INVASION! An Interview with Conservation Artist Rachel Ivanyi

See “INVASION!” by Rachel Ivanyi at the Baldwin Gallery at the Desert Museum through March 7, 2021, or tour the gallery virtually.

In this show, Ivanyi explores the multi-dimensional forms and manifestations of invasion, from invasive thoughts to invasive species. While invasion is often presented as a negative, Ivanyi complicates how we perceive and talk about the concept of invasion and invasive species within the conservation field. Here we talk with Ivanyi about this work and its conservation message. As we head into Save Our Saguaros Month (kicking off on Sunday, January 31st with a morning Buffelgrass Pull), we will be exploring the invasive species buffelgrass and its impact on the Sonoran Desert throughout February, so stay tuned—and don’t forget to subscribe to the Desert Diaries blog!

Portrait of the artist, Rachel Ivanyi.

What are some of your inspirations for this body of work? Is there an “origin story” for this show? 

It was more of a metamorphosis. I had been going on several art research trips to Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park in Baja California Sur, Mexico. A few years back we went to see a least tern and sea turtle nesting site in La Ribera. What I saw were destroyed estuaries and large-scale destruction of coastline for mega resorts. Where the local conservation groups were attempting to protect the nesting animals, the parent terns dive bombed us. They were fabulous and instantly reminded me of Hitchcock’s The Birds. I have always been a fan of kitschy horror movies. I thought, what if these human invaders could actually be scared off by these birds? The concept began with humans as the true “invasive species,” and developed from there to show humankind’s hand in the stories of specific plants and animals.

Do you see correlations between the way we talk about invasive species and the way we talk about weeds and pests?

Definitely. The terms invasive species, weeds, and pests are largely tied to how humans are negatively impacted by them. They are taking over human territories, destroying human property, or even harming animals/plants that humans care about. But the animals and plants are just doing their best to survive. Though invasive species take over ecosystems and outcompete native species, I want people to understand these plants and animals aren’t inherently bad or evil. Humans are often the ones causing the imbalance in the first place! Thus, humans must do their part to repair these ecosystems and avoid past mistakes.

Humans are the true “invasive species.”

How does the work speak to the notion of invasive thoughts? 

We are often overpowered by feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness when facing large societal or cultural issues. Those thoughts invade our minds and lead to disconnection, passivity, and inaction. Instead of thinking I can’t make a positive difference, how about thinking I can? I want to spread the power of positivity, the power of creative group thinking, and promote a “hive mind” mentality where conservation and preservation are the norm.

In this work I am exploring the metaphors of “us” and “them” within the natural world, and within humankind. People tend to fear the “other,” things they don’t understand. I celebrate diversity in all forms of life. I truly want people to question their preconceived notions and fears, and learn to expand their flocks. 

How can we develop a conservation ethic around invasive species and the methods and techniques of species “management”?

Wildlife management and conservation organizations have a tough job keeping balance in our natural world and repopulating endangered species. These organizations have the difficult jobs of thinning large herds, clearing out invasive species, rehabilitating lost populations, and enforcing regulations. I want people to understand these organizations are trying to restore order and right the wrongs of past human meddling and destruction, rather than simply trying to remove the “bad” species. We must educate ourselves about what went wrong and make better choices in the future, allowing our natural world to heal and repair itself free from human interference.  

Puppet Master by Rachel Ivanyi

Artists play a unique role in conservation, encouraging the public to engage with issues from an abstract space, often asking more questions than seeking answers. What role do artists play in the environmental field?

As an artist, educator, and zoologist, I felt this exhibition had the opportunity to reach people from multiple vantage points. Some topics are scary and abstract, such as climate change, diversity loss, and our personal role in these global issues. People are more likely to disconnect if they are bombarded with problems that appear out of their control. By using my art, and tying in pop culture and humor, I get people to look a bit closer. While they are there, I have the opportunity to share natural history information. People protect things they love, and it’s really hard not to love these animals and the beautiful natural spaces that surround us!  

How do you see your previous experience as a scientific illustrator developing into the work you’re making now?

As a scientific illustrator I got to look closely and get lost in the detail and intricacies of the natural world. My specialty was reptiles and amphibians–that’s what brought me to the Desert Museum in the mid 90’s. I love sharing the beauty of the natural world with others. Art is my medium for expressing this passion and speaking up for a better relationship with non-human life. My work has since transitioned into what a past student coined “scientific surrealism.” I love to be grounded in real science and detailed renderings, but I let the stories lead. Venturing beyond reality, I can convey a particular message or narrative.

Illustrations by Rachel Ivanyi. Scientific illustration is all about conveying accurate details about a species in an artistically pleasing way.

In my artistic practice I have found a way to combine my love for science and nature, and the desire to protect it, with my passion for storytelling. Anyone that has taken one of my art classes at the Desert Museum Art Institute can attest to me incorporating conservation and science into my art lessons. I use my art to get people to love nature, especially the creatures that tend to be feared, ignored, or misunderstood.

If you are infected by anything this year, let it be the conservation bug, that you will then spread to others!

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