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September 30, 2005
Contact: Roger Martin, KU Center for Research, (785) 864-7239.

Roger Martin commentary: Tracy Hicks partners with nature to make art

LAWRENCE -- You can hear Texas when Tracy Hicks talks. The words are thick, as if their sharpness has been ground off, and the language is plain.

Hicks has come to Lawrence to install a surprising exhibit at the University of Kansas' Hall Center for the Humanities: frogs and toads made of translucent urethane and silicone floating in thousands of bottles placed on glass shelves.

Hicks cast these models using dead amphibians that were stored in fluid-filled jars. The jars were at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and the Field Museum in Chicago.

Hicks partnered with nature to make this beautiful.

"The forms are nature's choice," he says. "The colors are mine."

The exhibit runs from Oct. 1 to March. The rubbery critters glow. I smelled sulphur the day I talked with Hicks. He said it was the odor of a red phosphorescent pigment applied to some of the frogs. The pigment glows in the dark.

The exhibit is interactive. Those who attend will be handed ultraviolet flashlights to examine the frogs and toads, adding still more color to the event.

Forty percent of the 2,000-plus jars in the exhibit are a century old, an endowment to Hicks from the American Museum of Natural History.

The KU museum is tops when it comes to frogs and toads from the New World, says Hicks, and the Field Museum when it comes to Asian specimens.

Some of the cast specimens are of extinct frogs or toads. On a trip to Guatemala in the late 1990s, Hicks' awareness of extinction grew.

This led him into a new vocation, one that helps him support his art. He breeds 37 species of frogs in his home, three of them extinct in the wild and 34 on the verge of it.

"I sell them to zoos," Hicks says. "Half my time is spent raising frogs, the other half making art from frogs."

The quick, radical changes that mark a frog's existence make them interesting subjects for Hicks the artist.

"They go from life in water to life on land in two days."

But for Hicks the naturalist, frogs aren't just academic.

"I've had several people come up to me crying after walking through an exhibit," Hicks says. "The fact that the animals glow after dark adds a sense of life to them. I want people to equate themselves to the animals. I want the animals to be seen as precious."

Has he ever destroyed a specimen trying to cast it?

Never, he says, though one time, a claw got caught in a mold and pulled out of the frog. He tried to push it back in.

I bet that made Hicks feel nervous and strange. After all, he says, just seeing a frog floating in formaldehyde, every brilliant color turned to gray by the chemical, makes him feel strange.

He's painfully aware of how irreversible some processes are. The exhibit is Hicks' way of memorializing and beautifying species, some of them gone, some going.

For those who've grown numb to environmentalist arguments about species loss, the exhibit may provide a reawakening – as long as the ability to feel something about lost species is not entirely extinct.

The exhibit is jointly sponsored by the Hall Center and the Natural History Museum. John Simmons, collections manager for the museum herpetology collection, and Marjorie Swann, professor of English, received a $45,000 grant from the Museum Loan Network to support the event.

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The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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