The unintentional juxtaposition of two exhibitions by Lynne Moody — one on the topic of birds’ nests at Fernbank Science Center and the other regarding wood storks and their habitats at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History — raises interesting issues about art and its educational uses that go far beyond the literal doings of avian species.
Fernbank Museum’s show is, as is only right, less explicit about the relationship between art and instruction. In “Going Natives: The Lives and Uncertain Fate of American Wood Storks,” Moody first sets out her agenda in an extensive text panel about wood storks and the forces threatening their survival: “Canal excavations and other water redistribution projects have resulted in a dramatic decline in Wood Stork populations in North America…. [The storks] cannot change their environment to suit their needs. They can only move on, searching for a suitable habitat.… If our species does not recognize the limits of — for example — fresh water, and the necessity to conserve it, where will we move?”
Given those ground rules, the excellent drawings in the exhibition make sense together. Accurate but emotionally charged sketches of storks, bearing resonant titles (“Stabat Mater,” for example), hang adjacent to equally accurate drawings of bulldozers viewed from angles that imply brutal force. Even more allegorical drawings depict a turned-over empty bucket (“Spill”) or a faucet from which water cascades and turns into a nest. It’s left entirely to the viewer to make the connections between the images, simple though those connections may be once the wall text has been read.
The exhibition at the science center is more openly educational, and features actual birds’ nests alongside Moody’s artwork, which has long been based on the nest viewed as a visual metaphor for safety, for home and family environment, and for the site of many other possible events and interactions. The nest starts out as a literal object and undergoes a number of metamorphoses en route to its place in Moody’s repertoire of symbols.
Thanks to the adroit collaborative work of Fernbank Science Center instructional media designer Judy Henson, Moody’s art blends with educational text panels and illustrative natural objects so seamlessly that at least one group of viewers looking for the art show had to ask where it was.
This could be viewed as a misuse of imaginative artwork until you notice that the panels are instructing viewers in the nature of Moody’s art as well as in the nature of Nature. Far from being incidental illustrations adjunct to the “real-life lessons” being taught, the paintings are presented as opportunities to offer art education alongside science education. Art and nature come together here as they rarely do in American educational experiences, and the artwork is as often symbolic as it is literal, and abstract as well as realistic.
It isn’t the job of a museum of natural history to spell things out step by tiny step, and it’s entirely appropriate that Moody’s wood stork drawings at the Fernbank Museum can be approached as casually by viewers as the wonderful Christmas trees and holiday decorations from many countries that Atlanta’s foreign consulates have presented one floor down. (That exhibition, by the way, is a family-friendly delight that offers its own healthy share of teachable moments.)
The Henson-Moody collaboration at the Fernbank Science Center, however, points the way to new possibilities. While it has details that are open to question (venturing into such new territory, how could it not?), it does a striking job of mixing lessons in natural history with lessons in how an artist operates. It accomplishes this in ways that ensure that grown-ups find as much to love — and possibly to learn — as their children do. This experiment in stretching children’s aesthetic horizons while encouraging their curiosity about nature is one that ought to be extended by Moody and Henson, and emulated by others.