Member Spotlight: Marlene Hill Donnelly

Marlene Hill DonnellyI am not a plumber. My extended professional artist family hoped I would take after my great-grandfather, become a successful plumber and make a great living, but a different direction called.

My focus from a very early age was nature and science, though initially from a culinary viewpoint—my mother said that as a toddler I was an avid hunter-gatherer, focused on berries and fat insects in our wild backyard.  Fortunately, this pursuit soon gave way to sketching, where my early hunting skills still came in handy.

My first childhood house was large and old, with a dark root cellar accessed down ancient stairs from the outside. Huge bins of my parents’ modeling clay loomed in this earthy smelling cave, sheltering a variety of creatures. Spiders, insects, pill bugs and field mice scurried in the shadows, and I tiptoed over garter snakes basking on the stairs in the summer sun. I spent many hours in that deep quiet refuge, modeling my animal companions in clay.

Travel has always been a powerful entity in my life. My intrepid grandmother and great-grandmother drove to Alaska in the early 1920s amidst many a flat tire and a strong prejudice against women traveling without men. My own travel bug gene switched on at a very early age as we crisscrossed the country on small roads, experiencing everything from Death Valley, pre-air conditioning, to roadside stands selling skulls. Canoe camping in the remote north woods with my wilderness-savvy grandfather taught survival skills along with a realistic view of nature, far removed from the Disney nature movies that I loved as well.

Travel led to scuba diving, nothing short of a revelation to the world-class sinker that I was in high school. Suddenly my negative buoyancy was an asset and I felt enormous freedom under water. From Cocos Island’s vast schools of benevolent hammerheads, large extended eyes locking with mine from inches away, to shimmering Australian cuttlefish extending two tiny tentacles in unfathomable communication, there was an alien and endlessly fascinating world that of course melded deeply into my artwork. For many years I bought Pthalo and Ultramarine Blue liquid acrylic in half-gallon bottles, to be airbrushed onto huge canvases. Using underwater sketching, color swatches, and photography, I did my best to invoke that amazing world. I have used this experience to bring life to my reconstructions of ancient marine reptiles.

Odontochelys semitestacea, Marlene Hill Donnelly; Carbon dust and digital, 2009.  Courtesy Olivier Reippel, The Field Museum. Odontochelys is a turtle ancestor from the Jurassic having developed a fairly complete plastron with just the beginnings of a carapace.

> Odontochelys semitestacea, Marlene Hill Donnelly; Carbon dust and digital, 2009. Courtesy Olivier Reippel, The Field Museum. Odontochelys is a turtle ancestor from the Jurassic having developed a fairly complete plastron with just the beginnings of a carapace.

My Zoology major (Botany minor) at Colorado State University and University of Illinois provided many opportunities for scientific drawing, but it wasn’t until I worked in a veterinary pharmacology lab following graduation that I met my first real scientific illustrator, and my path became clear. Three years at the American Academy of Art in Chicago followed, where my benighted instructors and classmates thought that my goal of scientific illustration was bizarre and I would soon die of boredom. They were wrong.

I stitched the two rather wildly disparate aspects of education together at my first job:  illustrating wolf behavior at the Brookfield Zoo. The wonderful nuances of interaction and expression felt entirely natural to one raised with a pack of dogs as siblings. Have I mentioned the dogs?  At the zoo, I was a family portrait painter.

Juvenile Hyena, carbon dust © 2002 Marlene Hill Donnelly

> Juvenile Hyena, carbon dust © 2002 Marlene Hill Donnelly

After that wonderful project ended in two years, I had the great good fortune to join the Field Museum as one of three staff scientific illustrators. I have worked there for 35 years. During the first 16 years, I illustrated equally for the departments of Botany, Zoology, and Geology, having fun and gaining a solid foundation. The GNSI was an invaluable resource of knowledge and support. 

When the Museum reverted to the old system of one illustrator per department I moved to Geology, where I have worked ever since. My concerns about losing the wonderful variety of work were unfounded, as in Geology I worked with specialists in paleobotany and fossil mammals, reptiles and fish.

> Night Vision Dimetrodon, © Marlene Hill Donnelly, Carbon dust, digital, 2014; courtesy Ken Angielczyk, The Field Museum. The discovery of Dimetrodon fossils with large sclerotic rings implies that this early reptile was nocturnal; to make the point immediate the reconstruction is presented as if through a night vision device.

I constructed paper models for botanical illustration (despite limited origami skills), but now I expanded considerably. I had grown up creating innumerable clay models, and GNSI’s Gloria Nusse introduced me to the wonderful world of aluminum wire, foil tape, and plaster. Models proved essential for reconstructions.

Life reconstructions opened an amazing new door. The journey began with an extinct Miocene raccoon relative. I began from the ground up with a road-kill raccoon specimen (from our Mammals department) that resided in our home freezer for some months while I dissected, carefully studying it to build muscles on a wire skeleton reconstructed from fossils. The tiny, newly-skinned, pointy-clawed hands resembling bits of Rosemary’s Baby floated in an alcohol jar on a refrigerator shelf the night I first met my new stepchildren, one of whom I physically tackled as he reached for the refrigerator door. And people think that scientific illustration is dull!

Teamwork with paleobotanists and sedimentologists led me to wonderfully complex landscape reconstructions. Watching the ancient environment emerge from a jumble of fossils, models, and data, taking on a life of its own, engrossed us all. The scientists used these visuals as part of their thinking process; watching often surprising developments triggered new theories.


> Triassic-Jurassic boundary, Greenland (all and detail) © Marlene Hill Donnelly 
Carbon dust, watercolor, digital, 2006; courtesy Jennifer McElwain, The Field Museum

Summer Lake, Washington, Pen and ink, watercolor field sketches © 2006 Marlene Hill DonnellyField sketching is crucial to this work and may be my favorite activity in the world. Sitting and fully absorbing a place, all senses open is the best meditation. Interweaving sketching and writing engages the whole brain. Landscape reconstructions begin witha geological setting; I locate a setting similar to the ancient place and sit.  This is the discovery phase. A local newly-flooded forest taught the difference between temporary and permanent water: dark rings emerge on tree trunks as the water swiftly drops, and a cloud of soft popping noise envelopes all as tiny air bubbles escape from the saturating earth. Field sketching combines beautifully with travel and is essential for reconstructions; the Hawaiian rainforest, Washington braided rivers, and the Okefenokee swamp have all contributed.

> Summer Lake, Washington, Pen and ink, watercolor field sketches © 2006 Marlene Hill Donnelly

I would like to say that my teaching career began twenty years ago with an altruistic yearning to “give back”, but the truth is that my boss told me I had too.  However, I soon found teaching to be a highly rewarding art form unto itself. My classes at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Morton Arboretum, and the Field Museum provide a source of endless learning (and challenge) from my many wonderful students. I am grateful to all of them.


This article appears in the Journal of Natural Science Illustration 2015, number 2.

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