an adjacent room, separated by a sealed passageway and this amusing sign on the door:
In the room are multiple cages containing hundreds of living insects. The de-feathered carcasses are placed in the cages where the insects feed on soft tissue. What is left are the skeletons which are then stored for additional study.
Peggy interjects: “That’s the mentality here. Scientific curiosity and a dedication to conservation. When you’re in this building, the energy and passion is everywhere. Some of the books that I have done resulted from my interactions and experiences inside this building.”
It is gratifying and encouraging to know that The Field Museum is staffed by scientists representing many subspecialties, all devoted to understanding our planet, its history and its inhabitants. In these difficult times it can be hard to be optimistic about the future of our planet. These fine people made me feel hopeful.
It was a rare treat being with Peggy and to learn her path and her passion. To see her creations “up close and personal” was a gift. Thank you, Peggy, for letting us into your wonderful world and for allowing me to describe it in this Profile in Passion for www.passionsillustrated.com
A special “Thank you” to Susan and Jennifer for sharing this day with me and for your photographs.