October 7, 2021

Cross Pollination and Creativity Along the Hudson River

At the center of the exhibition Cross Pollination: Heade, Church, Cole, and Our Contemporary Moment is an exploration of systems of pollination in both nature and ecology, as well as a metaphor for the interplay of art and science, and relationships among artists across generations. Including 85 works by 25 artists connecting the 19th century with the 21st, Cross Pollination is an exhibition that leans into the interplay of place and creativity, taking flight from Martin Johnson Heade's influential series of paintings The Gems of Brazil.

Cross Pollination is on display at both Olana State Historic Site in Hudson, New York and the Thomas Cole National Historic Site across the Hudson River in Catskill, New York. Developed with artists and scholars across disciplines, this exhibition addresses the continuing relevance of close observations of nature and the critical interconnections between pollinators and their habitats today. Both Frederic Church's Olana and the Thomas Cole National Historic Site are members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists' Homes and Studios program.

While Cross Pollination closes at the end of October 2021, we wanted to share a glimpse of the full experience from these two very special historic sites.

An exterior view of a yellow house with a full length portico. A walkway and approximately 10 steps lead to the front door. The house sits on a rise so on the left side of the pictures are three archways leading to a lower area.

photo by: Escape Brooklyn

Exterior view of the 1815 main house at Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York.

Aerial view of a stately house on top of a mountain. The house is surrounded by lush greenery against a bright blue cloud filled sky. There is a body of water reflecting the sky in the forground.

photo by: Peter Aaron/OTTO

Aerial view of Olana State Historic Site in Hudson, New York.

Martin Johnson Heade

At the center of this project is Heade’s unprecedented series The Gems of Brazil, which engaged his scientific curiosity as well as his sense of wonder. A self-declared “monomaniac” for hummingbirds, Heade traveled to Brazil in 1863 so that he could study and paint the birds in their natural habitats. The artist’s notebooks evidence his fascination with these pollinators and include careful observations about their behavior, nesting habits, coloration, and interactions with flowers and insects. The resulting series of intimate portrait-style bird and habitat paintings stood in contrast to scientific illustrations being made at the time, but they were also distinctive from the sweeping landscapes painted by his Tenth Street Studio contemporaries, such as Frederic Church. Heade was making a different kind of landscape, magnifying nature itself and illuminating the life cycles of these pollinators and their symbiotic relationships within their natural environment.

Image of two humming birds along a wooded tree branch. One has a tale with red and pink blues while other is perched, unfurled. They are in the foreground of a painting that has muted greens and greys for the background natural environ and a pale pink and white sky.

photo by: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Martin Johnson Heade, "Hooded Visorbearer", c. 1863-1864, The Gems of Brazil, Oil on canvas, 12¼ x 10 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2006.93.

A grid of sixteen ornate gold frames arranged in a four by four pattern. Within each frame is an intricately painted image of hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators.

photo by: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

An installation view of Heade's "The Gems of Brazil."

Thomas Cole and Frederic Church

For the exhibition at the historic artists' homes, 16 of Heade’s Gems paintings are presented in conversation with paintings, sketches, and natural specimen collections by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. All shared these practices as a way to engage close observations of nature. Church, who shared a studio and was lifelong friends with Heade, began his career studying with Thomas Cole from 1844-46. Cole taught Church to be true to nature, even though he employed pen and paintbrush in allegorical ways to advocate for balance between the built and natural worlds. The profound connection between these two painters launched what would later be known as the Hudson River School and which extended to generations beyond their own, influencing art and attitudes about the natural world.

A landscape portrait with  a brown stone aqueduct leading into a river in the foreground with lush greens and tans marking rolling hills and valleys. In the background is Mt. Etna which is snow capped with some smoke coming from the top. The Mountain and the sky are awash in pale lavender hue blending into a warm orange and blue with clouds dotting the horizon.

photo by: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Thomas Cole, "View of Mt. Etna", 1842. Oil on canvas.

A painting of a tropical landscape with two palm trees on the right foreground in various hues of green for trees and a waterfall leading into a river. The sky is painted in colors of light blue and yellow with a snow capped mountain in the background that has a steam of smoke coming from the top.

photo by: BROCK & CO.

Frederic Edwin Church, "South American Landscape", 1857. Oil on canvas.

These expansive views show just how different the artistic goals of Cole and Church were from those of Heade, who greatly admired Cole and was a close friend and studio-mate of Church. While all three made use of contemporary natural science in order to understand their subject matter, Church and Cole sought to convey vast environments in a single canvas, while Heade zoomed in close, making iconoclastic hybrids of still life and landscape paintings that stand far outside the artistic mainstream, then as now.

Emily Cole and Isabel “Downie” Charlotte Church, Botanical Drawings

The practices and passions of these artists extended to the next generation, as seen in the careful renderings of botanicals by the artists’ daughters, Emily Cole and Isabel “Downie” Charlotte Church. We know from letters that Frederic Church was in dialogue with Cole’s daughter Emily about her artwork while she was in art school in New York City. Emily and Church’s daughter Isabel were lifelong friends who both made detailed studies and artworks depicting flora local to their homes in New York’s Hudson Valley.

