Bio-Gypsy 17

Rebecca Durham’s Method Is as Poetic and Creative as It Is Scientific

Rebecca Durham—an artist, poet, and botanist—is a breed of her own. In a world that fights for black and white, Rebecca gives them shades of gray, fits of color, words, and science.

She creates zany, beautiful pieces that clearly show her investment in utilizing the lenses of both art and science and an impressive ability to have one foot in each world. Rebecca has taken the beauty of these contrasting fields and reminded us, through her work, that our ability to observe is the same, no matter the subject.

Her interest in both poetry and science first bloomed in college, eventually leading to a master’s degree in botany after which point she relocated from the east coast to Montana to be more at home among the blue-eyed grass and glacier lilies. She describes her post-grad work as that of a “bio-gypsy,” that is, performing field work around the country.

For the past five years she’s worked at the MPG Ranch in Florence and has also spent time with both the U.S. Forest and National Parks services studying re-vegetation and seed collection around Montana. She’s also worked on everything from plant phenology, which is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena in relation to climate, plant and animal life, to soil crust (the latter of which is a project she’s currently working on with Northern Arizona University).

Rebecca, who recently had a two-month long display of her pieces at the Montana Natural Historical Center, demonstrates with each piece a true grasp on how science and art can complement and strengthen one another despite their differences.

She enjoys how “integrated and interactive” the experience of creating a traditional science diagram with poetic language. Poems, art, and science are “conglomerations [that form] a whole piece,” she said.

Her artistic process varies. Sometimes she’ll write poems directly on visual art she’s already created, or she’ll create a piece of art based on something she’s previously written. She often lets the color and structure of the plant or flower inspire writing to surround the image. However she arrives at her work, it’s safe to say that Rebecca focuses on “the minute details of nature,” as she chooses her topics based on something she’s either been thinking about or that gets under her skin (like a prairie coneflower).

Her marker and paper drawing of the glacier lily, for example, isn’t labeled with the parts of the plant. Instead, Rebecca writes in the space between the flower and the leaf: “under / here / no one sees / us / save / the bees.” The poem, like much of Rebecca’s work, is playful while also serving as a warning about environmental disruption.

Rebecca’s interest in eco-critical theory, an interdisciplinary study of illustrating environmental concerns and examining the various ways literature treats the subject of nature, has allowed her to see “beyond the pretty flowers” to habitat loss, pollution from pesticides, and other forms of natural destruction. She noted wistfully, “It would be nice to [just] be a romantic poet, but you’re also remembering formaldehyde plants.”

The magic of this marriage, beyond our ability to observe art and science and draw our own conclusions from both, is perhaps how Rebecca—and the rest of us—chooses to make sense of our beautiful, sometimes aching world.

Some of Rebecca’s pieces can be found on the blog she keeps through the MPG Ranch: