Selected works from”The Mirrors”

This page includes audio descriptions, artist commentary and conservation information related to six works by Adam Swanson.

These pieces were selected from the larger collection of fourteen currently on display at Great Lakes Aquarium during July and August 2020.

Each painting is represented by an image with alt text, caption with title and artist, audio file, and transcript of the audio file. Scroll through page to experience all six works presented here in no particular order.

Introduction to the exhibit

Transcript of artist introduction to the exhibit:

Welcome to Great Lakes Aquarium, located on the beautiful shore of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. Our summer 2020 show in the Merrill Lynch Fine Arts Gallery features work from a local contemporary artist, Adam Swanson. The following is a 2.5 minute introduction and overview of the show, titled “The Mirrors” from Adam.

“I am a painter and muralist fascinated by the way science fiction posits a future for humanity that is transformed by major environmental changes and technological innovations. My invented scenarios ask viewers to consider unfamiliar places, such as the lines between true false, fiction and documentation, natural growth and urban development. I paint wild animals and scientific equipment to create poignant and sometimes humorous tensions between humans and the natural world.

“The Mirrors” is an exhibit I created to highlight some of the many state and federally listed endangered animals of Minnesota.

In the Lake Superior watershed of northern Minnesota where I live, people are acutely concerned about our relationship with the environment. I am interested in painting some of the darker, complex ecological challenges we face in our fragile relationships to the land, water, and animals that make our area so precious. Many people don’t realize there are more than 45 state and federally listed endangered animal species of Minnesota. Projects such as the Glencore/Polymet mine threaten to pollute the lake and surrounding areas for generations. Our increasing use of plastic and interconnected waterways create dynamic new challenges.

This exhibit is an extension of my conversations with local ecologists and my own research around the state. In the early 2000’s I worked for years in Antarctica with the National Science Foundation where I developed my knowledge of important climate related experiments. Currently, I’m a member of the Twin Ports Art Science Collaborative and my work has been influenced by researchers from Lake Superior and the SPRUCE climate change project in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. I was lucky to visit Walter the wood turtle here at the Great Lakes aquarium to capture reference material for my painting “Ebb and Flow”. I have spent days aboard the RV Blue Heron working with researchers keeping tabs on the St. Louis River Estuary and the overall health of Lake Superior. In this exhibit, I tried to create colorful, engaging snapshots of our unsung neighbors. Animals who have existed in our region for millions of years. Now, more than ever, the implications of human actions in an ever-changing landscape are on the tip of everyone’s tongue. My recent paintings attempt to make scientific data such as this clearer and, most importantly, inspire audiences to learn what can be done to change course.”

Painting 1: Let’s get started

artwork of children walking through a doorway inside a home, a large frog clings to the child’s jacket
Let’s get started – Adam Swanson, 2020
Transcript for audio description of painting entitled “Let’s get started”:

This description is just over 6 minutes long and is followed by conservation information and comments from the artist.

“Let’s Get Started” by Adam Swanson. Created in 2020, acrylic paint on wood panel. This piece is four feet tall and three feet wide (122cm by 91cm).

This piece appears to capture an innocent moment of childhood. Filling the canvas are two children walking through a doorway. The older child leads the way, left hand in the air as their left foot passes through the threshold. The younger child looks down to the ground, following close behind with an arm extended up, holding onto the shoulder of the child in front. Overall the painting consist of various blues and browns, but as you continue to look, a larger-than-life frog comes into focus. The frog appears to cling onto the front of the older child’s jacket, making the frog the center focus and the children more of the background.

Upon closer examination of the frog, with large, round black eyes raised off the top of its head, it’s unclear if the frog looks up to the child it’s clinging to, or right back at us. The frog is nearly the full length of the child’s hooded jacket, with the face of the frog resting at the top of the chest, a bit below the child’s chin, and the back legs settled near the bottom of the coat. The rounded face of the frog indicates a distinct nostril as a small black opening outlined in white. Starting just behind the head, muscular, round front arms sit out slightly, away from the side of the frog’s body. The bent front arm closest to our view has three separate long toes. The round, tube-like toes stretch out to form the shape of a ‘W’, though the middle digit is longer than the one to the left or right. The main body of the frog has a rounded diamond shape, though wider on the back half of the frog. The skin is mottled with several greens, grays, orangey-tans, and highlighted with a few spots of white – all applied with heavy, wide layers of paint. Two large back legs are tucked up close to the back body of the frog. Again we see the hint of long, round toes on the hind legs.

Now, let’s explore the children framing the frog. Overall both kids are painted with very fast, loose strokes and there is not much in terms of fine details, but rather a mix of shades that create a feel of movement in the clothes they wear. The older child, who may be about 8 or 10 years old wears blue jeans and a dark green-gray long sleeve jacket with a pale gray hood. Blond, shoulder length hair falls just out of the front of the hood on both sides of the face. We see the right side of the face which has a feeling of softness and lightness. In contrast to the wider strokes everywhere else, clean, thin lines create relaxed lips, the curve of a nose and eyelashes of a closed eye, on the face.

Holding the shoulder facing us, is the hand of the second child, who may be about 4 or 5 years old. This child wears a long-sleeve yellow shirt with blue pants, all done in the wide, loose paint strokes. Pale strokes create a tussled head of hair coming down to about the ears. Since the child looks down, we don’t see any facial features.

Moving further out to explore the background behind the children; the walls are painted in light blue and extend out from the wooden door frame they are walking through. We see the suggestion of two square frames hung on the wall and the tips of several long pointed leaves from a muted olive green house plant, placing the children and the frog indoors, likely their home. Behind them we see matching light blue walls and black space indicating another doorway. Under the legs of the front child, heavy layering of brown swaths of paint create a shadow that leads to a lighter gray, tan and cream colored floor also made of the large loose strokes. Under the white-socked feet of the older child, the floor is highlighted with touches of orange, red and yellow, giving a touch of warmth and energy to the moment captured in the painting.

Conservation: The northern cricket frog featured in this piece is listed as endangered in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada. Once widespread in areas of southern Minnesota, today there are only two remaining populations in Bloomington and Winona. These small tree frogs lack sticky toes and are not adept climbers. Although, at only 0.5 – 1.5 inches long they can leap a full 5 – 6 feet! As adults they dine on crickets and other small insects, including mosquitoes and live along the muddy shores of marshes, drainage ditches and other permanent waters. These bodies of water are where they lay their eggs, which hatch into tadpoles. Tadpoles live in the waters for up to 10 weeks eating plant and animal matter before they metamorphose into adults. Unfortunately, pesticides, road salt and climate change have created poor conditions for metamorphosis and adequate food. Land drainage and habitat loss has removed suitable areas for northern cricket frogs to live and reproduce. The most important ways we can help them are by minimizing use of road salts and pesticides, and protecting wetlands from development and the effects of climate change. To help scientist locate additional populations report sighting to your local DNR.

Adam: This painting features a Northern Cricket Frog and another portrait of my children. I made this painting during the Covid 19 quarantine, which has given me ample opportunity to take part in living room activities, where this scene takes place. We have many Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers in our neighboring bogs and my kids are always finding them and following them around. I hope someday these beautiful Northern Cricket Frogs still exist in Minnesota and my sons are able to experience them with the same thrill.

Painting 2: Slender Madtom

artwork of a catfish swimming and near-naked child runs among rocks
Slender Madtom – Adam Swanson, 2020
Transcript for audio description of painting entitled “Slender Madtom”:

This description is just under 6 minutes long and is followed by conservation information and comments from the artist.

“Slender Madtom” by Adam Swanson. Created in 2020, acrylic paint on wood panel. This piece is four feet in length and 3 feet tall (122cm by 91cm).
Filling nearly two-thirds of this piece is a slender, scaleless, grey and dusky yellow fish with barbels or whiskers similar to a catfish. The fish’s tail rests just above large stones painted in greys, neutrals and bright yellow. To the left of the fish is a young child moving among the rocks. Both are backed by a heavy, dark background, thickly layered paint, scratched on with a palette knife.

