Five Questions with Thomas Lovejoy
February 22, 2011
In conjunction with the exhibition Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow, the American Art Museum presents the Art and Science lecture series that places the science of climate change within a cultural context. Alexis Rockman kicked off the series followed by J.D. Talasek. On February 23, Thomas Lovejoy, biodiversity chair at The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment, takes to the podium. His lecture is free and will begin at 7 p.m. in the McEvoy Auditorium @American Art. Eye Level spoke to him from his office in the Heinz Center, where he recently returned from a trip to Guyana.
Eye Level: Let's start with Guyana. Can you tell me about that country and its importance to you, Alexis Rockman, as well as other scientists, environmentalists, and artists?
Thomas Lovejoy: Guyana has a pristine forest that has attracted scientists, explorer-naturalists, and illustrators for basically eighty to one hundred years and probably before that. William Beebe from the New York Zoological Society was down there in the first half of the 20th century. It attracted Paul Richards who wrote the classic, Tropical Rainforest: An Ecological Studyin 1952, and two years later, Rudolph Zallinger went there to do illustrations for LIFE magazine. Alexis, himself, went there in 1994, as part of an expedition. I didn’t know him at that point. I was working at the Smithsonian then, as Counselor to the Secretary for Environmental Affairs. This most recent trip to Guyana last week was out of the blue. It was a World Wildlife Fund board trip to go look and what we might do to help to really protect their forest resources. They have a visionary president who is trying to put together the first low carbon development plan in the world and protect their forest resources. It's quite impressive.
Eye Level: Tell me a little about your work at the Heinz Center.
TL: I wear two primary hats these days. One here at the Heinz Center where I work on biodiversity, science and policy. The other is as professor at George Mason University, where I am teaching a seminar this spring on problems in conservation and conservation biology.
Eye Level: You and Alexis both spent part of your childhood exploring the Museum of Natural History in New York City. How did you and Alexis meet?
TL: I used to hang out in the Natural History museum a lot as a kid then once I really turned on to biology when I was fourteen I would haunt the place. We were both influenced by the same visual stimulation without any question: he became an artist and I became a scientist. In 1994 he sent me the publication he had worked on in Guyana, and later he did work in Manaus for Natural History magazine which had an entire issue on the forest fragments research project I started 33 years ago in the Brazilian Amazon (and which today I continue to lead on the American side through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). Alexis and I finally met when he came to town a couple of years ago.
Eye Level: Is there one of Alexis' paintings that speaks to you the most?
TL: I think Manifest Destiny is probably the apogee of Alexis's artist-advocate phase in terms of the time involved (seven years) and its monumental but also the environmental imperative involved. What makes the painting so special from an environmental point of view is that it provides a way to visualize climate change and where it could well be leading.
Eye Level: Can you give us a preview of your talk at the museum on February 23?
TL: What I want to do is explore the science behind Alexis's art. I think it will be kind of fun to do it that way. Here is what the science is and here is what Alexis is doing. Here's what the science is and here's what Alexis's imagination portrays it as. He can convey a message through the combination of art, science, and imagination, that a straightforward narrative could not convey. His work has a surreal streak to it which gets peoples' attention. In the end one has to conclude that what we’re doing to the planet is surreal in itself.
EL: Thank you, Tom Lovejoy. We're looking forward to your talk.
- Alexis Rockman, Thomas Lovejoy, Natural History, Environment, American Art,
Smithsonian American Art Museum
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