The art of Kelly Houle: biology, tiny books, and The Origin of Species

July 19, 2015 • 10:45 am

Kelly Houle is the Official Website Artist and Calligrapher™, and we’ve encountered her several times before. She is, for example, engaged in the Illuminated Origin of Species Project, in which she, over at least a decade, will both reproduce Darwin’s Origin in calligraphy and then illuminate it with natural history drawings, just as medieval monks wrote out and illuminated the Bible. (The Origin, of course, is far more worthy of such treatment than fictional books.) You can find more on the Origin project, with the latest updates, on its Facebook page  Kelly also produces miniature books, various drawings of natural history subjects (beetles, birds, and so on), and a whole gamut of work involving watercolors and calligraphy. You can see much of this at her website and Facebook page, and if you like it, you can buy some (it’s remarkably inexpensive for the quality) to support the Origin project. I myself have a bunch of her beetles prints (Darwin, as you remember, was a lover and collector of Coleoptera) and her “I think” phylogeny greeting cards. Finally, Kelly was the illuminator and illustrator of the multiply-autographed edition of WEIT that sold for over $10,300 on eBay, with all proceeds donated to Doctors Without Borders. (Those ingrates never thanked us for the donation!). You can find the artwork to gawk and and to buy at her art-and-book-and-calligraphy webpage. I finally got to meet Kelly last week when she, her husband Ken, Ben Goren, and I journeyed to the home of her parents, Mike and Karen, for a three-day bout of relaxation, local traveling, and noms. Much of this has been documented, and there’s more to come. Before we took off, I visited Kelly at her home in Mesa and was allowed to photograph some of her art and see the way its made. This is Kelly with the two opening pages of the Illuminated Origin: title and frontispiece. These are the final copies (you can see them better here), so you can see how large the entire manuscript will be (each chapter will be separately bound as the book is so large):

The circular tree of life combined with a drawing of the Beagle, all on a deep blue background with a gold-leaf phylogeny, is one of my favorite of her works (see a better reproduction here): Origin covers 2 The manuscript will be lettered and illuminated on fancy, thick Italian paper. Here’s one of the earliest pages of the manuscript. It takes several hours to letter each page (all of it laid out in advance), and there is no room for error: if she makes a mistake, she has to do the entire page over.

Here is the introduction title page, still in progress. As Kelly reports:

The introduction title page features a life-size Toxodon platensis skull as analyzed by Richard Owen. There are links with info and the source image, a drawing by George Scharf, from Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, here, here, and here.

 From the above AMNH page:
“This particular animal belongs to a group without modern descendants, but many of Darwin’s fossils seemed to be huge variants of the same general kind of animal he had seen roaming the landscape during his explorations. This led him to wonder if the fossils might be evidence of ancestral forms. In later years Darwin would write that the South American fossils were essential to the “origin of all my views.”

Introduction One thing that struck me about her work is the immense amount of preparation that takes place before anything is done on the final Origin, her books, and her paintings. Calligraphy is practiced, paint samples are made and worked out in detail, and each step of a beetle drawing, for instance, is done in a notebook, with all details recorded so that it can be reproduced in the final version. She has three workstations; this is the one for preparing The Origin: Darwin table Practice samples of calligraphy adorn the walls: Darwin preparation Color swatches are consulted (and palettes made) so that colors can be exactly reproduced after she makes samples. Here are swatches from the manufacturer: Paint samples Only a small part of her equipment. Below are plastic palettes with premixed, dried watercolors so that a particular color can be used several times: Darwin equipment This is the work station for natural-history watercolors, currently occupied by Kelly’s beetle paintings. Beetle table This is how individual beetle paintings are planned. Each step of the final image is documented and described so that it can be reproduced precisely. I was pretty damn impressed by this degree of care: Beetle notebook Kelly also makes miniature books (I believed they’re strictly defined as books no larger than three inches on a side). They are avidly collected by miniature-book mavens; I had no idea that this area even existed. This is the station where she assembles the books. Book table I’ll let Kelly describe her latest project, an amazing tiny book encased in a handmade box and with a morpho butterfly that appears when you open the box. It’s all in service of the story told in the book:

The Artist of the Beautiful by Nathaniel Hawthorne can be read as an allegory of the conflict between the pursuit of artistic beauty and utilitarianism. Owen Warland, a clockmaker’s apprentice, neglects his duties in his retired master’s clock shop to pursue his dream of creating a lifelike, mechanical butterfly. Inspired by nature and his love for Annie, the shop owner’s daughter, Owen vows to put “the very spirit of beauty into form and give it motion.” When he experiences setbacks and failures, he regains his focus and resilience by turning to nature and his boyhood pastime of studying the intricate forms of birds and insects. Owen submits to his pursuit of beauty so completely that he loses all track of time and his work in the clock shop suffers. By the time he finally reaches his goal and presents his marvelous creation to Annie, she is married to a blacksmith, and they have a child. Owen hands Annie a box. When she opens it, a delicate butterfly emerges, steps onto on her finger, and proceeds to fly around the room. Annie and her husband are amazed, but when their child attempts to capture the butterfly, it is destroyed in an instant. Surprisingly, Owen remains calm and content, having experienced the numinous through the creative process.
The box for this miniature book edition of Hawthorne’s classic was inspired by his description of the box in which Owen presents the butterfly to Annie:
“He produced, as he spoke, what seemed a jewel box. It was carved richly out of ebony by his own hand, and inlaid with a fanciful tracery of pearl, representing a boy in pursuit of a butterfly, which, elsewhere, had become a winged spirit, and was flying heavenward; while the boy, or youth, had found such efficacy in his strong desire that he ascended from earth to cloud, and from cloud to celestial atmosphere, to win the beautiful.”

Morpho book box

The box was handmade by Mike Houle, and the book was designed and digitally typeset by Ken Howard. I designed the pearl inlay, sewed the books by hand, and bound them in cloth with hand-marbled endpapers by Ann Muir. I also painted the pop-up butterfly on both sides with iridescent watercolors. The book was made in an edition of 8. There are 6 copies remaining, one of which is listed on the Books of Kell’s Press Ebay auction site booksilluminated
A percentage of the sales from this book is being donated to DebRa of America, an organization that funds medical research and helps children with and their families cope with Epidermolysis Bullosa, also known as “The Worst Disease You’ve Never Heard Of.™”
This lifelike morpho butterfly, painted on both sides, pops up when you open the box:

P1080618 The marbled endpapers: Morpho book end papers The calligraphy of the book’s text: Morpho book type One of Kelly’s miniature beetle books: Beetle book Finally, Kelly gave me this lovely watercolor of Darwin’s orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale, a Madagascar orchid with an enormous nectar spur (27–43 cm, or 10.6–16.9 in). As Wikipedia notes:

[The orchid] is noteworthy for its long spur and its association with the naturalist Charles Darwin, who surmised that the flower was pollinated by a then undiscovered moth with a proboscis whose length was unprecedented at the time. His prediction had gone unverified until 21 years after his death, when the moth was discovered and his conjecture vindicated. The story of its postulated pollinator has come to be seen as one of the celebrated predictions of the theory of evolution.

My gift My friend Phil deVries recently captured the first video of the moth actually pollinating the orchid. You can see the video, and my post about it, here.  The picture above was one of the illustrations that Kelly added to our auctioned-off copy of WEIT.  This copy, however, will grace my wall. I ‘ll post more on our adventures in Arizona when time permits.

33 thoughts on “The art of Kelly Houle: biology, tiny books, and The Origin of Species

  1. What strikes me is how neat and organized all Kelly’s workstations are!

    I must get a beetle. I keep forgetting.

    1. Self-Discipline and Perseverance, in the service of inspired Art.

      A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place.

      Heard during Navy days:

      “Prior Proper Planning [and Practice?] Prevents Poor Performance.”

      Am also reminded of the ancient Greeks’ definition of “happiness,” which JFK often quoted:

      “The full use of ones powers along lines of excellence, with scope.”

      1. I figure I’m two people: neat and classy Diana vs. messy and sporty Diana. There is a constant fight between the two when it comes to work spaces, cars, clothing, hair and make up and how to spend leisure time.