Looking at the painting it seems as though the fish might be very large and oversized while the child is smaller and walking among the same rocks and pebbles as the fish swims. Though, it might also be that we view the fish up-close, while the child is off far in the distance. Or is it that the fish floats high above the child? The darkness of the background leaves the perspective indistinct and many possibilities open.

The title in this case “Slender Madtom” tells us just what kind of fish we see. In nature, this fish grows to 4 inches or 10 centimeters in length, making this work very much larger-than-life, since the fish in front of us is almost three feet long. The head of this fish is round, and its gray-ivory tones are spotted with deep orange-yellow and an almost lime green. Notable on the face are four long whiskers, and three more tips indicating several barbels attached around and below the mouth. Situated on the top of the flat head are two symmetrical round black eyes, one seems almost to look right at us. Following the body down below the head, two pale pectoral fins stick out slightly on either side of the slim body. The top dorsal fin, nearly flattened, rests on top of the fish. Moving down the body are dull grays, highlighted slightly with thin yellow strokes that might even be a reflection of the rocks below. Painted with loser brush strokes, a hazy outline of the tail rests just above the rocks.

The pale round stones resting along the bottom of the panel are a mix of lighter tones, giving a stark contrast to the heavy darkness of the upper background. Each stone has a slightly darker outline, many done in gray, though one catches your glance as it is outlined in a deep red. Each stone is filled in with strokes of gray-whites, pale pinks with a hint of orange, and then several large stones pop with a brilliant yellow.

The child, around 5 years old, is seen running along the rocks to the left and perhaps below or beyond, moves among rocks playfully wearing simple white underwear. Soft pale blond hair is cut short above the ears and lays natural on the top of the head. The right arm flings behind to match a moving and bent right leg as though carelessly running. The child’s face looks down at the ground below, and away from the direction of the fish.
Starting at the child’s waist and about mid-body on the fish, the top third of the painting is dark and heavily layered with paint. Though mostly black and a very deep blue, some lightness comes at the very top of the panel with small strokes of lavender on the left and middle sections, while the right top corner appears to have some yellow peeking through the darkness.

Conservation: Slender Madtom is listed as an endangered species in Wisconsin and is considered a rare species in Minnesota. They feast on small insects and larvae along the bottom of pebbly streams and rivers just before dawn. This nocturnal behavior keeps them safe from predation. The pebble river bottom helps them hide their small body, only about 4 inches long (10 cm), in the space between rocks. These spaces under rocks are necessary during breeding season as they become nests and nurseries for their young. Sadly, sediment and nutrient runoff from farms and human development threaten these habitats. Those sediments cover the river bottoms and fill those gaps with soil, sand, and organic matter. Thankfully, we can help the slender madtom in a few ways. If you are a home or property owner, reduce the amount of fertilizer and road salt you use, clean leaves and grass to keep them from storm drains, and chose plants and permeable surfaces to help reduce water runoff. There is a lot to learn still about the slender madtom and you can support that research by reporting sightings to the DNR and supporting local agencies doing stream restoration work. The more we learn about them and their habitat, the better chance we have at turning the tide on their population decline.

Adam: I’ve always wondered what it would be like to walk along the bottom of a lake or river without a bunch of SCUBA gear. I began this painting thinking about what the slender madtom must see, swimming around small pebbles in slow moving streams. In place of my childhood self I painted a portrait of my son, taken years ago walking along the beach of just such a stream. I wanted this painting to express a light, dreamy feel. I used dark, colors and experimented with the light bounce of a child to the floating sensation of a small, bottom feeding catfish.

Painting 3: Skipper

artwork of a man passed out on a black couch with a painting of a yellow butterfly hung on the wall
Skipper – Adam Swanson, 2020
Transcript for audio description of painting entitled “Slender Madtom”:

Filling the bottom two thirds of the painting is a man, passed out sleeping on a couch. The top third of the piece is filled with a wall that comes up behind the couch. The wall is a light periwinkle color and hanging on it, is a large framed image of a single yellow butterfly. The colors of the pieces are overall neutral, but bright yellow shows up in the butterfly painting, a bottle of alcohol on the floor and on the man’s shirt. Large tiles of lime green make up the floor beneath the man lying on the couch.

