The Art of Paying Attention

Mother and son make high art of “the tiny majority”

We live in an age of attention deficit disorder, surrounded and distracted by devices, games, apps, and ads competing for our eyeballs and mouse clicks. But if we pay attention, a pair of artists, Karen Ann Klein and her son Barrett Klein, show us the wonder and delight of the natural world that is above us, around us — and sometimes beneath our feet. Their twin exhibits are on view now at the University of Michigan’s North Campus Research Center.

Hidden Ubiquity: celebrating the tiny majority

Barrett Klein, a professor of entomology and animal behavior at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, devotes his considerable talents as a visual artist to observing what he calls “the tiny majority,” communicating the fascinating complexity of this increasingly fragile part of the planet’s ecosystem. He explains, “This show represents hints of what we cannot see, or choose not to see…There are more than one million described species of insects and they are vanishing at a rate that some liken to an armageddon… The evolutionary legacies, the ecological function, the esthetics, the cultural history and the potential to influence humans should be enough to make us cherish and protect our tiny irreplaceable neighbors.”

Many of the works on view represent Klein’s partnerships with other scientists and artists on projects such as museum exhibits, publications, and science experiments — a beautiful series of colored pencil drawings created for the American Museum of Natural History, life-size and breathtakingly exact replicas of insects created for museum exhibits, as well as diminutive frogs, designed for use in experiments to study amphibian reproductive strategies. Perhaps Klein’s most eccentric — and wildly imaginative — artwork is a series of human-size insect headdresses which he uses to introduce students to insect behavior through role-playing. “The idea of peeking at a 3-mm long insect rushing through the leaf litter is one way for some individuals to appreciate the minutiae, but to wear it … can be another way to appreciate [them].”

The impressive book project on display, 37 Artists: Insect Dreams Cabinet, is based on the younger Klein’s studies of insect sleep and illustrates the family genius for working collaboratively.

“(Karen) and I asked writers and artists to ponder whether insects dream, and to produce books on the subject,” he explains. The artists represented in this library are varied, from book artist Barbara Brown to well-known Detroit fiber artist Carole Harris to author and illustrator Tracy Gallup. The books are as diverse as the people, and the only disappointment here is that they can’t be accessed for browsing.

Ecological Fiction

Karen Anne Klein is a gifted draftsman and talented storyteller whose lively curiosity about the natural world (and about those who study it) animates her artwork on display. She compares her installation in Rotunda Gallery, Ecological Fiction, to a cabinet of wonders. “During the Renaissance, private collections were assembled in rooms with the idea that a person could know everything that was important. Natural history, math, science, poetry — everything was displayed simultaneously. The visual impact was thrilling,” she explains.

Klein has clearly spent a lot of time in the specimen rooms of natural history museums, drawing the birds and the insects there. She makes them her friends by incorporating them into dishes, games, wallpaper, curio cabinets and currency. The objects on display represent selections from the constantly changing installation in her home in Royal Oak, Michigan. “I don’t consider anything to be permanent — already several of the drawings on the walls (of the exhibit) have replaced others . . . The great challenge is to have the rooms act as one work built out of multiple small parts,” she says.

Klein has a particular affinity for working collaboratively with other artists and writers to create art books. A standout in this area is her collaborative work with eminent Detroit poet and writer Bill Harris. They have partnered on several projects, two of which are on display here. In the hallway just outside the Rotunda Gallery see Klein’s nine gem-like small drawings in watercolor and pencil for the book Tiny Beasts, displayed next to Harris’s truly remarkable poetry. Harris’s poems, include this deceptively simple rhyme:

Jewel beetles
Like porcelain
Or shellac, pretty
As jewelry
Or bricabrac.

The Confucian proverb “everything has beauty but not everyone sees it” may be a cliché, but it’s also true. Sometimes artists can help with that, by changing our perceptions of the world profoundly and permanently. The Kleins, junior and senior, are following their lifelong mission to help us learn to pay attention.

Hidden Ubiquity and Ecological Fiction will be on view until May 3 in Building 18 of the University of Michigan North Campus Research Center. For more information go to

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