Diana Sudyka

Diana Sudyka works on watercolor of a South American Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja)

Diana Sudyka is an illustrator and printmaker living and working in the Chicago area. Her printmaking background includes working as master printer for studios such as Big Cat Press in Chicago, and Landfall Press (now located in Santa Fe, New Mexico). Currently she creates illustration work for everything from books, album artwork, screenprinted rock posters, to watercolors for her natural history blog The Tiny Aviary that documents her experience volunteering for the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History.

Interview with Diana Sudyka
by Sens Unic Association

Your picture ‘Darwin’s Finches’ is so wonderfull portrait of Charles Darwin. It is full of emotions and respect and it gives a very warm impression. What does Darwin and the theory of evolution meant to you? When was the first time you were introduced to the theory of evolution  and gained a more meaningfull understanding ?

I had a general awareness for Darwin from a young age, but didn’t really understand what he and the theory of evolution was truly about until much later. Growing up, my exposure to Darwin in school was quite limited. It wasn’t until my mid 20s when I picked up a beautiful book, ‘The Beak of the Finch’ by Jonathan Weiner, that I had a proper introduction to Darwin and the theory of evolution. The book focuses on the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant and the years they spent studying Galapagos finches. It’s an elegantly written book, and the Grants work was (and is) so compelling. The book’s recounting of their work gave me an understanding of what evolution was, and through it I gained a window in to the complexity and fragility of nature that I never had before. Darwin was a brilliant naturalist that had a deep love of nature in all of its variety, and strove to understand its complexities.

What is the Richard Dawkins’s image  in America?

America is a very large country with people of many diverse backgrounds and cultures. That said, a large portion of American culture is also very conservative and Christian, especially in the more rural areas. I think among this part of the population, Atheism and its defenders of the likes of Richard Dawkins, are not looked upon favorably. Darwin and the theory of evolution is of course mixed in with all of this too. There seems to be some ignorance and many misconceptions, that lead to demonizing figures such as Darwin and Dawkins. The more extreme extensions of this mindset manifest themselves in arguments surrounding whether or not to replace teaching of evolutionary theory with ‘intelligent design’ in schools.

How did they celebrate Darwin’s bicentenar in USA?

Most of the events that I am aware of have been at the academic level here, such as conferences. There is a big Darwin conference coming up at the University of Chicago.
There have been some museum exhibits. Last year at the Field Museum of Natural History here in Chicago, there was an excellent exhibit on Darwin that contained many items such as letters and sketches from his notebooks.

Diana Sudyka
Darwin’s Finches.

Darwin said that in natural selection wins the fittest. What character do you think makes human beings the fittest nowadays?

That’s a complicated question. The reason being that I am not so sure of humans being the fittest these days with our world population exploding to the point of far exceeding our natural resources, exploiting those resources, and damaging our environment irrevocably.What has lead to our success as a species, will surely lead to our demise if we are not careful to make some drastic changes in our habits. I am grateful, at the very least, that the US has an administration now that is finally starting to talk about these issues. From a natural selection perspective, qualities that have made us the fittest are also qualities that we seem to share with other species that thrive( and we tend not to like, such as rats, crows, pigeons, cockroaches, etc.): omnivorous habits, able to exploit and adapt to a wide range of different habitats and climate, highly social and intelligent, etc.

What are the values for people in America?

The simple answer is that the values for people in America, are the same values that people have the world over: being able to provide for themselves and their families, and the freedom to pursue and express their beliefs (whether they be religious or otherwise). How people chose to individually interpret those values, however, vary greatly as it is a very large country with both rural and urban cultures. So, it is hard to say.

In Romania the evolution theory was out between 2007-2009 and there were even some teachers that were happy about this. Is it important for Darwin’s theory to be taught in schools?

Yes, absolutely, it is important that students have some exposure to Darwin and his theories. Evolution is critical to understanding our natural environment, and especially now when our species are having a huge impact on that environment and the other species with which we share the planet. In addition, I believe in the separation of church and government, and this extends down to that religious views should not be taught in lieu of science in our schools. Of course people should have the freedom to pursue their religious beliefs, but science and religion have different functions, and one should not be mixed up with the other.

How would you imagine the November 2009 celebration after 150 years since it was published?

