Artist Paints Endangered Species As Icons

Because 'everything is sacred.'

"Chambered Nautilus" and "Loggerhead Sea Turtle" paintings by Angela Manno
"Chambered Nautilus" and "Loggerhead Sea Turtle".

Angela Manno

There’s a glittering hummingbird mid-flutter, a flamingo tucked within its feathers, and a loggerhead sea turtle floating in the water. 

These gentle, striking images are part of a series of paintings by New York artist Angela Manno. They are a series of more than a dozen threatened and endangered species painted in the style of Byzantine icons. This "Endangered Species" series explores the environmental crisis and extinction, Manno says.

Manno’s work has been featured at the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It’s also part of the NASA space art collection at the Kennedy Space Center.

Manno talked to Treehugger via email about her art and what she hopes people will take away from it.

Treehugger: How did your artistic style and experience evolve?

Angela Manno: I was first inspired by seeing samples of batiks while traveling through Indonesia in my junior year abroad in the mid-’70s. When I returned to the U.S., I took classes with a master of contemporary batik from India to explore the medium which had fascinated me during my travels. Shortly thereafter, I enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute as a special student and discovered color xerography as an emerging medium.

It didn’t take long till I was combining these two divergent media into a series entitled, "Conscious Evolution: The Work at One," which was largely inspired by astronaut views of the Earth from space. This was in the mid-’80s when the Gaia Hypothesis was gaining currency—namely, that the entire planet is a living system—which became the cornerstone of my worldview and the foundation for my activism.

What was the appeal of iconography? How would you explain the style?

A decade later, I became fascinated with the materials and subject matter in Byzantine-Russian iconography. I was also without a studio at the time and being able to work in a small, portable format was very appealing to me. By a stroke of synchronicity, I heard about a master iconographer from Russia who was giving lessons. So I enrolled, thinking I would just learn the medium and be on my happy way, but what happened instead was totally unexpected: I got hooked on the symbolic nature of the practice and the beauty of the medium and having a mentor again; I put everything aside and dedicated six months study with him, which was the minimum amount of time I needed to feel comfortable with the materials—gold leaf, liquid bole clay and egg tempera made with pigments from ground up stones. 

Becoming adept with these materials was as daunting as the method itself which involves the application of many layers of alternating translucent and opaque pigment. Plus every color and stage of creating an icon has a meaning relating to the make up of a human being—our physical, psychic, and spiritual nature. 

"Honey Bee" and "Andean Flamingo" paintings by Angela Manno
"Honey Bee" and "Andean Flamingo".

Angela Manno

Were you always interested in animals and nature?

I grew up with woods and a meadow behind my suburban house and spent long hours there exploring them and just contemplating. I have always been a lover of animals and nature. In 1997, when I learned the skills necessary to paint outdoors en plein air, I had the unique pleasure of immersing myself in my subject matter!

I spent 10 years painting the high desert of the American West and the lavender fields, orchards, and vineyards of Provence. Animals, however, did not figure into my work until 2016, with the creation of my contemporary icon "Apis, The Honey Bee" (above, left), although I’d been imagining this image for about five or six years before it came into being.  

How does your style lend itself to highlighting endangered species?

Because of my understanding of evolution, cosmology, and ecology I needed to expand the canon of images available in traditional iconography to include Nature—not as a backdrop to the human-Divine drama, but to occupy center stage. After all, humans are derivative of the Earth. Byzantine-Russian iconography is based in the Christian tradition which holds that humans are made in the image and likeness of God. By applying this method to images of threatened and endangered species, I am breaking out of the anthropocentrism of this tradition to a biocentric norm of reference. Everything is sacred.  

The precursor to my icons of threatened and endangered species was my first contemporary icon of the whole Earth from space, as the Earth is the mother of all life that we know of. It depicts the Earth having reached its fulfillment as a bio-spiritual entity. I do believe this is our destiny if we can fulfill the promise of evolution and make evolutionary (as opposed to non-evolutionary) choices. 

When I approach each species with the reverence and discipline that I do in creating a traditional icon, their numinous quality seems to emerge on the icon board throughout the multiple stages of the process. The process I imagined using in this way turned out to be perfectly suited to these new images. 

Pangolin painting by Angela Manno
"Pangolin," egg tempera and gold leaf on wood.

Angela Manno

What is your process like when you choose your subjects and then create the images?

I try to keep a balance of all the categories: fish, mammal, reptile, invertebrate, bird, amphibian, however sometimes a particular species calls to me because of its dire situation, like the pangolin (above), which is my most recent one. It is the most illegally trafficked animal on the face of the Earth. Poached and slaughtered for their meat and scales, they are going the way of the rhino—hunted to the brink of extinction for magical properties attributed to a body part.  

I do a tremendous amount of research before beginning any icon and it is agonizing to know what is happening to the natural world. Eminent biologist E.O. Wilson reminds us that climate change is only one of three crises humanity is facing in this century and only global mass species extinction is irreversible. 

What do you hope people take away from your art?

I hope that my work conveys the feeling that all life is sacred, that my viewers feel remorse at the thoughtless decimation of species and habitat, and are moved to action to preserve what is left. I hope they take the emotions they feel when they see my work and channel them into supporting effective conservation organizations or taking other direct action. For my part, I work mainly with the Center for Biological Diversity and donate 50% of my sales to support their programs. 

I’ve learned through reading E.O. Wilson’s book, “Half Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life,” that the biodiversity crisis is worse than people understand—than I understood. With all the efforts of conservation organizations, private and public funding, and government regulations, we are only lowering the extinction rate by 20%. Paraphrasing Dr. Wilson’s words, this is like an accident patient in an emergency room continuing to hemorrhage with no new supply of fresh blood. We are extending life, but not by much. We are postponing the inevitable. 

In response to this, Wilson has proposed a solution commensurate with the magnitude of the problem: setting aside at least half the planet in reserve. It is called the Half-Earth Project, the most ambitious effort to stabilize biodiversity on this planet. The goal is to protect half the Earth’s land and sea in order to save 85% of species, which will maintain ecosystem functions and avoid total collapse. They are mapping the whole planet, identifying areas with the most biodiversity, proposing corridors to link them and combine preservation, restoration, and expansion. When asked about my art and what inspired me, I never pass up an opportunity to talk about this monumental effort—one that is worthy of our beautiful planet.

Sumatran Orangutan Mother and Child painting by Angela Manno
"Sumatran Orangutan".

Angela Manno

Getting back to the work itself, I think the owner of my “Sumatran Orangutan Mother and Child” icon says it best:

“I feel as if I am actually developing a relationship with these creatures. The mother looks incredibly caring with an arm firmly but very gently pulling her baby close to her body. She seems kind of proud too. The baby looks totally unafraid and has that wise look very young children sometimes have. I’m sure I will continue to discover more in this icon.”

When we contemplate nature deeply, we cannot help but lay down our arms, eschew our “use” relationship, and develop a pure, loving relationship with her.