A set of six frames with which are a series of drawings of flowers of varying sizes and species. The top three frames are slightly smaller then the bottom, though all frames are gold in color with off white matting.

photo by: Peter Aaron/OTTO

Installation view of botanical drawings by Emily Cole and Downie Church located at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.

The interior of a blue painted room. On the far wall is a deep blue painting with beadwork with a two wooden stacked boxes sitting below it. To the right is a window with a wooden table in the foreground. On the table is a round glass terrarium (a globe like structure with a opening) with various plants within it.

photo by: Peter Aaron/OTTO

Paula Hayes, T100, 2008, Hand blown glass, living planting, 15 1/2 “ H x 21 1/2” W x 18 1/2” D / Jeffrey Gibson, Camouflage, as installed at the Thomas Cole Site.

Paula Hayes, T100

With The Gems, Heade was inspired by the symbiotic relationships he witnessed within nature. New scientific knowledge continues to change the way we understand ecological systems, and contemporary artists raise questions about how we interact within the environment. Rather than paint landscapes with oil on canvas, artist Paula Hayes creates living landscapes to examine the connection between human beings and Earth. Her handblown glass terrariums are small-scale living ecosystems that require daily tending, and are intended to provoke thought and action around our interactions with nature every day. Along with her crystal and plant works, Hayes worked with an ornithologist to create a new habitat for nesting birds which is also on view as part of the exhibition.

Mark Dion and Dana Sherwood, The Pollinator Pavilion

In honor of Cross Pollination, artists Mark Dion and Dana Sherwood created an interactive artwork to provide sustenance to pollinators and to offer human visitors a space to encounter them up-close, particularly the Ruby-throated hummingbird, which is native to this region. The presence or absence of pollinators in different moments illuminates the fragile but open doorways between humans and animals. In a time when colonies of bees are collapsing and habitats are under threat, this work highlights our symbiotic relationship with pollinators, sparking wonder as well as questions: How do we interact with pollinators? How and why do we try to control or shape nature? Instead of mining nature, can we shift our response to one of reverence and reciprocity?

A short lavender building with a metal roof. The structure has a step up into it with an ornate seat that is placed below a yellow painted butterfly, and it has flower boxes hanging from some lattice work above the seating area.. The building sits in a clearing through there is a wooded treeline surround it.

photo by: Peter Aaron/OTTO

Mark Dion + Dana Sherwood, "The Pollinator Pavilion", 2020, Interactive wood and metal sculpture with acrylic on panel, plants, feeders, and seating. Located on the grounds at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.

Jean Shin, Fallen

Another outdoor artwork at the show is Jean Shin’s Fallen, a site-specific installation that honors a grand hemlock that was planted by Frederic Church and died recently of natural causes. Shin went deep on the layers of associations bound up with this particular species, including the brutal destruction of millions of hemlocks by the 19th-century tanneries, which needed their bark to make leather, and the modern threat to hemlock survivors from the hemlock wooly adelgid insect. Working with a local community college class, she also identified and tagged the survivors within Olana’s 250 acres.

Portia Munson, Cardinal

Four monumental silk banners from Portia Munson’s series Memento Mori Mandalas show another mode of reflection on beauty and loss in the natural world. In works like Cardinal, she commemorates fallen creatures that have come in contact with man’s impact on the land, lofts them back into the trees, and lets them take flight once again.

A photograph of a silk screen spread out across a tree lined path with people walking underneath. The screen has a cardinal bird in the middle with florals in pink, yellow, purples, and reds surrounding the bird.

photo by: Peter Aaron/OTTO

Portia Munson, "Cardinal", 2016. Digital print on silk, 200 x 133 in. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery. This installation is on the grounds of Olana.

A framed black and white image with pattern and a snake sits above an artist desk against a brick wall, with various tools such as brushes, paper, rulers etc. On the right hand side is a window.

photo by: Peter Aaron/OTTO

Installation view in Thomas Cole's Old Studio: Jeff Whetstone, "Drawing E. obsoleta", 2011, 16mm film transferred to digital video 8 minutes, 28 seconds, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

Jeff Whetstone, Drawing E. Obsoleta

Questioning belonging in the natural world inspired Jeff Whetstone’s Drawing E. Obsoleta. In this work, the artist attempts to use the snake’s body to draw the landscape in which it lives, but the snake cannot be contained or controlled so neatly. Whetstone observes: “[There is the] notion of drawing being a hand that lays down a line, but in this case the line itself is actually guiding the hand.” Coming to art through study of biology, Whetstone is interested in what happens when you remove an animal, in this case a snake, from its home environment and, in this manner, probes the relationship between humans and nature.

