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The Art of Science

Virge Kask

Virge Kask ’79 (CLAS), ’84 (CLAS), biological illustrator at UConn’s Biology Central Services. (UConn Photo)

Picture this: As recently as the 17th century, a flightless “elephant bird”—which weighed up to half a ton and grew to 10 feet in height, dwarfing its ostrich and emu cousins—roamed the modern-day island nation of Madagascar.

It may be difficult to imagine this substantial bird, considered by scholars to be the largest in Earth’s history. But constructing images of this now-extinct species comes as part of the territory for UConn biological illustrator and alumna Virge Kask ’79 (CLAS), ’84 (CLAS).

“A lot of my job is translating what researchers have in their head into an illustration,” says Kask, whose drawings have brought to life everything from new species of insects to creatures, like the elephant bird, that humans have not laid eyes on for centuries.

Since she joined the UConn staff in 1999, Kask has worked with faculty and students in the biology departments and other fields like chemistry, geosciences, and biomedical engineering to create scientifically accurate images that reflect research findings. She uses colored pencils, carbon dust, and computer graphics programs to construct the illustrations, and is guided by reference materials supplied by researchers.

“For something like a new insect species, I have the specimen to look at under a microscope and draw, but for other types of illustrations I sometimes only have photo references or rough sketches or, in the case of the elephant bird reconstruction, a skull replica,” she says.

The resulting images have appeared in hundreds of journal publications, posters, and books—accomplishments that she says would come as a surprise to her much younger self.

“I would notice the pictures in my high school biology textbooks and never thought you could make a career out of that,” she says. “But I always knew that I wanted to do something in art.”

 

Education of an artist

Kask first came to UConn as a commercial art major in the mid-1970s, choosing to attend the University over an art school because she wanted broad educational and extracurricular experiences. It wasn’t until her sophomore year, when her brother and pre-med student Val Kask ’77 (CLAS) showed her a display of biological illustrations in the Torrey Life Sciences Building, that she found her true calling.

“It was one of those ‘A-ha!’ moments,” she says. “I loved being out in nature and drawing the things I looked at, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do.”

Kask shifted her major to biological sciences, and earned a second undergraduate degree in geography specializing in cartography. She also worked as a student in the office of UConn illustrators Molly Hubbard and Mary Jane Spring, who organized the exhibit that inspired Kask to change majors.

“I feel like that’s where I really got my start, and I try give that experience to my student workers as best I can,” she says.

After graduation, Kask worked for several years as a cartographer for government agencies and engineering companies. She later completed certificates in biological illustration through the New York Botanical Garden, and went on to work in the medical art department for Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina. She also worked as a freelance illustrator, working on projects as diverse as academic journals, environmental habitat posters, K-12 science textbooks, and children’s pop-up books.

All of this prepared her for her current position at UConn, which she says can be some of her most challenging work yet.

 

Bringing extinct species to life

Kask’s most ambitious current project is her reconstruction of the elephant bird, which was commissioned by UConn Emeritus Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and plant evolution scholar John Silander.

Silander’s ongoing research with botanist William Bond at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and former advisee Joelisoa Ratsirarson ’93 Ph.D. at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar explores the parallels between elephant birds and moas, a similar group of species once found in New Zealand. The researchers are particularly interested in the coevolution of these birds—both “browsers” who grazed on leaves and twigs as a primary food source—with the vegetation in their respective habitats.

Kask's elephant bird reconstruction, right, and reference materials. (Courtesy of Virge Kask)

Kask’s elephant bird reconstruction, right, and reference materials. (Courtesy of Virge Kask)

Silander first approached Kask four years ago to develop new illustrations of the elephant bird after growing dissatisfied with existing depictions of the species.

“To do the original reconstruction, I had a model of the skull, some photographs of a skeletal structure from museums in France and Madagascar, and notes from the diary of a 17th century French explorer who was probably the only European to ever see the bird,” says Kask.

“The French explorer described the elephant bird as having red eyes and black and yellow scales, which we added to the new depiction,” adds Silander. “The drawings were also characterized by interviews with some villagers in Madagascar that still have an oral tradition of what this bird was like.”

Silander will use the illustrations in an upcoming book, forthcoming journal articles, and presentations about the elephant bird and its habitat. They will also appear in a poster that will be distributed to national parks and conservation organizations in Madagascar, which he hopes will help educate the Malagasy people about how the bird shaped the country’s vegetation.

“Scholarly papers don’t allow us to reach a broad community, an interested public, as well as those who don’t know anything about birds,” he says. “Having illustrations really makes the research more striking and much more identifiable to a larger population.”

Kask says that it is thrilling to depict an animal that doesn’t exist anymore for such a diverse viewing audience.

“That’s one of the things I love about my job—you never know what challenge will come through the door next,” she says.


An exhibit of Kask’s work, “The Art in Science,” is on display at Homer Babbidge Library through October 19. 


By: Bri Diaz, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


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