Tiffany Bozic, the first Artist-in-Residence at the California Academy of Sciences, named her first child after a rare bird found in Southeast Asia: Tesia olivea. This scientific whimsy is typical of Bozic, as I learned during her talk at the San Francisco Public Library last Tuesday, September 4th as part of the Cal Academy lecture series. Her husband Jack Dumbacher, curator of birds and mammals at the Academy, held four-month-old Tesia at the back of the room while Bozic spoke of her own early childhood inspirations.
Until the age of six, Bozic lived on a remote goat farm in Arkansas, running wild with the animals. “I saw that slaughterhouses were not that different from watching birth take place,” she says. She also drew constantly, and pored over the work of famous artist-scientists John James Audobon and Ernst Haeckel.
Now the girl from the Arkansas goat farm has become a globe-trotting grown-up. “My favorite place besides San Francisco is Papua New Guinea,” she says, but she’s also traveled to Australia, China, the Galapagos and Namibia, often as a research assistant to Dumbacher. She takes pictures of children wherever she goes–my favorite from her presentation was of a tiny girl in rural China, carrying a sack of rice nearly her own size.
However, Bozic’s talk was not primarily a travelogue, but a presentation of her new monograph, Drawn By Instinct, 150 pages of lush paintings that blend anatomical detail with emotional metaphor. “Many are universal truths about life or lessons she would like to one day tell her daughter,” wrote Dumbacher in the book’s introduction. Though Bozic actually wasn’t pregnant at the time, she says, “Right after we submitted his text to the publisher, [our daughter] appeared as if she was summoned!”
San Francisco is a far cry from Arkansas farmland, but Bozic is determined to offer her child plenty of outdoor experience. “I believe that we should encourage our children to love nature, so they will want to protect it for their own children,” she says. And though she is neither scientist nor educator, her work is unavoidably educational. “Best Intentions” describes the difficult choice of a mother blue-footed booby bird; “Symmetrical Truce” is inspired by the incredible value of pigs in Papua New Guinea. The first questions from the audience of Bozic’s library talk were all science: “What is that poisonous bird?” and “Does the flycatcher’s bright yellow mouth attract flies?”
But the value of Bozic’s work doesn’t lie in its scientific accuracy–after all, you can’t trust her not to paint an imaginary sea slug in with the real ones. Rather, what she offers is connection, the sense that we are all a part of nature and not something separate from it.
“I felt the galaxy move through me,” Bozic wrote about the experience of pregnancy and childbirth. “I finally learned to be grateful and respect my biology.” Those are lessons that can resonate, regardless of one’s procreative status.