We look onto this scene as though we are sitting across the room, directly in front of the man on the couch. I will describe the man and then move to the artwork hung above him. The large black couch fills nearly the full length of the painting. The couch sits low to the ground with a clearance around 6 inches above the lime green flooring. The back of the couch is quilted into large squares. Wide brush strokes on each square show that it might be suede or even leather.

On the left end of the couch are two pillows. The man’s head sits just in front of the pillows, as though his head has rolled forward, off them slightly. The man is wearing a short sleeved shirt and blue jeans. He is lying on his side. His right arm lays in front of him along the edge of the couch, crushed slightly by his body. His left arm hangs down in front of his body and rests in a relaxed fist on the floor. The exposed skin of the man’s face and arms are done in larger brush strokes. Warm light pink, tan and red strokes bring a warm appearance to his skin and a shadow to his face.

On the floor, in front of his hand sits a clear, short glass, still containing a small amount of yellow liquid. To the side of the glass is a half empty bottle of the same yellow liquid. Thrown on the back of the couch are several items of clothing including a grey coat. The coat lays open a bit, so a bright red inner lining shows through. In front of the couch, on the right-hand side, there are two brown leather shoes with laces. Each shoe has a crumpled white sock hanging out of the foot hole opening.

Now, looking back up to the painting hung on the wall, we see it extends the length from the man’s shoulders, to just past his knees, what would be about 3 feet wide and 2 feet tall. This artwork has a solid black background. A small section of the black paint has been scraped away from the background leaving some lightness of paint layers below to peek through. The large yellow butterfly takes up most of the frame. The butterfly’s six legs are visible, and rest on a leaf-like surface painted with loose strokes of greens.

The butterfly, known as a Dakota Skipper, as indicated in the title of the artwork, has a soft tan body. The round head is dominated by a large black eye spot with layers of lavender paint applied around the eye. The butterfly rest with its wings folded up, showing the underside of the bottom wing and the top corner of the upper wing. The bright yellow lower wing is dotted with five small brown spots, nearly in a vertical row. The upper wing has spots of brown, tawny-orange and deep burgundy red, showing a darker contrast to the lower more brightly yellow wing.

Conservation: The Dakota Skipper is currently listed as threaten under the Endangered Species Act. This is a small butterfly with a one inch wing span. It has a thick body with faster, more powerful flight than most butterflies. This prairie pollinator has lost between 85-99% of its prairie habitat. There are just a few remaining populations, including some in southern Canada, the Dakotas and one site here in Minnesota. Most threatening to them is the turning of native prairies to farms, ranches and other land use like gravel mining. Dakota Skippers depend on both grasses to eat and overwinter in. In the summer, they need plentiful wildflowers like purple cone flowers for nectar during their few weeks as adults. Key work needed to save them will include collaboration between land owners, managers and biologist to ensure adult butterflies have a chance to mate and lay eggs before any prescribed disturbances, like fires, haying fields or browsing animals. Disturbances are needed to prevent woody shrubs from taking over the prairie land, but the timing is critical to see these butterflies succeed. Right now, the MN Zoo is working to propagate eggs taken from the wild as a backup colony in case we lose the wild population.

Adam: I’ve always had a strong interest in photography and film so the compositions of my large and medium-sized paintings are based on photographs. My studio is filled with my snapshots of landscapes, machinery and animals. I select, recompose, and paint the most interesting details so that my paintings may be comprised of more than a dozen study images.

Painting 4: Stranger

artwork of a young boy wearing a red coat, at a cabin, feeding wood to a fire while a lynx walks on snow behind him
Stranger – Adam Swanson, 2020
Transcript for audio description for painting entitled by

“Stranger” by Adam Swanson was created in 2020 with acrylic paint on wood panel and is 2.5 feet wide and 2 feet tall or 72cm by 61cm.

From our view point we look directly at a child kneeling on the ground and placing small sticks into what seems to be a fire. The background is an outdoor winter setting with snow on the ground and bare trees. Behind the child stands a large wooden log cabin with several windows. Walking unnoticed between the child and the cabin is a lynx or large cat-like animal. The piece is constructed with thick layers of paint, applied with a pallet knife. Many rough, loose lines of varied colors; some in an almost flurried or sporadic application create the resemblance of structures and features I will describe. Rather than a crisp image, it appears almost out of focus or seen from far away.