      1. I agree! I just ordered from Kelly’s site and what I’m getting is well worth every penny!

  2. I’ve often thought it would be cool to do an illuminated manuscript page of the text ‘CARPE DIEM’, but never had the time or skillz (I’m not the only one to have thought of it – a bit of a dad joke, really). I do hope to see an affordable (or borrowable) facsimile edition of Kelly’s Origin one of these years, that would be a beautiful thing to share.

  3. I would write that Jerry’s photos don’t do Kelly’s work justice, but that’d be grossly unfair to Jerry: no photo of her work to date can do justice. I should know…I’ve photographed some of her works in ideal-at-the-time studio conditions and still had plenty of room for improvement.

    I’d strongly encourage all readers of this Web site to make an excuse to look at some of Kelly’s original work. It’s as good as it gets.

    …except, of course, it’s not…she’s got some really exciting plans for the future, including moving from digital printing to letterpress for certain things….


    1. I concur — I purchased one of the paintings of Darwin’s Orchid and moth a few months back, and look at it every morning as I leave for work. It’s stunning – no photo can do it justice!

    1. Thanks for the photos. My dad was/is an illustrator, doing things for the Guardian, Time, etc.(as well as a kind of counter culture magazine called Oz that appalled and fascinated me when I was little). Looking at the pictures of your studio sent me back to being a little boy and wandering into his workplace. I can smell the ink even now.

  4. In one of my former lives, when i had time for such things, I would spend a lot of time drawing and painting. I cannot imagine how much time it would take to have so many different projects going on at once. But I suppose you can take a ‘break’ from a project by moving on to another one!

  5. Just WOW. Your work is stunning, beautiful, amazing, and much more. It deserves every superlative any of us can think of.

    I used to make 1/12 scale miniatures (my body protests these days), so the books are particularly meaningful for me. I’ve always adored illuminated manuscripts too, and I love that you combine their beauty with that of the natural world.

    I’d love to have some of your work so I could enjoy it more often. One day I’ll manage it.

    Thank you Jerry for this post – it’s wonderful in the true sense of the word. 🙂

  6. Just stunning Kelly!

    I have always been a bit scornful of the “concept is everything” school and so your very evident skill and the dedication with which you apparently apply it makes your work especially appealing.

  7. The marbled endpapers:

    I invested an happy hour once – in a second-hand bookshop, IIRC – reading a detailed description of how the journeyman bookbinder in 1910-ish would marble the end papers for their books, or the edges of the book after completing the rest of the binding process.

    1. The episode on book binding was one of my favorite from the show How It’s Made. The art of book binding has made a bit of a comeback these days, thank goodness.

  8. Awed and astounded.

    Besides being such a fascinating glimpse into creative processes, it was a timely post:

    an allegory of the conflict between the pursuit of artistic beauty and utilitarianism

    Born and raised in Nordic countries, I feel a deep cultural clash in that description. Here utilitarianism is a major form of pursuing artistic beauty.

    However, that was not why it was timely. I am just reading an article based on a long interview of the originator behind Industry 4.0. [ ]

    Schable [sp?] was not the only one with similar ideas, but he evangelized it. And it hit me when I read another piece explaining the ramifications that it will reinsert individualism into production.

    E.g. it has been said that no one can reproduce stuff like Chinese balls (matroshka balls) who once took years to make out of ivory. Now a 3D printer can do a replica in more ecologically sound materials in hours. But the internet-of-things controlled Industry 4.0 will make an individualized pair of shoes that you design on the web on a Monday and have the made-to-fit and blinged out pair delivered to you the next Thursday.

    Maybe we will all become sort-of-artists. Few as proficient as Kelly, but anyway.

  9. I’ve been catching up on WEIT for the past couple days, so this is obviously a late post, but simply incredible work and I had to comment.

    I did purchase a moth print off eBay, and see it everyday. I’m still trying to memorize the binomial and trinomial as they are tough ones.
    I concur with Ben and Jerry (hey!) that the price was very reasonable and I would have paid more. I respect your sensibilities though on pricing…it’s not an easy calculation.

    I was happy to see the Daniel Smith palette. That’s where I get most of my art supplies (and Dick Blick). Incidentally, I had a friend who used to work at Daniel Smith’s warehouse in Seattle. Good company.

    Keep up the great and inspired work Kelly. You have great originality and artistic vision.

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