"It is a richly illustrated travel narrative that made Darwin famous around the world," Magruder said. "But more than that, it helped define for 19th-century readers the character of the naturalist as an explorer, an adventurer "? someone who on a day-by-day basis encountered the sublime and the exotic in nature.
"It's a page-turner and it remained Darwin's best-selling book all his life, and it helps us to understand how readers of 'On Origin of Species' were prepared to accept Darwin's views as the result of someone who had been a global adventurer, as well as a careful, painstaking scientist in his own study."
With its long, turquoise tail tipped with two racquet-shaped feathers; a striking, green-and-red body; and the croaking call from which it gets its name, the shy motmot is a rare and sudden colorful sight in the rain forest, let alone in Oklahoma. Through the art of Debby Kaspari, the elusive bird and the rest of the South American jungle can be discovered in "Drawing the Motmot: An Artist's View of Tropical Nature," also on display through Jan. 18 at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History.
"The motmot is the bird that got me excited about drawing tropical birds," Kaspari said. "I've been drawing birds and animals since I was a little kid, and it kind of evolved from there. The first tropical trip I took was in 1984 and I went to Trinidad and Tobago. I had read this book called 'Tropical Nature' by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata, and it opened my eyes to this part of the world that I just needed to go see. That book set me on my course."
She spotted her first motmot while on her travels to Trinidad and Tobago, and a painting of the bird is featured in "Drawing the Motmot," alongside other illustrations from her expeditions into the Central and South American rain forests, including in Panama and Costa Rica. Last winter, she went up the Amazon River to work at a research station in Peru, where she used an elevated walkway linking 14 trees with platforms and rope bridges to draw the plants and animals in the rain forest canopy.
"It's hard for people to get down to the rain forest, and my purpose in doing this exhibit was to bring the tropical rain forest to Oklahoma and give people the experience of walking through it," she said. "Hopefully, they'll be inspired to go someday and see it themselves."
Field drawings, paintings, sketchbook pages and photographs rotating in digital frames are exhibited alongside field notes and commentary that describe her personal experiences. Videos she took with a shoulder-mounted camera show her process of drawing the Amazon; noises from the diverse fauna fill the room with their calls and songs.
"I recorded the sounds of the rain forest, including monkeys, birds, toucans, frogs and strange weird sounds from all kinds of wonderful things," she said. "The museum mixed these sounds together and put them on loudspeakers, so visitors can feel like they are walking through a forest. This is the immersion experience I'm looking for."
Originally from California, Kaspari was an illustration major at the California College of Arts and Crafts, but has lived in Norman since 1995. She moved to Oklahoma after meeting her husband at a field station in Costa Rica. He is a tropical ecologist at OU; the two have traveled and worked together in the field. As the majority of her art is done deep in the forest, outside of a studio, Kaspari has to be innovative with her materials and equipment.
"In Panama, I was a beast of burden," she said. "I was carrying an easel and a big drawing board and a folio full of papers and boxes of pastels "? just all kinds of junk. In the Amazon, I couldn't take as much "? just a small drawing board and sketchbook. I also have a wonderful setup that I can carry in my purse. It's just a little sketchbook, a pencil and a watercolor kit I made using an Altoids mint tin."
For every flash of bright plumage or glimpse of gold fur captured in her art, hours of patience are spent with her sketchbook in the humid air among the murmurs and shrieks of the rain forest.
"I do a lot of sitting and waiting," she said. "Sometimes, I'm really surprised at the things that come by. When I sit quietly, I just blend into the background; animals come up to me and I'm part of the forest. They don't even see me."