Our eye is first drawn to the lower half of the piece, because the young child wears a bright red coat, which stands out greatly from the pale winter background. From our view, the child, around the age of six, is facing us, knelt on the ground, with their body turned slightly towards the fire at our left. The ground right below the child is thick layers of black paint, which mix with layers of a deep burgundy, red, orange and then yellow and green in progression as you move away from the child towards the right side of the canvas.

The child wears tan or khaki pants, dark shoes, and a red jacket zipped all the way up. They have straight, pale blond hair cut short to above the ear and just at the neck. Though it must be cold, their hands are bare and each hold a thin stick of wood, equivalent to the length of their forearm. The right arm rest in towards the body with the wrist held just above the thigh. The left arm reaches out towards the fire. The fire is contained in what roughly looks like grey concrete blocks on the side. Above the fire sits a large black rectangle structure. The black container is open on the top and white layers of paint create steam emerging from the wide opening as though the fire boils what’s inside.

The rising smoke and steam on the far left side of the painting takes our eye up to the wood cabin in the top left corner of the piece. The cabin is made of rounded logs, interlaced at the corners, and raises two stories high with a roof that peaks in the middle and slants down on both sides. The side we look directly onto has a small window and full wooden door. The side of the house, facing more towards the woods, has both a window on the top level, and a row of four large windows running the full length of the ground floor. The back of the house is not seen because of the steam, but a second roof line alludes to the house reaching further back beyond what we can see.

To the right of the cabin, and across the right top-half of the painting is the forested area. The trees are bare of any leaves, and created with both black pencil sketch lines and straight lines of grey paint. The sky is grey-blue beyond the trees, but warm yellows and oranges are painted between the lower trunks of the trees. Square patches of bright blue are affixed on two of the trees, and might be bird houses or perhaps maple sap collection bags. Snow covering the ground starts at the base of the trees and covers the clearing with the lynx, and ends at a path or road. The path puts the child at the fire on the front side and the house and lynx on the back half of the image.

The lynx, on the right side of the painting, appears to walk casually out of the snowy forest, heading left towards the path. The cat-like features of the face include pointed ears, grey fur covering the top half of the face, a pointed snout, and white fur that starts at the lower jaw and comes down the neck. The head seems almost small compared to the larger body and four wide, fur covered feet. The front paw reaches forward, while an opposite back paw reaches up in forward motion. The fur-covered body is made of a mixture of brown and grey mottled paint. Lighter, white blocks of paint add a geometric touch to the back line of fur. The lynx looks forward on its path of travel, though it’s unclear if the animal notices the child. The child, focused on feeding the fire seems wholly unaware of the lynx crossing behind.

Conservation: The Canada lynx is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species act. The largest concentrations of populations are in Canada and Alaska, but populations are found across the northern states of the contiguous 48 in boreal forests and woodlands. Specifically these animals are found in areas with dense snowshoe hare populations. Often identified by the dark tuff of hair on its ears this large cat stands 20 inches (51 cm) at the shoulder and can weigh up to 31 pounds. The rear legs are slightly longer than the front, ending in large round, furry foot pads. Ideally adapted to navigating deep snow and thick undergrowth the lynx’s competitive advantage allows it access to ideal areas with largest snowshoe hare populations – their ideal prey. The lynx’s dependence on snowshoe hares can be seen as their populations have coinciding cyclical dips every 8-11 years. As snowshoe hares become less abundant, lynx kittens survival declines leading to smaller lynx populations. One of the greatest threats to the Canada lynx is reduction in their competitive advantage when roads and human development create predator access to lynx habitat including coyotes, wolves and cougars. Taking action in your home, and community, to reduce your impact of climate change can help ensure the survival of the boreal forests these animals, and their prey, depend on.

