I recently paid a visit to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in order to experience Exquisite Creatures, an astonishingly beautiful exhibit that’s as much as work of science as it is a work of art, created by by Oregon-based artist and naturalist Christopher Marley.
But first, a brief aside about myself and beauty: I was an aesthete before I learned there was a word for it. I understood that beauty encompasses much more than the quality of being outwardly attractive and that beauty in all its forms is profoundly nourishing. When I first began working for Refuge in Grief I was floored to read this statement by Megan Devine:
“Beauty has a fierceness to it, a depth and a resilience inside of it, a meaning below the surface of external things. Beauty is healing. Beauty is medicine. It’s not that being in beauty, or noticing beauty, makes things better… Beauty doesn’t so much fix anything as it creates more space in your heart. It makes space for your pain to unfold and be heard, to be held in something nourishing and deep. Beauty is something that brings you closer to your own core. It sits beside you somewhere, even when your world is in deepest, darkest pain.”
2019 was incredibly difficult in so many ways that I find myself seeking out beauty now more than ever, using it to bolster my heart. I would’ve been interested in checking out Exquisite Creatures no matter what my state of mind, but it’s especially compelling for me now. But enough about me.
Christopher Marley collects and preserves natural specimens – an extraordinary range of insects, arachnids, reptiles, birds, fish, cephalopods, crustaceans, and flowers – and arranges them in shadow box displays of single specimens, groupings by species, and dazzling mosaics and kaleidoscopic prisms. I was excited to discover that, in addition to once living creatures, Marley also works with minerals, crystals, shells, feathers, eggs, and fossils. Matting and framing are all very spare so that the viewer’s focus is on the specimens, however they’re grouped or arranged, enabling them to be viewed as clearly and closely as possible.
Exploring Exquisite Creatures was every bit as wondrous as I’d hoped. I took three times as many photos as you see here in this piece. Even throngs of kids and families also in attendance didn’t diminish my enjoyment.
Speaking of which, it’s always interesting to passively eavesdrop in situations such as this, to get a sense of how people are perceiving and reacting to the exhibit. I was stunned by the number of people who, despite all the information provided to the contrary, somehow expressed that they thought Marley must’ve painted or otherwise enhanced his specimens (he does no such thing – they’re only preserved and posed). It hurt my heart to hear people cling to the idea that the natural world couldn’t possibly be this colorful, particularly when one of the purposes of Marley’s work is demonstrating just how astonishingly colorful it is. But it also demonstrates why work like this is so important. Seeing is believing, right?
In addition to whole creatures that were entirely new to me, I saw colors, shapes, and textures and combinations thereof that I’ve never encountered. It’s a superficial thing, but during my hours spent exploring this exhibit, I repeatedly found myself silently wishing I could find a nail polish that looked like this beetle carapace or that butterfly wing, or wondered if my hair could be colored to resemble this bird or that snake.
I do have one complaint and that is that it wasn’t easier to identify many of the specimens, particularly in an exhibit ostensibly intended to be educational. I’m the sort of nerd who appreciates and enjoys knowing exactly what she’s looking at, but the information for long walls of pieces was often collected (unnumbered) down at one end of the wall, rather than alongside each individual piece. In a crowded museum space, moving back and forth between individual pieces and that info was impossible. Pity.
Still, being able to stand before these marvelous creatures and drink in the smallest detail of the patterns, scales, and contours of countless snakes, the shapes, textures, and colors of birds and their feathers, the alien-arachnid hybridization of crabs, and so many astonishingly intricate insects – the variety of size, shape, color, which was just…awesome.
I lost myself in dreamy gradients and fractals, lost count of uncanny eyespots. I’d never noticed how some beetles resemble poison dart frogs poised to spring. I’d never seen a sputnik sea urchin that still had its spectacular spines. I didn’t realize how much beautiful variation, from subtle to striking, could exist between animals of the same species. I marveled at how, even in death, snakes bear such a powerful presence. And over and over again I was overwhelmed by the enormity of all we stand to lose, ached for how much we’ve already lost, mourned how much we never knew we had before it was already gone forever.
“Exquisite Creatures explores humanity’s need to connect with the natural world and evinces its stimulating power over us. when our eyes perceive order, diversity, color, symmetry, and balance in natures, we experience renewal both emotionally and spiritually.”
If you’re like me, you’re probably very curious, perhaps even concerned about how Marley obtains all of these beautiful animals. All of Marley’s vertebrates are reclaimed, collected from institutions, such as aquariums and museums, or individuals after dying of natural or incidental causes. The only exception is made for some oceanic organisms, when fishing vessel bycatch is the reclamation source. According to Marley, “These are specimens that are unintentionally caught, usually by trawlers, and then are either discarded or sold to fish markets. I believe many such specimens have far greater aesthetic than culinary value. It is my contention that ensuring they can inspire for generations through their preservation is a far more worthy end than their immediate consumption.”
“When organisms die in the care of the institutions or individuals dedicated to their husbandry, they can either be disposed of or they can be preserved and incorporated into lasting tributes to their masterful design. Aquariums, quarantine facilities, museums, importers, breeders and others have entrusted me with their most treasured charges. It is a weighty undertaking to create from them works that are worthy of the vibrance they add to the natural world.”Christopher Marley
Marley’s invertebrates are all sustainably collected from their countries origin by local catchers, something I’d previously heard about elsewhere, but never properly researched. This method of responsible insect collecting, “not only has no measurably negative effect on insect populations, but it offers an alternative to ranching or farming for often impoverished people with few options for sustenance other than working the land.”
“Insect collecting helps offer native people an economic incentive to preserve local habitats by helping them to make their living through the collection of a renewable, sustainable forest resource.”Christopher Marley
Exquisite Creatures runs through February 17, 2020 at OMSI in Portland, Oregon. If you’re unable to get there in person, the exhibition is a companion to Marley’s gorgeous book, Biophilia, which is every bit as captivating.