|Tracy Hicks, Helix, AAM Annual Meeting 2011|
photo by Susan Breitkopf
In the early spring of 1999 I received an urgent message asking if I could help an artist whose installation of dozens of jars of goldfish preserved in alcohol had just been shut down by the fire marshal. That was my introduction to Tracy Hicks. When we spoke, I was impressed by how concerned Tracy was with authenticity in his art—he wanted the jars in his installation to be as similar to actual fluid-preserved museum specimens as he could make them.
www.tracyhicks.com under the heading “Stills—older works”). But when Tracy arrived at the museum at KU that day, he had something more profound in mind—he wanted to probe much deeper into the mystery and the beauty of collections. In 1994, he had participated in a field trip to Guatemala with a team of scientists from the University of Texas at Arlington, and returned intrigued by the details and processes of preparing scientific specimens, and worried about the disappearance of amphibians in the wild.
Early in 2005, the Two Cultures: Collections exhibit opened as a walk-in installation containing around 1700 jars of glow-in-the-dark silicon casts of scientific specimens of frogs. After exposure to UV lights, the various casts would fluoresce for anywhere from a few minutes to nearly 24 hours before fading. I digitized some field recordings I had made of frog choruses from the Amazon basin for Tracy to play in the background. A computer in the exhibit displayed a database of the catalog information for the specimens. The student assistants planned programming related to the exhibit, conducted tours, and organized a mini-conference on art and science at the Hall Center. A splendid time was had by all.
The glowing silicon frogs reappeared in Tracy’s art from time to time over the next several years, but he was never content to repeat what he had already done. As his understanding of scientific collections and the disappearing amphibian crisis grew, Tracy’s art took some fascinating twists and turns through several other major installations. By 2009, when Tracy was invited to participate in a show called Reflections on Darwin at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, he had moved from storage vaults to a two-story high indoor scaffolding holding objects and specimens that he had collected on a trek across West Texas and mounted on heavy glass panels. It was a mesmerizing display that included a reassembled snake skeleton, rocks, fossils, a bat and a frog, butterfly wings, doll parts, plants, dozens of insects, laboratory glassware, animal skulls and bones, and bottles of strangely colored oils.
Tree Walkers International that awards grants for amphibian research and publishes a magazine called Leaf Litter.
Tracy had survived a massive heart attack in 1981, but suffered from severe angina the rest of his life. The scarring on his heart meant that nothing was easy for him—not the long hours he spent at work on his art, not the physical effort required for the astoundingly long drives to far-flung venues to set up his complex installations, not trekking around in the humid tropics, and not the daily awareness that he was living on borrowed time. Tracy once wrote that, “Since the early 1980s my work has been continually charged with the physical reminder of mortality.”
In 2010, Tracy was selected for the Smithsonian Artists Research Fellowship (SARF) program, a prestigious award that gave him inside access to the largest natural history collections in the world, and the scientists who made them and care for them. His art continued to morph, now including fantastically mixed images of field notes written by scientists during their studies in the wild, superimposed with beautiful, touching photographs of specimens suspended in time in fluid and human skin (Tracy had been a commercial photographer before he became a full-time artist, and that experience shows in his images―he knew how to use light). The SARF project became a metaphorical comparison of human skin and amphibian skin, using close-ups of finely textured preserved frog and tadpole skin, young and old human skin, and particularly scars. At his request, I sent him images of cross-sections of amphibian skin and stories of how scientists found frogs in the wild.
Tracy devoted considerable energies his last few years to the design and construction of the house he and his wife, Victoria Loe Hicks (an award-winning journalist) built in the mountains of North Carolina. It was their dream house, quiet and restful, with studio space amid acres of woods where Tracy walked daily. Last spring, they held the first of what was planned as an annual gathering of artists, musicians, and scientists, a converging of the Two Cultures around the theme of giant salamanders. Back in 2003, when we were at the Field Museum, Tracy became transfixed by a specimen of the giant Japanese salamander. Although the specimen did not fit the parameters of our project, we borrowed it anyway, and one afternoon I watched as Tracy made an alginate mold and then a plaster cast (which had to be poured within ten minutes of making the mold) in the lab at KU. The huge plaster salamander traveled with Tracy back home to Texas, moved with him to Atlanta, and then to North Carolina in 2010 before he found time to work on it. Giant Japanese salamanders (Andrias japonicas) grow to five feet long or more; its only living relatives are a similar Chinese species (Andrias davidianus) and the somewhat smaller hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) of the eastern United States. All of the giant salamanders live in cold water that flows down mountains; like all amphibians, they live through their porous skin; and like too many amphibians, they are gravely threatened with extinction. Tracy spent hours working with the plaster cast, transforming its dull white surface until it looked very much alive, its’ skin glistening, an astoundingly beautiful piece of art. Tracy, who liked to describe himself as a crazy old artist, frequently told people that Andrias was the only god he believed in, emblematic of the way he embraced the natural world with a childlike curiosity coupled with a fascination with science.
All photos by John Simmons, unless otherwise noted