ALBUQUERQUE — Hair on the hind legs of a cream-hued beetle.
Wings of a black-chinned hummingbird pulsing 70 times per second.
A dusty pile of pollen tucked in the folds of a pear tree flower.
To Kelly Eckel, these fragile bits of nature are reminders of life’s intricacy and ongoing evolution. They’re science and they’re art.
Four years ago, the elementary school art teacher and professional artist started creating collage-like imagery, layering different life forms together to show “the similarities different species [have] that you’d think have nothing to do with each other.”
But starting this summer, Eckel will take a year off from teaching in the public schools — most recently at Albuquerque’s Adobe Acres Elementary — to immerse herself in evolutionary science and expand a series tentatively titled A Portrait of a Planet that she hopes will inspire others “to not take for granted all the life that we’re a part of.”
“I’m implying change through time,” she said of her art, adding the pieces are meant to focus on “sustainability, beauty, and connections.”
Artworks in the project overlap photographs of plants, animals, and bacteria — many times shown via a microscope or a zoom lens — to reveal details of things the human eye cannot see at first glance.
The process is complex. After taking individual pictures of things she finds in nature, Eckel prints them, collages them, and transfers the collage to a single transparency. She then exposes a photo polymer plate using a UV light source, wipes the plate with ink and prints it through a press, eventually revealing a final mixed image.
“It’s a long labor,” she said, adding that every piece has its own message. “It’s like a love poem to the planet.”
Thus far, her project includes two subseries titled Morphogenic and Pollination. Though the estimated 20 pieces completed all share a similar aesthetic, Morphogenic is “a more macroscopic view” of genes in various species, while Pollination focuses more on plants and animals involved in the pollinating process.
The ideas in her project are topics she addresses with her students. “There’s a marrying of what I’m doing in my classroom and what I’m doing with my art,” said Eckel, who has been teaching for 10 years. She adds that she enjoys teaching elementary-age kids about butterfly metamorphosis and the harm that pesticides do to bees.
“I know I’m making a difference with my kids,” she said.
But the work involved also makes a difference in her life.
“Teaching fulfills a need to make positive changes in the world. I hope to engage my students with the world in which they are a part of so that they are inspired and aware of the beauty around them,” she wrote in an email.
Though she loves her job, Eckel acknowledged it is “exhausting,” and to avoid burning out, “I need this time for me.”
Now that school’s out, Eckel, 44, said she’s looking forward to prioritizing the project and taking her artwork to a new level. But to do that, she said she must first dive deeper into science.
Eckel — who said she’s been saving money and preparing for the project for five years — is currently applying for residencies and grants to help support her “curious” interests. Additionally, she is reaching out to organizations like uBiome—a biotechnology company based in California focused on sequencing human microbiomes — to request access to their files, and is searching for a scanning electron microscope to take higher quality images of pollen.
In August, she will attend the Telluride Mushroom Festival, where she hopes to meet Paul Stamets — a renowned mycologist and advocate for medicinal fungi — and learn more about the symbiotic relationship between mushrooms and the plants around them.
She also hopes to travel to Shark Bay in Australia to closely observe its unique stromatolite sediments, and visit natural history museums around the country. Any free time will be spent learning how to grow bacteria, creating petri dishes and experimenting with soil ecology.
Though Eckel has always loved art, she said this is not true of “biology and environmental systems.” It was when she came across a copy of Carl Zimmer’s Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea a few years ago that everything changed.
“That opened up a whole new world for me,” she said.
At her home in Albuquerque, Eckel observes worms in her compost piles, watches bees in her backyard’s bee hotel, photographs various stages of monarch metamorphosis, grows pollinator plants — many of which are native to New Mexico — and raises solitary bees.
Her garden, she said, is key to observing processes she believes are often overlooked.
“We’re part of the systems around us. We tend to separate ourselves,” she said, adding that killing creatures as small as bees could wipe out one-third of humans’ food. “In an environmental sense, all these species around us have voices, but we don’t know how to listen.”
To better understand, Eckel said she must see the world through different eyes. Using telescopic tools, she tries to bring viewers into another — tinier — world, a la Honey I Shrunk the Kids.
Droplet — part of the Pollination subseries — shows fruit seeds, small flowers, pollen and the veins of butterfly wings morphed together in a series of cocoon-like shapes. Another artwork, Sediment, collages a myriad of elements including plant cells, snake skin, algae, cacti and her grandmother’s skin.
Upcoming work, she said, will integrate mushrooms, bacteria, sediment and soil — all things that she said humans interact with, both knowingly and unknowingly, positively and negatively.
“Life is evolving and has evolved,” she said. “We are a part of the process. We keep putting ourselves above it, but we are a part of it.”