Adam: This painting is a portrait of my son tending the maple syrup boil at our home this spring. During quarantine I have been thinking a lot about danger, to my family and the ones I love. I included a Canada Lynx a rare animal to see in our area, but which used to populate the forests near my home. Initially I thought the lynx would be dangerous to my six year old, wandering around the woods collecting sap. After a small amount of research I learned that humans are not at risk from Canada Lynx, according to National Geographic there has never been a recorded human attack by a lynx. Humans, however have nearly made the Canada Lynx extinct. Their populations are threatened by loss of habitat and climate change. There is a soft dance between safety, security and living in harmony with the other creatures who have existed here for millions of years. Recent efforts to reintroduce the Canada Lynx in Colorado and parts of Canada have been successful. Sadly, this creature remains a federally listed endangered animal in the lower 48 states.

Painting 5: Walk in this Other Space

artwork of a blue butterfly on a yellow flower next to two astronauts floating in space.
Walk in This Other Space – Adam Swanson, 2020

The audio description mentions ways to report sightings of these endangered butterflies to the Minnesota DNR. In Wisconsin, residents can be part of a citizen science project to better understand butterfly populations. Learn more about the Karner Volunteer Monitoring Program at this link.

Transcript of audio description of painting Walk in This Other Space:

“Walk in this Other Space” by Adam Swanson was created in 2020 with acrylic paint on wood panel and is 2.5 feet tall by 5 feet wide or 76cm by 152cm.

Two to three times the size of the other paintings in the gallery, this piece grabs your attention. All at once we seem to be looking at two worlds, with the left side of the painting bringing us into close-up view of a butterfly perched on a yellow flower, while the right third of the painting is a zoomed out shot of two astronauts floating in space. With such a contrast of images, we may be in the world of the butterfly while a poster of space is held up behind the flower. Or then again, maybe we are in the world of the astronauts and looking through a space station window with the butterfly right in front of our view. The artist leaves the connection between the two scenes open to interpretation.

Let’s begin by taking a closer look at the butterfly, in its brilliantly bright blue hues that fill the left 2/3rd of this large painting. The butterfly is perched on the center of a yellow flower with its wings open. We look onto the butterfly such that the left wing is coming right out towards us and the right wing lies flat out across the painting. The effect of thick layers of paint put on like mud with a palette knife are very evident here with long stretches of back and blue paint covering the top wing.

Both top and lower wings are outlined with a thin white edging. The lower wing has large bands of bright blue mixed with lighter blues radiating out in five wide stripes from the center body. Some lighter marks of white paint add a bit of lightness to each band, and are applied more loosely in varied directions across the bands. At the end of each blue stripe, just before the white outline, are black, almost circular marking s. Each black spot is topped with a curved, half circle of orange with smaller strokes of red, pinks and yellows mixed in. Two long, thin antennas reach out from a small round head, stretching over the flower’s center.

The center of the flower is made of many yellow orbs, packed densely together. Some of these orbs on the outside of the flower’s center are darkened with orange and red paint strokes. Radiating out from the center are yellow petals that take the shape of a wide flat ‘v’. We do not see the whole flower, just the inside edge of four petals. One reaching out above the butterfly at twelve o’clock, a second peaks out just below the butterfly at six o’clock, a third a t seven o’clock and a final petal stretches between nine and ten o’clock. Each bright petal is made of a flurry of yellow and cream layers of paint. At the eleven o’clock position of the flower we see a bright green triangle between the two top petals. Black paint coming from the very top left corner of the green triangle is smeared onto the green, creating a shadow of what could be the leaves or plant beyond the yellow flower. Between the lower two petals we again see green and black paint layers, though much darker than above, alluding again to plant material beyond the flower.

A bit of the yellow color from the flower shows up in two more spots – first, as an outline on the bottom edge of the blue butterfly’s wing. Just beyond the white edge of the lower wing, lose strokes of yellow paint surround the wing’s edge. We also see a small circle of the yellow paint, which is splattered into the dark background of the space scene. Another few lines of yellow brighten the knee joint of an astronaut’s space suite, pulling a bit of connection between the contrast of the butterfly and the scene in outer space .

Turning to change our point of view to focus now on the outer space scene to the right of the butterfly, we see a dark sky fill this space, dotted with hundreds of small stars, perhaps splattered on with white paint. The top portion of the space is nearly completely black, though as we scan down the painting more blue streaks show through. At the very bottom are layers of a deep royal blue, much darker than the butterfly, but still seeming to add lightness to the vastness of the space scene. The astronauts differ in appearance. The first one is placed directly beside the top wing of the butterfly, building the perception that the astronaut is far away, since it’s so small in comparison to the insect. The white suit is rather elaborate with a large bubble helmet, a big pack behind the head, a reach of tubing connecting the back to the front of the suit. The suit is oversized, modular and much bulkier than the blue gloved hands that hang at the end of each arm. The arms and legs both extend weightless as the astronaut floats untethered to anything.

The second astronaut is similarly wearing a closed helmet, so we see just a black bubble, no face. The white suit they wear is much simpler and more fitted to the body. Equally untethered, they also appear to be falling, almost horizontal and floating further in the distance than the other astronaut. The second smaller astronaut is about half way down the vertical space of the painting and floating just above the streaks of blue rising from the bottom of the frame.

Conservation: The Karner Blue butterfly is an endangered silvery-blue butterfly that can be found from the Eastern seaboard through Eastern Minnesota. This small butterfly, with a 1 inch (2.5 cm) wingspan, depends on wild blue lupine along oak-pine savannahs and open fields. Adult Karner Blues feed on nectar of flowering plants, but the young are more specific in their diet. By early summer adults lay eggs on the lupine flower leaves and the hatched larva feed exclusively on lupine leaves. The first generation hatched in June will pupate to adulthood and lay a second generation of eggs that will overwinter and hatch in late spring the following year. Like most pollinators, they are threatened by habitat loss from land development and encroaching forests in open areas. The Karner Blue’s reliance on the native blue lupine plant further restricts its range and survivability. To support healthy populations join federal and local partners through the National Pollinator Garden Network by planting native pollinator gardens. Report any sightings of the Karner Blue butterfly to your local DNR and help scientist learn more about this species.

Adam: I have always loved outer space. I made this painting thinking about the fragility of all Earth’s animals. This painting is of a Karner Blue Butterfly, one of Minnesota’s many federally listed endangered and threatened animals. When I make a painting I consult with ecologists, scientific journals and any interested person. We are all able to do research and learn about our surroundings. There is a deep relationship between art and science. The more we learn about our surroundings, where we came from and who we are, the more likely we will thrive in a universe of endless possibilities.

Painting 6: Stars

artwork of a Northern Long-eared bat resting under streetlights in a city park with large metal robot in the background
Stars – Adam Swanson, 2020
Transcript of audio description of painting Stars:

“Stars” by Adam Swanson was created in 2020 with acrylic paint on wood panel and is 4 feet wide and 3 feet tall or 72cm by 122cm

Set under a pitch black night sky, a series of street lights illuminate the main feature of this painting: a furry bat with very large ears. The street lights also reveal an urban park setting with a red-roofed building, paved streets with crosswalk markings, several square street signs, a structure with windows in the background, and more interestingly, or perhaps less common in urban park areas, a large blue robot standing taller than the street lights on the left side of the piece. Let’s explore each of these components in more detail.

Receiving the most attention to detail, filling the majority of the frame, and set very close to our view, is the long eared bat. It’s placed front and center of the painting. The bat has a small, soft, triangular face with narrow, round black eyes looking back at us. An intricate spiral curve creates the nostrils, while a simple straight line makes the mouth. The face is painted with grey, cream and brown streaks of paint. Just behind the eyes are the two huge ears, each four to five times the size of the head. The ears are wide at the base of the head and come up to a point, appearing almost cone shaped. The ears have a deep inward curve. The left ear is filled with numerous long curved paint lines in black and grey, creating ridges with a comb-like feel. The right ear is turned away from us slightly, though the comb-like lines are still seen running down the middle ridge of the ear.

Beyond the oversized ears is a fur covered round body with two wings. The fur of the body is created with undertones of grey and tawny yellow, covered with a flurry of smaller white paint strokes creating a fuzzy texture. Both wings are bent up and tucked close to the body. Reddish-brown stripes of paint create the upper wing bones, and stripes of alternating white, gray and black paint form the folds of skin found in bat wings.

