Photographs by Stephen Petegorsky + Poems by Naila Moreira
These cleared and stained specimens allow us to see things about the animals we could not otherwise observe.
Artist Statement by Stephen Petegorsky
I’ve been interested in animals—living or otherwise—for as long as I can remember.
Growing up in New York City, my exposure to animals was limited. I saw dogs, squirrels, the occasional horse, and unhappy creatures in their depressing surroundings at the Central Park Zoo. I was fascinated by the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History. There, the science and art of taxidermy, combined with props and painted backgrounds, allowed me to see animals in a manner that would otherwise have been impossible; it fueled my curiosity to no end.
More than 20 years ago, I visited a friend who was the curator at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He asked if I had ever seen “the animals.” When I told him I hadn’t, he took me to a storage room in which there were hundreds of taxidermied animals, mostly in disrepair, left over from a time when the museum, which dates from the Victorian era, had a natural history component. The pathos was abundant; I was transported back to my childhood memories of being spellbound in front of museum dioramas, and I knew that I wanted to photograph them, and did so for two years.
Since that work, I always kept my eyes open for any other collections of taxidermy. Yet when I tracked down a collection at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, I sensed that I had seen some of them before. As it turned out, when the Wistariahurst Museum finally got rid of the animals in their collection, they donated the ones that were intact to the university. When I explained that I had seen and photographed many of the animals years ago, the curator kindly offered to show me the rest of the collection, part of which included things I had never heard of before: cleared and stained specimens.
Small jars and containers held what looked like reverse x-rays. Fish, birds, small mammals, and reptiles had been placed in an enzyme solution that made the tissue transparent, and stains were then applied to make bones and cartilage darker colors of red and blue. They were beautiful and intriguing, and once again I knew that I wanted to photograph them. Since working through the specimens from the collection at the University of Massachusetts, I have been able to work at Yale’s Peabody Museum, the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, Biodiversity Institute at Texas A&M University, Smithsonian Institution, Field Museum of Natural History, and Royal Ontario Museum.
In architectural terms, a clerestory is a high section of a wall that contains windows above eye level. The purpose is to let in more light. As with taxidermy, the cleared and stained specimens allow me to see things about the animals that I could not otherwise observe. They are beautiful and haunting; they tantalize with the mysteries of how and why such elegant and complex structures came to exist. It is as though they are trying to tell me a story or to sing a song. These images are the visual impressions of what I hear.
Artist Statement by Naila Moreira
As a poet, I am drawn to the storytelling and socioecological resonances of Stephen Petegorsky’s Clearstories photographs. His images remind me of contemporary projects to photographically catalogue all animal life before it’s lost to extinction, such as National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore’s “Photo Ark” of more than 11,000 animals. By focusing on skeletons instead of living animals, Clearstories provides a grim mirror to these efforts in a provocative reminder of death.
However, environmental threat isn’t the only thing I see in these photos. In the interplay between life and death, animal and human, lie seeds of human mythmaking throughout time. Each animal’s anatomy serves also as a window into its own natural history and ecological niche.
Science art has burgeoned in recent years as a way to bridge the distance between the human psyche and our growing body of scientific knowledge. By pairing poems with photos, I aim to suggest resonances, lengthen engagement, and deepen satisfaction by creating a ping-pong effect of ideas and relationships between image and text.
By imagining the animals of Clearstories simultaneously as archetypes of our deepest fears and hopes, and as mysteries of existence whose independent lives we can never fully reach or own, I seek to evoke both the wonder and the familiarity of these beings who share our earth.
To mark, to color, to dye.
Sully with infamy; corrupt.
Spot not easily removed.
Taint of guilt.
Here, in red—green—blue—
skull, spine, hyoid
offset from void
by nightclub neon.
A concept through a glass jar.
Fixed blotch of the fleeting.
Reduced to its distillate, this figure
not for love.
Their mouths moved me most, flesh-lipped, white, gasping, womanly lips, married to death.
They came up fast, like widgets or shirts or yoghurt cups on the conveyor belt of quality,
clubbed on the head, one after next with the fisherman’s red rubber mallet. Life, the design flaw of food—
not even a mushroom nor grain of wheat free of it. The motor chuckled and hissed
and churned its sea-colored secret filamentous lattice of green. Detangled of net,
flung on the deck, subdued, still alive, they sucked air, blinking eyes black-hollow as ghosts.
The deck hand stumbled on dozens of skins slippery under his boots to saw off their sides for market,
these salt-loving angels of water who soar the great Atlantic on wings now unable to lift them
or breaths to inflate them with the stuff of heaven: that intangible soul of being
for which we would sell anything.
Shovel claw. Deep digger. Diver of the dark.
Nose-for-eyes, cruising the soil’s truffly fragrance,
a scent like cold ale, trapped between grains.
Walnut and chocolate, biscuit, apples, wheat,
a malt of time, the color of tea.
Little earth chaser, blowing your bubbles
under weeds and gardens and fungus and roots,
my mother hates you, you kill her flowers,
swimming through dirt like an ocean of stars.
You hump up the mulch over tunnels and secrets.
You row your black boat of silken fur.
It’s you who stir at the core of the world,
burrowing your wormholes at the very toes
of the great God-tree.