Jeffery Gibson, Camouflage

An invocation of history is at the heart of Jeffrey Gibson’s Camouflage, which transforms an equatorial jungle into a canvas of mercurial abstraction bursting with vivid color. By collaging elements within the frame and adding layers of beads that move beyond the surface of the canvas, Gibson, a New York-based artist with Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, not only suggests that our notion of nature is a complex cultural construction, but also challenges us to raise questions such as who has access to nature, and whose decisions impact it? How are nature and culture inextricably linked?

This image is of a equatorial jungle, deep blues with vivid greens of plans spread out across the campus. Using collage and beads the artist pulls out certain colors in various areas to add definition and abstraction to the piece.

photo by: Judy and David Goldis

Jeffrey Gibson, "Camouflage", 2004, Oil and pigmented silicone on board, 30 x 31 in. Collection of David and Judy Goldis. On view at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.

Nick Cave, Soundsuit

Our exhibition returns again and again to flowers in/as art, and this dramatic object by artist Nick Cave is a prime example of the power of the floral form. Cave’s widely loved Soundsuits were inspired by the darkest of circumstances—as a reflection on the threats of Black identity amidst police violence—and produce unapologetically beautiful results. We like to think that the historic artists of our exhibition would have embraced this surprising juxtaposition as makers themselves of artworks that were once surprising and new.

Vik Muniz, Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds after Martin Johnson Heade

photo by: Peter Aaron/OTTO

Vik Muniz, "Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds after Martin Johnson Heade" from the series Pictures of Magazines 2, 2013. Digital C print, 40 x 53 in. Exhibition print courtesy the artist and Sikkema, Jenkins & Co. Gallery, NY. © Vik Muniz / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. View of the art work in situ at Olana.

Vik Muniz’s work shows the extent to which the outsider work of Heade is still speaking to contemporary artists. Muniz, who is Brazilian, responds to a specific Heade canvas of a Brazilian subject, remaking the image with cut images from travel magazines that play with romantic ideas of the jungle. In some comments Muniz provided for our audio guide, he describes the extent to which Heade introduced him to a part of his own country that felt far removed from his own experience.

Lisa Sanditz and Emily Sartor, The Thrilling Tales and Startling Adventures

As part of the exhibition, we engaged two artists, Lisa Sanditz and Emily Sartor, who created The Thrilling Tales and Startling Adventures: An Unofficial Guide to Pollinators. It features pollinators, pollen makers, and habitats local to the environs of the Hudson River Skywalk region and brings our focus back to the habitats and landscapes made famous by Cole and Church.

Juan Fontanive, Detail from "Ornithology" series, 2018, 4-color screenprint on bristol paper, stainless steel, motor and electronics, Courtesy of the artist. This piece is located at the Thomas Cole Historic Site.

Exterior of a guide that has colorful images of different pollinators in a graphic novel style. There are images of hummingbirds, bugs, and others species that spread pollen throughout the world along with facts about how the process works.

photo by: Olana

Front view: Lisa Sanditz and Emily Sartor's "The Thrilling Tales and Startling Adventures: An Unofficial Guide to Pollinators." Visitors to both sites are given this complementary map to take outside as they explore the landscapes at Olana and the Thomas Cole Site.

Juan Fontanive, Detail from Ornithology Series

In his Ornithology series, Juan Fontanive uses Victorian clock motors and 18th- and 19th-century natural history illustrations to create flipbook animations of a bird in continuous flight. Bringing together history, scientific invention, and artistic imagination, these works reanimate the wonder of the hummingbirds that inspired Martin Johnson Heade a century earlier.

Cross Pollination has struck a chord with our visitors on both sides of the river and helped to draw out the through lines that connect past and present at these unique artists’ environments, just as we hoped it would. If you can’t get to the Hudson Valley to see it for yourself, complete with all the site-specific works that don’t travel, there will be one last chance to see this exciting project at our co-organizer, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, from Nov. 20, 2021, through March 21, 2022.

Kate Menconeri is the curator and director of exhibitions and collections at Thomas Cole National Historic Site. William L. Coleman is a director of collections and exhibitions at the Olana Partnership.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Cross Pollination was created by the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, The Olana Partnership at the Olana State Historic Site, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It is curated by Kate Menconeri, Julia B. Rosenbaum, William L. Coleman, and Mindy N. Besaw. It is on display through Oct. 31, 2021. It features the following artists: Martin Johnson Heade, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Emily Cole, Isabel Charlotte Church, Rachel Berwick, Nick Cave, Mark Dion, Richard Estes, Juan Fontanive, Jeffrey Gibson, Paula Hayes, Patrick Jacobs, Maya Lin, Flora C. Mace, Vik Muniz, Portia Munson, Lisa Sanditz, Emily Sartor, Sayler/Morris, Dana Sherwood, Jean Shin, Rachel Sussman, and Jeff Whetstone.

By: Kate Menconeri and William L. Coleman

Have a story idea that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience? Read our Contributor Guidelines and email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

More posts by guest authors (326)

The Mother Road turns 100 years old in 2026—share your Route 66 story to celebrate the Centennial. Together, we’ll tell the full American story of Route 66!

Share Your Story