When she was a child growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Laura Cunningham always wondered what her house and her neighborhood looked like before the creation of San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland. For the next 30 years she went about acquiring the artistic skills and scientific knowledge that would enable her to give substance to that wonderment. She studied paleontology and biology at UC Berkeley, and for many years she has worked as a field biologist, researching rare and endangered species such as the Owens Valley pupfish and the Yosemite toad. Cunningham is a scientist, to be sure. Her drawings and paintings of flora, fauna, and fossils are detailed, well researched, and trustworthy. Yet suffusing her work is something else, something so rare and welcome that it’s startling – a tenderness, a yearning, a slow-burning love of the land in which we live and the creatures that have inhabited it. Her images express the wonderment of that long-ago child looking out the window and daydreaming another world into existence.
Cunningham’s latest work is at once a celebration of California’s past – its natural legacy of abundance and diversity – and of change. In A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California Cunningham imagines what a prehistoric California must have looked like and juxtaposes those fancies with photographs of today’s reality. As she writes in the book: “Change is always happening. Change is the most natural part of our landscape, and change is what we must embrace and learn to live with.” Cunningham’s work frees our imagination from the present, allowing us to see beyond what is in front of us and speculate on what might have been. She takes us into redwood-forested rivers crossed by Columbian mammoths. She lets us peer out over the bare undulations of the Bay Area Hills. She introduces us to the vanished Sierra white wolf. In her paintings, the San Joaquin River is once again alive with the thrashing of salmon, grizzly bears feast on beached whales, and condors soar above the giant sequoias. Her work illustrates how animal and plant communities have come and gone, how mercurial the land beneath and around us is, and how rich.
If we can imagine a beautiful and abundant past, is it not also possible to imagine a beautiful and abundant future? By combining photos of the present with paintings of the past, Cunningham has freed our imaginations. Let’s put that freedom to good use and dream a bountiful future into being.
Artist-naturalist Laura Cunningham has worked as a scientific illustrator for the Museum of Paleontology at UC Berkeley and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Her work has been shown at the Oakland Museum and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, among other places. A show based on her book, A State of Change, will be on display at the David Brower Center through January.