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Natural Artistry



Published September 29, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

For someone with a solo exhibit at the Fleming Museum, Bernd Heinrich has an unusual resume: You wouldn't think the same guy who created that exquisite portrait of a raven on display in the Main Gallery could also be the left-brained author of such articles as "Nervous control of the heart during thoracic temperature regulation in a sphinx moth." But he is; "Bernd Heinrich: The Naturalist as Artist" is one of a four-part "suite" of exhibits dedicated to nature-inspired artworks at the Fleming this fall.

Heinrich, 64, retired from the University of Vermont biology department in 2003 after 22 years -- "retired" meaning simply that he's no longer a full-time professor. He still hasn't traded science, book-writing and long-distance running for less disciplined pastimes. Nor has he stopped making art. He just doesn't call it that. Heinrich was not trained as an artist; he never had a single lesson. In fact, "I always admired what other people did and thought I couldn't possibly learn how," he says modestly during a recent interview at his cluttered office in the Marsh Life Science building. "I'd love to take courses and learn better techniques -- mine are very limited."

Maybe so, but only a highly trained critic might suggest there was anything amateur about Heinrich's drawings. Clearly they are as carefully observed as what any "real" artist could do -- just look at the delicate sheen of his raven's feathers, the reflection in the bird's beady eye, the tiny ridges of leathery skin on its legs. Speaking of critics, Heinrich says that although he's attracted to animal art such as the bird paintings of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, "Audubon's birds are a little bit stiff to me, even though they look technically perfect."

Such perfection is to be expected from a scientist, but it doesn't necessarily follow that his hand could reproduce what his eyes see. Something in the genes? Heinrich concedes his grandmother was an excellent artist. But his father, Gerd, an amateur biologist who collected bird specimens for museums around the world, had ample exposure to the creatures, yet "couldn't draw a straight line."

Heinrich credits his father, however, with not only his own interest in the birds and bees -- literally -- but with his ability to really see them. "I believe Papa helped to make me aware of the beauty of the world, for its own sake," Heinrich writes in the text accompanying his Fleming exhibit.

Near the gallery's entrance, Heinrich's biography is presented in writing, photographs and specimens -- some bird nests and eggs he collected as a child -- along with some neatly drawn pictures. "I started drawing as a little kid -- not much of it, though," Heinrich says. "Maybe 30 or 40 pictures, but that's about it." Later, in college at the University of Maine, he was too busy to draw. But when he picked it up again in graduate school at UCLA, other students liked the work so much that they often commissioned pictures to accompany scientific reports or give as presents.

With such a haphazard artistic background, why are his drawings so good? "I don't know," Heinrich says simply. "I put 98 percent of my effort into science. When someone tells me they're good, I'm really surprised." Looking at the exhibition card the Fleming printed for his show, Heinrich demonstrates this amazement anew: "I can't believe I did that," he says, gazing at the exquisitely rendered cranefly as if he were laying eyes on a rare specimen.

This is precisely the kind of unabashed wonder Heinrich has had for the natural world since childhood. Born in Poland in 1940, he fled the ravages of World War II with his family. For the next five years they lived a life of isolation and hardship, deep in a German forest. Although Bernd had no toys and few playmates, he writes, all the surrounding woods and wildlife were his to explore. During this time he adopted his first bird, a baby crow he named Jacob. There would be many more -- ravens, owls, geese.

Heinrich, whose boyish face and trim physique belie his age, recalls when the family immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in another woods, in western Maine. Heinrich still maintains a camp there, not far from the Good Will Home for Children, which he and his sister attended from 1952 to '59. His parents were gone for seven years, collecting specimens in exotic locales. Gerd would later receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Maine for his work with ichneumon wasps.

During these formative years, Bernd continued to make the natural world his playground. It was a stimulating environment from which he turned childhood curiosity into a stellar career. Among Heinrich's accomplishments: turning painstaking hours of observation, note-taking and drawing into countless articles for both scientific and lay publications. And he's written some 15 books -- so far.

In 2003-04 alone, Heinrich published 20 articles, four book chapters and two books -- The Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival and The Geese of a Beaver Bog. A former ultra-marathoner who ran 50- and 100-mile races, he's now down to a mere 20 to 40 miles a week. But Heinrich also has to keep up with the demands of a second family that includes two young children. From an earlier marriage he has a daughter who practices medicine at Fletcher Allen Health Care, and a son studying engineering at UVM.

At present, Heinrich is "trying to wrestle to the ground" a new book tentatively titled The Snoring Bird. He says it's part memoir, part family history. It will likely provide readers with more insight into Bernd Heinrich, the man, than the critters he has so patiently and lovingly studied.

Heinrich's approach to sketching gives special meaning to the term "life drawing." He has always drawn primarily from nature, occasionally using photographs because "birds won't hold still for you." This is a man who thinks nothing of sitting for hours in a winter woods, hidden by brush and watching ravens play in snow, or feast on a carcass, or nuzzle with mates. His drawings of birds, insects and even twigs in the Fleming exhibit reflect what guest curator Bill Lipke calls "a caressing of the material, a sensitive rendering that goes way beyond whatever visual proof was needed to present to the reader."

Lipke is a fellow emeritus professor, though in the art department, whose "early buyout" from the university permits him to continue teaching part-time. He developed an interest in Heinrich's work while reading his 1989 Ravens in Winter to a hospice patient. "Bernd is a wonderful character -- that notion of how a scientist thinks is so nicely framed in his writing," Lipke says. "He's kind of like a John McPhee; you don't have to be trained in his field to understand."

The books rely heavily on Heinrich's drawings, Lipke says, noting that he could have used photographs but chose not to. "Calling it art is maybe not the big deal; it's Bernd Heinrich, the naturalist as artist," Lipke continues. "He comes with that interest first. But clearly he understands -- look at those nests! He's got a sense of the weight, density and texture of the natural world. He does it for the information about how the world is put together."

Fascinated, Lipke decided to "take the work and let it stand on its own." He designed a freshman course "around the things that fall between the fingers of art historians, such as Audubon," he explains. "It's just starting to creep into the general art history text -- scientific notations about the natural world that might have an aesthetic intrigue."

In conjunction with his class, Lipke proposed the Heinrich work to Fleming curator Evelyn Hankins, who augmented his idea by culling items from the museum's permanent collection for the companion exhibits. These include "Fungi, Unicorns and Beached Whales: Artists as Naturalists," a selection of illustrations, paintings and photographs spanning five centuries.

Heinrich seems puzzled, but pleased, to find his drawings displayed alongside these extraordinary works. "I would like to have been an artist," he says, almost apologetically, "but I was into science.

To me it's all a matter of aesthetics --

a study, a focus. A picture does the same thing."