An Agate original.
It was February, 2013. David Spohn was looking ahead to summer, when the dragonflies would be flying again.
Supported in part by an artists’ fellowship from the McKnight Foundation, he had spent the previous summer stalking dragonflies on his 3-acre property in Franconia Township, Minn. Even with his uneducated eye, he had realized that the variety was amazing. He took hundreds of photographs and worked to identify the species using Kurt Mead’s field guide, “Dragonflies of the Northwoods.” At first, when he wasn’t sure, he’d send a photo to Mead for confirmation. As the weeks went by, he began to recognize many species on his own. He found more than a dozen species inhabiting the shaded slough that ran along one boundary of his property, where water flowed through a valley between steep, forested hillsides from one lake to another. Most plentiful of all were the Common Green Darners.
Working from the photographs, Spohn began to create the first in a series of etchings. Foregoing the traditional toxic method (using acid), he opted instead for a solar plate etching technique requiring only warm tap water and sunlight. He decided to name the collection “The Dragonfly Suite.”
The life-sized etchings are in some respects an homage to the classic drawings one might expect to find in an entomology textbook or in the journals of early scientific expeditions. They are exacting and precise, with an old-world impression enhanced by one-color printing in sepia tones on ivory paper. But unlike many technical drawings, these are not drawn from killed specimens. Each is subtly infused with life: in the eye shine, in the finely stippled wing patterns, in the positioning of each leg, the artist’s delight in his subject is clear.
A serious setback—for the project as well as the dragonflies—came just as Spohn was readying for his second field season of photography. Neighboring property owners cleared all the trees from one side of the valley right down to the water line. Mature maple, basswood, ironwood, gone. The once-shaded wetland was now exposed to full sun, littered with woody debris and choked with eroded sediment. When summer arrived, the number of dragonflies in the slough had dramatically declined, and the green darners—once the most plentiful species—had vanished.
A year went by. Then another. It wasn’t until this summer, 2015, that he again observed green darners in the slough, and no more than four or five.
Spohn works now from his existing archive of photographs, and continues to go out with his camera to see what he might find. Fortunately, a small pond on his property was undamaged and has continued to offer habitat for a variety of species, but it’s uncertain whether the dragonflies will ever return to their previous number and diversity. He wonders: was it the change in the water quality in the slough? The water temperature? The vegetation? Spohn is hopeful that, with time and understanding among neighbors, the habitat can be restored to some semblance of its previous condition. For his part, he has learned the importance of paying attention. “Unless we take the time to look, we don’t even know what life exists on our own land. It wasn’t until I did this project that I had any idea of the rich diversity of dragonflies here. It changes how you see a place, makes it painfully clear what altering a landscape can mean.”
What began as a theme for an artistic project has become an enduring fascination with the life histories of dragonflies and their relatives, the damselflies. To hear him enthuse, one would think one was hearing a naturalist: “The more I learn about them the more incredible they are. Think of their eyes! They can see 360 degrees simultaneously, and around curves. We have only 3 opsins (light-sensitive proteins affecting the ability to distinguish color) and dragonflies can have as many as 30! And research has shown that they have the capacity for selective attention, once something only primates were thought to have (http://www.adelaide.edu.au/news/news58341.html). And they undergo such an amazing transformation. They spend most of their lives underwater, so that when we see them in their winged state, we are really seeing them at the tail end of their lives. Only when they climb out of the water and emerge from the exo-skeletons of their nymph stage are they able to fly. To me, the holy grail is finding one of those shed exo-skeletons.”
It could be that David Spohn’s ‘Dragonfly Suite’ etchings document a time in history that will not return; a time when the summer sun glinted off the wings of green darners too numerous to count, in a narrow, shaded valley in Franconia Township. It’s not a possibility Spohn wants to consider. For him, the dragonflies are an exquisite and necessary part of the wild community that shares the landscape where he lives. Surely, he thinks—he hopes—we can learn to live in harmony with them. Of one thing he is certain: every summer he’ll be watching for them, his 3 opsins and selective attention primed.
Species documented by Spohn:
- Common Green Darners
- Black-tipped Darners
- Widow Skimmers
- Twelve-spotted Skimmers
- Four-spotted Skimmers
- Chalk-fronted Corporals
- Eastern Pondhawks
- Halloween Pennants
- Racquet-tailed Emeralds
- White-faced Meadowhawks
- Ruby Meadowhawks
- Saffron-winged Meadowhawks
- Common Whitetails
More about David Spohn/Artist
“I just always drew,” says David Spohn.
As a boy of 11, Spohn’s Saturday mornings were not about sleeping late or TV cartoons. His Catholic elementary school teacher—he recalls her name, Sister Grace Marie—recognized the talent in his sketches, and urged his parents to sign him up for classes at the nearby Chicago Institute of Arts. Soon, Saturday mornings for Spohn meant rising early and navigating the urban transit system on his own to reach the Institute. “What I remember most is that you had to walk through the whole Institute to the back of the building and then down to the lower level where the classes were held. So it would be 8 a.m., really quiet, hardly anybody there, and I’d get to look at all this incredible art everywhere. The classes were great, but I think my real education happened then, on that Saturday morning walk through the Institute.”
After a fine arts degree from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa and work as an artist for the College of Education at San Jose State University, Calif., Spohn headed back east as far as Minnesota in 1974, eventually settling with his wife and sons on a rural property in Franconia Township in the St. Croix Valley. In 1981 he accepted a position as art director for Hazelden Publishing, the publication arm of the internationally-known Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center, where he became widely recognized for his body of work in a series of meditation books, including “Each Day a New Beginning.”
Spohn is now retired from his position at Hazelden, but continues to write and illustrate books. He can’t imagine ever retiring from his work as an artist—in particular, etching—an art form he has practiced and loved for 40 years. He is honored to be part of a local collective of artists organized as “Project Art for Nature,” and continues to find endless inspiration in the natural world—not only in parks but in his own backyard. Says Spohn: “Beauty is right at your feet.”
For more information on artworks by David Spohn, see: