Artist paints endangered species like icons


There’s a glittering hummingbird in mid-flight, a flamingo nestled in its feathers, and a loggerhead turtle floating in the water.

These soft and striking images are part of a series of paintings by New York artist Angela Manno. This is a series of over a dozen threatened and endangered species painted in the style of Byzantine icons. This “Endangered Species” series explores environmental crisis and extinction, Manno says.

Manno’s work has been shown at the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum for Women in the Arts. It is also part of the NASA Space Art Collection at the Kennedy Space Center.

Manno spoke to Treehugger via email about her art and what she hopes people take away from it.

Treehugger: How has your artistic style and experience evolved?

Angela Manno: I was first inspired by seeing batik samples on a trip to Indonesia during my first year abroad in the mid-1970s. When I returned to the United States, I took lessons with a contemporary batik master from India to explore the medium that had fascinated me on my travels. Soon after, I enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute as a special student and discovered color xerography as an emerging medium.

It didn’t take me long to combine these two divergent media into a series called “Conscious Evolution: The Work at One”, which was largely inspired by the views of astronauts on Earth from space. It was in the mid-1980s, when Gaia’s hypothesis was gaining ground that the entire planet is a living system, which became the cornerstone of my worldview and the foundation of my activism.

What was the appeal of iconography? How would you explain the style?

A decade later, I became fascinated by the materials and subjects of Byzantine-Russian iconography. I was also without a studio at the time and being able to work in a small portable format appealed to me a lot. By a stroke of synchronicity, I heard about a master iconographer from Russia who was giving lessons. So I signed up, thinking I was just going to learn the medium and be on the right track, but what happened instead was totally unexpected: I became addicted to the symbolic nature of the practice and the beauty of the medium and to have a mentor again; I put everything aside and spent six months studying with him, which was the minimum amount of time I needed to feel comfortable with the materials – gold leaf, liquid clay and egg tempera based on crushed stone pigments.

Becoming adept at these materials was as daunting as the method itself which involves the application of many coats of translucent and opaque pigments alternately. In addition, each color and each step in the creation of an icon has a meaning related to the makeup of a human being – our physical, psychic and spiritual nature.

“Honey bee” and “Andean flamingo”.

Angela Manno

Have you always been interested in animals and nature?

I grew up with woods and a meadow behind my suburban home and spent long hours there exploring and gazing at them. I have always been a lover of animals and nature. In 1997, when I acquired the skills to paint outdoors in the open air, I had the unique pleasure of immersing myself in my subject!

I spent 10 years painting the high desert of the American West and the lavender fields, orchards and vineyards of Provence. Animals, however, only figured in my work in 2016, with the creation of my contemporary icon “Apis, the honey bee” (above, left), although I have been imagining this image since about five or six years before it got to be.

How does your style lend itself to showcasing endangered species?

Due to my understanding of evolution, cosmology, and ecology, I needed to expand the canon of images available in traditional iconography to include nature, not as a backdrop for human drama. -divine, but to take center stage. After all, humans are derived from the Earth. Byzantine-Russian iconography is based on the Christian tradition that humans are created in the image and likeness of God. By applying this method to images of threatened and endangered species, I break out of the anthropocentrism of this tradition for a biocentric benchmark. Everything is sacred.

The precursor to my icons of threatened and endangered species was my first contemporary icon of the entire Earth seen from space, because Earth is the mother of all life that we know. It depicts the Earth having reached its fulfillment as a bio-spiritual entity. I believe it is our destiny if we can keep the promise of evolution and make evolutionary choices (as opposed to non-evolutionary ones).

When I approach each species with the respect and discipline I go to creating a traditional icon, their numinous quality seems to emerge on the icon board throughout the multiple steps of the process. The process I envisioned using this way turned out to be a perfect fit for these new images.

“Pangolin”, egg tempera and gold leaf on wood.

Angela Manno

How does your process go when you choose your subjects and then create the images?

I try to keep a balance between all categories: fish, mammal, reptile, invertebrate, bird, amphibian, however sometimes a particular species calls me because of its dire situation, like the pangolin (above), which is my most recent. It is the most trafficked animal in the world. Poached and slaughtered for their meat and scales, they follow the path of the rhino, hunted on the verge of extinction for magical properties attributed to a part of the body.

I do a lot of research before starting an icon and it’s scary to know what happens to the natural world. Prominent biologist EO Wilson reminds us that climate change is only one of three crises facing humanity in this century and that only the global mass extinction of species is irreversible.

What do you hope people take away from your art?

I hope my work conveys the feeling that all life is sacred, that my viewers feel remorse over the thoughtless decimation of species and habitat, and are urged to act to preserve what is left. I hope they will take the emotions they feel upon seeing my work and channel them to support effective conservation organizations or take other direct action. For my part, I work mainly with the Center for Biological Diversity and donate 50% of my sales to support their programs.

I learned from reading EO Wilson’s book, “Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life,” that the biodiversity crisis is worse than people think — than I realized. With the best efforts of conservation organizations, private and public funding, and government regulations, we are only reducing the extinction rate by 20%. To paraphrase Dr. Wilson’s words, it’s like an accident patient in an emergency room continuing to bleed without a new supply of fresh blood. We extend life, but not by much. We postpone the inevitable.

In response, Wilson came up with a solution commensurate with the magnitude of the problem: set aside at least half of the planet in reserve. This is the Half-Earth project, the most ambitious effort to stabilize biodiversity on this planet. The goal is to protect half of the Earth’s land and seas in order to save 85% of species, which will maintain ecosystem functions and prevent total collapse. They map the entire planet, identify the areas richest in biodiversity, propose corridors to link them and combine preservation, restoration and expansion. Asked about my art and what inspired me, I never miss an opportunity to talk about this monumental effort, worthy of our beautiful planet.

“Sumatran Orangutan”.

Angela Manno

Getting back to the work itself, I think the owner of my ‘Sumatra Orangutan Mother and Child’ icon says it best:

“I feel like I’m developing a relationship with these creatures. The mother looks incredibly caring with one arm firmly but very gently pulling her baby close to her body. She looks a little proud too. The baby does not appear to be afraid and looks the wise that very young children sometimes have. I’m sure I will continue to find more in this icon.

When we deeply contemplate nature, we cannot help but lay down our arms, shy away from our “use” relationship, and develop a pure and loving relationship with it.


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