El-ahrairah would be proud. Ghost-rabbit, you have conquered the underworld, linings of your ears ashine, your eyes sockets, paws still leaping, sure as a hunting-dog, each rib straining. You are ready to draw the chariot of the dead,
meek as the lamb, crafty as the lion, nibbling the silences between twigs, stalking the Reaper’s dark forest. Thief of all that grows you cheat consequence, your scat nourishes seedlings, you steal time, shepherd it under soil.
On All-Hallows the sod remembers beings like you who crept to trade their ears, their tail, into the fearsome den of the god. Over you death’s jurisdiction falters: the fear with which you tremble is a trick, your bound the truth.
When it calls for me I hope it looks like you, glimmering as the dusk falls.
Red Dory Eyes
The eyes are the window to the soul
but what soul is this, emotionless, seeing not us but prehistory’s depths of sea
gazing across unreachable past
a message but veiled in glass
The eye sees a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination awake
muppet-bright, playfully bobbling on weirdly opposite sides of flat skull
child’s play in all its seriousness
My eyes are an ocean in which my dreams are reflected
in color of coral, garish, rare, scraping the bottom to make clouds out of sand
The eye is the jewel of the body
a fish is the jewel of the sea split, cooked, plated straight from earth’s furnace
The eyes indicate the antiquity of the soul
and what more ancient than a fish?
castle, sculpture, urn poured from waves that scoured time for ideas
cartilaginous lens begun in the Cambrian adapted to see through obscurity
They seemed to be staring at the dark but their eyes were watching God
a flower, a fruit, blooming silver, pink, red, plucked from dark gardens: creation to consumption
even these waters a hellfire or heaven fueled by burning until time and sight end
Italicized text from: anonymous proverb, Leonardo da Vinci, Anna M. Uhlich, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Instead of spines, you have stars. I cannot stay away from the cosmos, when I look at you.
Inflated, gravid, your throat in death pooches out, as though about to speak
or sing, a diaphragm filled to tell the world who you are. Do not eat me, you proclaim,
do not take me; I’ll be your death too. Poison sparkles silk-smooth skin, trickster fish, tempting the fisherman.
On Jersey shore in 2016, you multiplied, blithe from southern waters.
I threw it back, reported the angler. Sometimes, rarely, we learn what not to keep.
Fringe-toed sand lizard
Taxonomy of death.
First, genus. Italicized, for emphasis.
One, in Portuguese, single.
No, no. Wrong root.
In fact, for Yuma, Native tribe. Like their namesake, belonging to desert—
believing that all beings, lizards, rocks, mountains, sands,
birds, stunted trees, cactus, air, dry winds,
jack rabbits, burrowing owls, brittle bushes, ants, rain,
lifegiving Colorado River,
have souls, spirit, a point of view.
The species: scoparia.
It runs on fringed back feet, skimming sand
like walking on water.
Marked. As in blotches—
as in fated, threatened, doomed. By off-road vehicles, left a smear on the sands.
Or again, inornata—unmarked—
as compared to marked, lives only in the Coachella Valley,
three quarters of its habitat erased.
Arizona, Nevada, California, the drylands,
Joshua trees, arms upraised to sky, tawny flats
stirred by many small feet.
Uma, the woman. In Sanskrit, tranquillity. Splendour. Fame.
Uma, dancing the desert, feet emitting fine spray,
Jesus-lizard of the southwest, miracle worker,
soul reflecting ours, arms out,
dying for our sins.
Glyph, cipher, red-green scrawl. I caught them as a little girl, precise calculation, galaxy’s swirl.
Civilization fell to crumble where the sidewalk ends. Under an abandoned door
on a junk heap, in a field, they were secrets to uncurl: unkinking head, vertebrae, tail,
question mark, hurricane’s whirl, first fistfuls of reliable order.
Italicized text from Shel Silverstein.
He is maternal, the little man, standing erect among weeds washed by waves. In the thick pouch of his protruding belly the baby horses wait, each strange and slow and sweet, like him.
An endless ocean waters the sea of his hopes, a space beyond imagining: a sparkle in the inner distance under sunlight, then a long shadow. A world goes on beyond sight,
beyond the thread of reed where he clings, a root in shifting sands. Now this one, in an aquarium harboring his young, where he nods and coils. His triangular head looks not into blackness
but human faces staring. An ancient knowing lives in his eyes, a sea that got in there somehow, each joint of his tail a cartilage of that relentless sequence of purposeful change,
to clasp in one’s tail, one’s pouch the whole ocean and its past, the joints of geology, of history. All that creaks as he lets go and takes hold again, as though it were still there.
Stephen Petegorsky is an artist and freelance photographer based in Florence, Massachusetts. Born in New York City, he graduated from Amherst College and later received his MFA in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design. He has taught at Amherst College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and the University of Connecticut. His work has been exhibited internationally, and is in collections throughout the United States and Europe.
Naila Moreira teaches at Smith College and has been writer in residence at the Shoals Marine Laboratory and Forbes Library. Her second chapbook, Water Street, won the New England Poetry Club Jean Pedrick Prize, and her middle grade novel The Monarchs of Winghaven will debut from Walker Books US in 2022. She’s also worked as a journalist, environmental consultant, and Seattle Aquarium docent.