Shifting to the left and slightly above the bat is a looming light blue rectangular robot, reminiscent of a child’s toy from many decades ago. It stands with the front of its body rotated towards us and the bat. The body of the robot is a light blue vertical rectangle, with two dials. The top-left dial is square, with hash marks in a semi-circle and a small red arrow. The top-right dial is round, similar to the appearance of a clock, and has an arrow pointed towards 1 o’clock position. Below the dials is a large window, with what appears to be a computer screen inside the robot’s body, displaying graphs and charts in blues, greens, and yellow-whites. Both the dials and window are outlined with red paint.

Atop the body is a square head, with two white circular eyes – outlined in red and with a dark blue center spot. A thin rectangular mouth reaches nearly side to side across the face and is made of small white squares with a bold red outline, almost mimicking a toothy-grin. A large red bolt, placed like an ear is seen on the side of the head. Two long, flat arms reach down the length of the body, are attached with a smaller red bolt at the shoulder, and end in an open claw shape. The left arm of the robot falls in line with a square street sign containing an orange caution triangle, helping to place the robot in the same park scene as the bat. A few more streaks of blue paint indicate two simple robotic legs and flat feet, though they mostly fade into the dark blackness of the night.

Just to the right of the robot and behind the bat is the first street light. A thin metal pole runs from the ground up to the very top of the painting. Almost to the top, at the height of the robot’s head, are two small cone shaped pieces, perhaps a speaker of some kind. Rising above that, the light pole bends at a 90 degree agree to be parallel with the ground. The light is created in a blinding flurried ball of bright white layers of paint, such that we cannot make out the actual fixture or housing of the bulb. Moving further away and down the road from our view are two more identical street lights with bright white balls of light. These illuminate a smooth paved gray-black road which curves around a bend, ending at a road intersection in the foreground with white wide blocks indicating two cross-walks, and at the other end of the curve, a bridge or structure in the background.

The far right side of the painting, starting just beyond the left ear of the bat, is a simple square tan building with a red slanted roof. Black and brown layers of paint on the far right side of the building create a shadow effect in the sections of the building that are away from the street lights. Alternatively, the front of the building, just under the roof line glows bright yellow, perhaps from its own night light. Two square sign post come up from the small green grass area around the front of the building. One post has two signs stacked on top of each other and face away from us – most likely road signs. The second sign is shorter, and has a circular seal in the top left corner, as though it may tell you the history of this place or rules for the park.

Conservation: The long eared bat is a medium sized bat listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. As its name suggests, it has longer ear than other species in its family. Their wing span is 9 – 10 inches (23 – 25 cm) with a 3 inch (8 cm) long body covered in fur. The fur is darker brown on the back and lightening to pale brown on their undersides. At dusk they feed in the understory of the forest, locating insects with echolocation. During the day they roost solitarily in cracks and crevices of living and dead trees, or structures like sheds, barns and caves. Pregnant females roost together in a maternity colony in the summer months as they birth and raise their single pup. In winter, large colonies of bats hibernate together in caves and abandoned mines where the temperature and humidly is fairly consistent over the season. Although these bats are threatened by habitat disturbances and lack of adequate roosting locations, their greatest threat is a fungus called white-nose syndrome. This fungus changes the bats winter behavior making them more physically active at a time when they have limited internal resources and energy stores. Colonies infected by white-nose syndrome suffer mortality rates of 90-100%. To help protect the long-eared bat, you should actively avoid areas with known white-nose syndrome infections, and read and obey posted signage on cave and mine openings. Always disinfect clothing and gear after visiting an area with known bat populations. For more information on disinfecting techniques visit

Adam: I often use bright colors and light tones in my paintings, and this night-time painting of a Northern Long-Eared Bat was an exciting challenge for me. Instead of painting light as it reflects off of everything, the limited cast of streetlights allowed me to focus on only those things beneath the lamps. While their face shines directly beneath the light, the looming robot fades into the darkness and their arms become mere suggestions. Street lightings offer many benefits to humanity, yet I imagined the difficulty a bat (or any nocturnal animal) must have trying to figure out what these shining beacons are trying to say.