I don’t know, but I will point out my favorite project that is celebrating Darwin: the HMS Beagle Project. This is an amazing group of people based in Great Britain that have been raising money to build a new HMS Beagle to sail the world in the path of the original Beagle. The new ship would be a state of the art research vessel, and serve to educate people all over the world. They also plan on coordinating research with other organizations such as NASA. It’s amazing, and anyone interested in Darwin and his work should check it out and make a donation: www.thebeagleproject.com/ , and visit their blog too thebeagleproject.blogspot.com/

We know that finches are from Galapagos, but not many people understand the meaning of finches. In a way you are a specialist, because your brush and pencil touches each of these birds when you draw…and you feel like nobody else in each detail. What is the significance of these birds for you?

The Galapagos finches have always had a special significance for me ever since reading “The Beak of the Finch”. They were important to Darwin too, but perhaps there were other animals that were even more important to him in terms of developing his theories, such as the Galapagos Mockingbird, or all of his research done with pigeon breeding. Through the research that the Grants did with Galapagos finches, though, I was introduced to a deeper understanding of nature and evolution, and that is what the finches signify to me. They are such a beautiful, clear example of how one species radiates to fill and adapt to all of the different habitat niches in a specific environment.

Diana Sudyka.
Greater Bird of Paradise – Paradisaea apoda

Your birds are not dry or static. They are alive and full of emotion and character. If we look in an album of Mark Catesby, we can see very nice images of birds, but you don’t follow this tradition. Your birds are more modern  and they have energy; is it your personal point of view?

Well, you certainly would not want to refer to my paintings if you are looking scientific accuracy! It’s true, I am trying to capture the general character of any given species of bird, and much of my very subjective perspective finds its way into the watercolors. Someone like Catesby was creating for scientific posterity, and had to deal with the limitations of representing a bird or animal in a very specific manner; as many scientific illustrators do. Also, we understand nature quite differently from someone of Catesby’s or Audubon’s generation, and that finds it way into my renderings whether I want it to or not. I am (like they) a product of my time. Above all, my paintings are really just for my personal enjoyment and learning. My Tiny Aviary Blog really just started as a way to document what I was working on at the museum by posting my quick sketches of birds. There are contemporary (and FAR more ambitious) artists like Walton Ford that are extraordinarily skilled draftsmen, and are doing really great, subversive things with the natural history illustration genre.

Is it hard to work in museums? How is the athmosphere there, especially in Chicago?

Museums here, mainly due to the current economy, have made tremendous cutbacks in staff and programming (in Chicago and across the country). To a smaller degree, some of these cutbacks are surely the result of lower museum attendance in the last 10 years. The atmosphere here is one of very tight budgets. I am only a volunteer that goes to the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History once a week, but it has been difficult to watch the scientists that I work with be affected by the cutbacks.

You are an artist – not an economist, advocat or dentist – and you depend on your creativity, inspiration and mood. What do the arts provide for you and how does it influence  your life?

Sometimes I wish I was a dentist or economist! There have been times when I have had regrets about not choosing a more practical career, butI have come to realize that being an artist is the best way that I learn about and appreciate the world. Recently I visited the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, Germany. I wanted to see the Casper David Friedrich paintings, particularly one called “Das Eismeer”. Viewing “Das Eismeer” in person was a very powerful, almost spiritual experience for me. I could see Friedrich’s brushstrokes, and even though he has long been dead, this painting seemed very much alive. A great piece of artwork like that gives me a deep feeling of connection with humanity in a way most other things don’t.

Was it an easy path to illustration? Were you always sure it was the right path to take, or did you have doubts?

No, not necessarily easy. There were many years of having part time jobs in addition to doing illustration, or not doing illustration and art at all.
I’m a bit of a late bloomer. It’s just been the last few years that I have really desired to do this full time, and yes I have had doubts and still do. So far, though, it has been working, and the best is when my work resonates with an individual or a group and that connects me to people that maybe, normally, I would never have the opportunity to engage with. I love doing work for my Tiny Aviary blog because it connects me to people in the biology community. Even though I love nature and science, I am no scientist, but my work allows me a way to connect with people that are.

Do people around you like to speak about art? Do they understand what you want to say with your pictures or do they need explaining?

Most of the people that I spend my time with are illustrators and artists as well, and so, yes, we speak about art a lot. Which is great. Chicago has a really nice, supportive community of artists and printmakers. My work is very accessible, and so I rarely need to explain. Hopefully, my work is accessible without being too linear.

If somebody approached you with a proposal to make big album of birds – what kind of book would you create? What birds would you choose?

I would love to do a book or a portfolio of prints of birds of the Midwestern United States, where I live, or more specifically birds of the Midwestern prairies.

October, 2009
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