FPL Scientist and UW-Madison Bring Science and Art Together

Alex Wiedenhoeft invention contributes to new Audubon Exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art

Detail of Carolina Parrots from The Birds of America, John James Audubon. Photo courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art

Alex Wiedenhoeft has contributed so much of his hard work and knowledge to the Forest Products Laboratory in the more than 20 years he has been with us. One of his most useful inventions is the XyloTron, a desktop device that provides high-resolution images of wood.

In his effort to make the XyloTron less costly and more portable, Alex also developed the XyloPhone, a small device that attaches to a smartphone and provides the same resolution as the much larger XyloTron.

In just a few months, the Xylophone has contributed greatly to the ability of scientists in the field to identify and photograph wood. But not just wood.

Artist Emily Arthur, associate professor in the UW-Madison art department, learned about the XyloPhone through her colleague Anne Pringle, professor of Botany at UW-Madison, who studies lichens and fungi in her lab. During Emily’s ongoing collaborative research with Robin Rider, curator of special collections, Memorial Library, the XyloPhone became a way to examine rare books and works on paper.

“I knew this device would be invaluable for the purposes of this research,” said Emily Arthur. “And I was right! Being able to examine the hand-colored engravings from The Birds of America at such a detailed level has revealed new information on the printing techniques that were used in its production between 1827-1838.”

Alex Wiedenhoeft demonstrates wood identification using the XyloTron system. He also developed the XyloPhone as a smaller, more portable device that attaches to a smartphone, but with the same remarkable scanning ability. Photo by Andrew Averil, Hardwood Floors Magazine

The focus of the exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art is not just the gorgeous creations of the renowned naturalist, John James Audubon, but in particular the methods that formed a tradition of exactitude in engraving that lies behind the work of printmakers like Robert Havell, Jr.

Using Audubon’s watercolor studies as a guide, the Havell print shop transferred the contour lines of Audubon’s composition onto copper plates and added details and shading through the print processes of etching, aquatint, and engraving. The plates were then printed on “double-elephant” folio paper—so called for its large size, measuring a little over three feet tall by two feet wide.

Only two complete, unbound sets exist today – one at the Darwin Museum in Moscow, and the other at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. This exhibition features two of the four double-elephant folios drawn from the Chester H. Thordarson Collection at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Libraries’ Special Collections. The volumes are displayed with an investigation into Havell and his family’s contributions to the history of intaglio printmaking, the first exhibition of its kind.

“This exhibition presents materials for investigation and inquiry through a studio artist’s perspective,” said Emily, who is also a printmaker. “Only through material research and observation of historical print methods can this celebrated example of art, history, and natural science be understood fully, rather than only partially through these multiple disciplines.”

“For fans of Audubon, this is an incredible opportunity to peek behind the curtain at a partnership between artist and printmaker that created a legendary work,” said Amy Gilman, director of the Chazen. “This printing process requires the highest attention to detail, and care, time, and space—once that context is better understood, the absolutely outstanding achievement of Havell, Jr. becomes clear.”

The exhibit, “Seeing Audubon: Robert Havell, Jr. and The Birds of America,” will run through April 3rd. For more information, follow this link: Seeing Audubon: Robert Havell, Jr. and The Birds of America – Chazen Museum of ArtChazen Museum of Art (wisc.edu)