Isabella Kirkland’s 2003 painting “Back” is a masterful documentation of flora and fauna brought back from the brink of extinction.
In warm natural tones, she depicts 48 species that were carefully husbanded back to existence — or thought to be extinct and joyously rediscovered.
Some subjects include the Madagascar red owl, the black-footed ferret, and the Wollemi pine.
Conversely, her piece from the following year, “Gone,” is a tribute to 63 species that had all become extinct since the 1700s, likely due to the colonization of the New World.
In darker, colder hues, Kirkland paints the paradise parrot, a golden toad, the skull of a Tasmanian tiger, and even a tiny tree snail; all of which have been wiped from existence.
Her many paintings, combining art and science, bear witness to the massive ecological challenges, crises — and victories — our world faces.
“My artistic practice is an investigation into humanity’s relationship with nature — both what we have, and also what we’ve lost,” Kirkland said during a talk at TED Countdown, the organization’s climate summit, in Detroit, Michigan.
Her TED Talk provided a peek behind the curtain, offering more insights into her work and how this detailed documentation attempts to salvage history and save the future.
“I think of my paintings as alarm clocks in a way,” she said. “They are reminders of what’s at stake. The only real problem is that we keep pressing the snooze button.”
Her goal is to build an analog visual record of what we stand to lose — and what we’ve already lost — when it comes to the vast biodiversity of the planet.
Kirkland’s art style is founded on the techniques and aesthetics of the Dutch Old Masters, which have remained prominent and of high quality for hundreds of years.
By using oil paints and creating with scientific accuracy, Kirkland aims to produce final paintings that also survive the test of time and remain as evidence of the life forms lost in our lifetimes. She has been doing so for about three decades.
“The paintings are kind of an environmental snapshot, a moment in time, or maybe even better, like a message in a bottle,” she said. “With luck, these paintings can talk to the future.”
In order to do this, Kirkland’s many landscapes, collections, and studies require fastidious research. She often starts her creative process with rubrics and databases before sketches and drawings.
She collects samplings of species — some simply observed or foraged — others found in boxes of specimens at a natural history museum. Her most complicated paintings take a year to complete, on average, and all species are meticulously depicted to scale.
“I do all this work because I really want to depict them accurately, as if they’re alive,” she said. “I want them to be remembered correctly, as if they are living — not just a dried skin.”
Kirkland’s paintings do often carry a grim quality, giving viewers a visualized representation of grief and loss. But they also act as a sort of rebirth, if not a familial archive, of who we once shared the earth with — and the hope that we will one day live in harmony.
As she broke down some of the species in her “Gone” painting on the TED stage, Kirkland expressed a desire in both her creative process and environmental aspirations.
“This was the first painting I did of extinct species, so it’s kind of ‘Gone One,’” she explained. “But I really, really don’t want to have to paint ‘Gone Two, Three, Four, or Five.’”
While Kirkland has a large library of works, her most well-known series of paintings are the “Gone,” “Resurrected,” and “New” collections, that respectively depict species that have been extinct, rescued from extinction, or freshly discovered.
She also illustrates the cruel reality of black market animal trade and collection.
“These works are my form of activism,” she said.
Her work has been shown at the National Academy of Sciences, the Field Museum, and more. In 2016, she began working for Art in Embassies of the U.S. State Department, detailing and documenting species on-site in Suriname.
Day-to-day, Kirkland is a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences. She is also an artist partner to the organization Art To Acres, which supports large-scale land and animal conservation across the globe through art and financial donations.
“I plan to keep documenting, in paint, biodiversity that’s at risk, making a record of it, and advocating for biodiversity as I can,” she said. “But what’s probably more important is the next message that gets carried through these paintings, into the future. It’s humanity, collectively, that will decide.”
She speculated what that message may be.
“I’ve thought it could be, you know, ‘Well, too bad, these are the ghosts. These are what we lost,’” she said. “But it would be much better if that message was: ‘This is the moment we started to take action, when we really tried to save life on this planet — including our own.’”