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Inked Animal’s delicate balance of science and art

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

On Saturday, among other events as part of Print Austin’s big Print Expo + Bin Fest + Print Exchange at Canopy, 916 Springdale Road, the collective Inked Animal will be giving a demonstration of the Gyotaku-style printmaking method. The free event is from 2 to 4 p.m.

Artists, collaborators and conservation biologists Adam Cohen and Ben Labay take the Gyotaku method in a bold new direction.

Republished here is an article and video written last year in conjunction with Inked Animal’s appearance in Print Austin.

Hundreds of animal images fill the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave  in southern France — images dating to more than 30,000 years ago, images widely recognized as among the world’s oldest works of art.

No humans are rendered in Chauvet, just animals: horses, bison, owls, mammoths, bears, lions, a pair of woolly rhinoceroses.

And though for centuries scientific illustrations acted as means to visually describe the natural world, many transcend simple taxonomic purposes. John James Audubon’s luminous watercolors of North American birds today are regarded as much for their aesthetic imagination as for their ornithological detail.

Operating under the artistic moniker Inked Animal, Adam Cohen and Ben Labay, both conservation biologists with the Texas Natural Science Center, have since 2007 worked as artistic collaborators, experimenting with Gyotaku animal prints.

A traditional Japanese printing method used by fisherman to document their catch before sending it to market, Gyotaku printing involves inking a fish then pressing it against rice paper to produce an image.

Though Cohen and Labay began their collaborative artistic practice using fish (both are ichthyologists with backgrounds in art), they have since pushed the boundaries of Gyotaku, employing an ever great palette of inks and paints to capture an ever greater detail and nuance.

And the duo has broadened the scope of the specimens they use, developing methods to print bones, feathers and fur, crafting ways to reveal internal and external anatomy.

As fascinating as they are scientifically, Inked Animal’s images surprise with remarkable beauty — not just with their delicate detail, but with a reverential and even celebratory spirit. Cohen and Labay create artistic elegies to the breathtaking grace and complexity of the animal kingdom.

American-Statesman videographer Reshma Kirpalani captured Cohen and Labay at work.

“We started experimenting with different materials and different papers,” said Labay in an  interview with Kirpalani. “It was kind of a natural next step to start experimenting with different print mediums and so different animals.”

“I really like when you get an animal, looking at it up close, and seeing little details that you don’t ever notice before, or getting your hands on an animals that you would never have been able to touch before,” said Cohen.  “Like a duck —  you’ll see little details of the beak, or little interesting parts of anatomy that you wouldn’t notice otherwise.”

Acute to public sensitivities given the material they use in their art practice, Cohen and Labay offer this by way of explanation of how they collect animal specimens:

“We are both conservation biologists working daily towards the long-term persistence of the populations of animals that we print. As such we have strong feelings about the ethical treatment and use of animals. With very few exceptions (occasionally fish and invertebrates) we do not kill animals specifically for use in our art and rather rely on animals found deceased in nature. In some cases we will accept specimens from permitted hunters, wildlife rehabilitators and exterminators so long as they have been collected via legal means. When appropriate, we donate specimens to museums for long-term curation and for use in scientific research.”