NORTH YARMOUTH – For 25 years, Michael Boardman has illustrated seabirds, mountain goats, brook trout and other wild creatures. But in the last decade, he has shifted from merely sketching wildlife to using his art to call attention to the grave threats these animals face.
As artist in residence at many wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in Maine and around the country, Boardman often works alongside biologists. This past June, he was selected by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to spend 10 days sketching in a remote camp. He battled chilly weather to produce images that are being used to help educate the public about the migration patterns of birds that breed there. Boardman was motivated to apply for the fellowship by a Trump administration proposal to allow drilling for oil in the refuge, a proposal environmentalists — and Boardman — vehemently oppose.
“It’s 14 million acres at the top of the tundra by the Arctic Sea. There are polar bears on the sea ice and tons of birds, some that fly through Maine on the way to South America. The mountains there open up to the tundra where the caribou breed,” Boardman said. “It’s so terrible to destroy this place in any way, shape or form.”
Boardman’s interest in both animals and art originated from frequent trips he made as a small boy with his father to the Bronx Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. When he was 7, the family moved from Connecticut to Blue Hill. Family hikes and fishing trips in Maine only intensified his interest in nature.
He earned an art degree from the University of Maine in 1986, then opened Coyote Graphics, a screen-printing business in Portland that specializes in wildlife. A dozen years later, he changed the structure of his business to allow him focus more on his art.
Boardman was awarded his first artist in residency position in 2010, which gave him the chance to sketch and paint in Baxter State Park. Illustrating Katahdin from Daicey Pond and explaining to hikers what he was depicting thrilled him. When state biologists walked by with a string of brook trout, Boardman asked them to pause so he could sketch the small fish that is one of Maine’s most prized native species.
Two years later, he was selected as artist in residence at Acadia National Park. As volunteers surveyed groups of aquatic insects for a 24-hour “bio blitz,” he sketched. Boardman was documenting science in action. He’d found a deeper calling — to use art to focus attention on imperiled species. Such work put him squarely in a long tradition of artists who document wildlife, James J. Audubon the most famous.
Many would simply take a photo. But Boardman says he can focus far more keenly on the shape of a dragonfly wing, say, or the color of a beetle shell when he is drawing: “A drawing can highlight and focus morphological characteristics that photography may miss. Plus, for me, drawing helps my inquisitive process about how and why things are put together the way they are.”
More art fellowships followed: at Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska and at Maine Audubon’s Hog Island sanctuary.
ALASKA OR BUST
In his application for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge residency, Boardman proposed studying and sketching the birds that breed there, then migrate each winter to the Lower 48, as well as South America. From his sketches he wanted to create a vibrant, dynamic migration map showing the birds’ journey when they left the refuge. Birds in North America face devastating threats from such things as habitat loss, light pollution and pesticides: a recent scientific study concluded the continent has lost 3 billion birds in the past 50 years. Boardman wanted to convey to Americans outside Alaska how oil drilling there would affect the birds they see in their states. Art, he felt, could give his message more emotional power than words.
“People are suffering from overload of bad scientific news, such as species dying off, birds disappearing, global warming. It’s difficult for data to get through in a way that connects, unless it’s on an emotional or personal level.
“If Greta Thunberg was a middle aged scientist, I don’t believe she would be having the impact she has had,” Boardman continued, referring to the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist. “But because people connect to her on an emotional level, she stirs action. You have to make people care.”
The residency took him to the Canning River Bird Camp, a remote research camp at the top corner of the refuge. Clad in layers of wool clothing, water-resistant canvas pants and fingerless mittens, he’d sit on the tundra in raw 30-degree temperatures making quick field sketches in his journal, images he would transform into watercolor paintings in his North Yarmouth studio. Occasionally, he took photographs so he could refer to them later for additional details.
“The Arctic plain is so open. There are no trees,” Boardman said. “There are hardly any land forms. The caribou just walk through camp. It was such a dynamic landscape, to see the paths the caribou have traveled for the last millennial.”
Boardman’s migration map will be used on the Arctic Refuge’s website and other social media sites, and possibly turned into a poster, said Allyssa Morris, the refuge’s environmental education specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Boardman’s ability to connect science with art, she added, is a “beautiful and unique skill.”
In Maine, Boardman often teaches bird sketching workshops. The classes are popular, said Maine Audubon Project and Events Manager Laurie Gilman. “Participants love the combination of science and art as a way to express themselves while learning more about the physical structure of a bird. A lot of people have to put it down on paper to get it into their head,” she said.
Speed is critical, Boardman says, since birds don’t stand still. Students learn to sketch birds preening or in flight, and through sketching get better at identifying species. Topsham resident Monique Marchilli-Barker has attended a few of his workshops with her children. She said Boardman teaches his students to pay attention, first to the bird’s overall shape, then to the beak or wings. He has them practice sketching a moving bird in 10 seconds, then 5, then 2. “That is really all you have to try to capture bird behavior,” Marchilli-Barker said.
Next week Boardman will teach a class in Wells, where he will share his experience sketching in the Arctic and talk about the threats the birds face.
“My paintings of the birds we all enjoy as they migrate through Maine, and connecting them to where they raise their young in the Arctic, will hopefully show people we are all connected to the Arctic,” Boardman said. “What happens there affects us all.”