Guild of Natural Science Illustrators

Biruta Akerbergs Hansen was a speaker at the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI) Semicentennial Conference in Washington, DC, 2018. Her presentation, “Murals: Minuscule to Monumental, My Journey” highlighted her career transition from microscopic scientific illustration in major natural history museums through other artistic endeavors, including producing pop-up books for National Geographic, to painting large scale murals, often reaching 5,000 square feet. Featuring examples of projects, she shared her experience and expertise in preparation, both conceptual and physical, and execution of large murals using traditional techniques.
In conjunction with the GNSI Conference, two of her juried pieces are on view at the prestigious Art gallery of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), downtown Washington, DC, the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society and the publisher of such notable publications as Science magazine. The exhibit showcases the best in contemporary scientific illustration, and is on view from July 16 to October 16, 2018.

ARTS NOTES, Baltimore Sun

By Henry Scarupa.

Long after the summer’s butterflies are felled by cold weather, Biruta Akerbergs Hansen’s images of the
delicate winged creatures alighting on wildflowers will continue captivating visitors to the Smithsonian’s
Museum of Natural History, where they are on view indefinitely. A free-lance natural science illustrator
living in Fells Point with her two young children and tugboat captain husband, Ms. Hansen was
commissioned to paint 10 of the most common North American butterflies for the National Zoo to
stimulate public interest in butterfly gardening. The Smithsonian reproduced the drawings on a poster,
part of its identification series, with information on the kinds of flower that attract certain butterflies.
Included are such familiar types as the tiger swallowtail on garden phlox, the silver-spotted skipper on
globe thistle and the monarch on common milkweed.
Depicted with uncanny fidelity that goes far beyond any photograph, the butterflies and their host
blossoms are a tribute to the artist’s careful research as well as to her ability to capture the essence of her
subject with brush and acrylic paints. Ms. Hansen worked a good part of a year on the project, first
consulting with experts, then observing the butterflies in fields and along roadways. At her drawing board
she used as reference photos and sketches she had made earlier along with preserved specimens. A single
illustration took up to two weeks of painstakingly layering washes to build up color and the subtle
shading for the right effect.
“There’s a softness about butterflies a lot of paintings don’t capture.” Says Ms. Hansen. “They may
reproduce the pattern and the color, everything is there, but it just doesn’t look right. Flowers are also a
challenge because they’re so variable. None of these flowers is exactly as I found it in nature. I combined
the elements I needed for my composition and to make a perfect flower.”

Smithsonian Recommendation

“To whom it may concern:
I am very pleased to offer my comments and recommendations regarding the artistic skills and general
work ethics of Ms. Biruta Akerbergs Hansen. I have known Biruta since 1975 at which time I
employed her as a scientific illustrator and research assistant at the National Museum of Natural
History, Smithsonian Institution. During the eight years she worked with us she exhibited a broad range
of skills, including performing microscopic dissections and slide preparations of minute insect
specimens, as well as illustrating those dissections for publication in several scientific journals. As my
colleagues often commented, her precision and techniques in illustrating these minute morphological
structures were among the finest and most accurate that they had seen. As a result, her work helped to
raise the standards in our field for these kinds of illustrations. Also during this period, she assisted us by
participating on two expeditions to South Africa and Chile. On these trips she was a vital team member
in helping us to collect and prepare, often under rather primitive conditions, thousands of valuable
insect specimens for the National Museum. I am certain that her previous experience in working with
the Peace Corps in West Africa prepared her well for working under various conditions.
Since leaving the micro world of illustrating insects, Biruta has expanded her artistic horizons in more
ways than we could have imagined. Her artistic skills now extend from depicting the tiniest organisms
to wall-size murals showing entire natural landscapes. Whatever the media or scale, her great attention
for detail is evident in the excellent results.
We all found Biruta to be a great colleague to work with. Her constantly positive attitude and
concentration to complete every task to be done were tremendous assets to our mission.
I would be more than happy to answer any queries you may have concerning Biruta.

Most sincerely,
Don R. Davis, Ph.D.
Research Entomologist”

Entomology NHB 105
P.O. Box 37012
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, DC, USA

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“Biruta’s work is truly unique in that it captures both intimate and panoramic
spaces and subjects with equal mastery. A portrait of an insect or human rings
with as much authority as a portrait of a mountain or copse of trees. She is an
artist who pays attention to not only the finest details but the greater whole of a
project. Having worked with her on several murals, it was quite evident that
she could not only paint and draw with tremendous proficiency, but has a
wonderful command of styles that range from high focus renderings to
expressive brushwork. An artist and naturalist with tremendous range and
keen insight, her work is a delight to both the lay person and the discerning

Bob Sopchick, Designer, Visual

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