Prove your humanity

Recently Pittsburgh artist Ashley Cecil was in Frick Park, temporarily installing nine small, steel sculptures just outside the Frick Environmental Center.

“You can tell they’ve already started to oxidize, which is great,” Cecil says. “I put vinegar on them to kickstart things.”

She says the rain and elements in park should take care of the rest.

LISTEN: “Artist Reveals the Hidden Lives and Importance of Amphibians”

The lacy pieces look rusty, which is a nod to the region’s industrial past. But when the sun shines through their laser-cut metal, it casts shadows on the ground. They’re images of some of the more camouflaged residents of the park–Spring Peepers, Northern Leopard Frogs, and Eastern Newts.

“I’m excited about this,” Cecil says as she dusts off her hands.

These and her colorful paintings will be on display inside the center. The artwork came out of Cecil’s 6-month residency with the Richards-Zawacki Lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Since January she’s immersed herself in the herpetology lab’s ecology and conservation research taking place near Pittsburgh, and in Panama and Louisiana. They study how climate change, a fungal disease called chytrid, and humans are affecting amphibians populations.

The exhibition is called “Edged Out.”

Ashley Cecil works on a painting in her installation, “Edged Out.” Photo: Courtesy Ashley Cecil.

“It felt like a very appropriate way to describe what is happening to amphibians worldwide,” Cecil says. “They’re being threatened because they’re losing their habitat. So in a literal sense, they’re being edged out of where they live.”

She says sometimes that’s due to agriculture, or development in urban areas. A series of paintings of eight species depicted in terrariums illustrates the problem. The species are either extinct in the wild, like the Panamanian golden frog, or critically endangered.

“These beautiful creatures, that have been around for so many years, now only exist in these very small, cramped artificial enclosures,” Cecil says. “ And it is truly sad that many of them only exist in zoos.”

Cecil’s made a name for herself drawing and painting flora and fauna. In the past she’s been in residence at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, creating artwork and outreach materials for their collections and programs. But she stresses she’s not a scientist.

“I barely passed my science classes in high school,” she laughs. “I felt incredibly intimidated by science, which in turn made me feel like I had no place in these environmental issues, because I felt that if I was not good at linear thinking in terms of equations and analysis of data, that science and nature conservation wasn’t for me.”

Artist Ashley Cecil sits next to her sculpture, Spring Peeper. Photo: Kara Holsopple

Cecil says it’s sad that people feel distanced from nature.

“We need everyone engaged in it. Just to care and understand the connections between humans and nature, and that one serves the other,” Cecil says.

For example, Cecil points to the Zika virus. Birds and amphibians eat the mosquitoes that carry it. She says that’s one way to understand how the decimation of amphibian populations directly impacts our health.

That’s why Cecil is promoting a citizen science project called FrogWatch. She wants her artwork to provide a point of entry into the the world of amphibians. The idea is to collect data on local frogs and toads that scientists can use in their research. Kids and adults can sign up right from the exhibit.


“Edged Out” runs from June 28 through August 31 at the Frick Environmental Center in Pittsburgh.

Audio of a Northern Leopard Frog used in this interview is courtesy of researchers at the Richards-Zawacki Lab.