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Exquisite Creatures | Art Made by Nature


This spring, a unique exhibit crawled into the hallways of Crystal Bridges and will linger through the end of July. Exquisite Creatures by Christopher Marley is on the top of summer visitors’ bucket lists for Northwest Arkansas.

As slang, it’s been called “the bug art” by Northwest Arkansas residents, but when you stand in front of a tryptic of bamboo sharks, you immediately figure out why they titled the exhibit Exquisite Creatures. Christopher Marley, the artist, photographer and naturalist, mentioned that he considers the exhibit hall a walk through God’s living room, where all his favorite kids are displayed.

Marley worked with the curator team at Crystal Bridges to tell a story as visitors experience more of the collection. The experience begins in a white room with colorful medallion-style art displays. Beyond the initial experience, visitors start to see the highlighted variation found among specimens in their natural form.

I should stop here and explain that when I use the word “creatures,” I’m referring to reptiles like snakes and chameleons, but birds, botanicals and insects that range from pinhead size to half a human body length are also included, as are sea life, sharks, egg shells, and butterflies.

Exquisite Creatures Exhibit from Biophilia Exhibit on Vimeo.

Why Art From Organisms?

Christopher Marley brings a unique perspective to the art from his three decades of collecting organisms. While he loved reptiles as a kid and drew monsters and many fantasy creatures, he tried college as a graphic designer on a traditional path. But a fashion career and modeling took him to the ends of the earth, seeing a variety of creatures for the first time. While strolling through a market sourcing fabrics, he saw a framed beetle, and even in its terrible construction, it blew his mind that it was displayed art.

A passion and life calling formed, and he never felt settled until he fully committed to this endeavor.

Without a connection to the natural world, we are missing something. When you make a connection to nature, it adds meaning and joy to life.” – Christopher Marley

All specimens Marley uses are gathered ethically, in their natural habitats, or through captivity partners working with unique organisms worldwide. Because of that, many of the creatures are preserved moments after their passing. Taking scary things like venomous snakes, sharks, or scary beetles and tangibly interacting with them helps us learn more about how they live, but it also introduces the more significant idea that there is more than meets the eye.

Pieces from the Exquisite Creatures collection often travel to science museums for observation from the scientific sourcing process and biological lessons to learn in proximity. The Crystal Bridges exhibit offers a chance to take the organisms and observe them as art. By looking at patterns and features like luminosity, transparency, camouflaging in repetition and anonymity in singularity, observers get to blend both sides of their brains as they experience the collection.

Ways to Experience the Collection

The artist and Crystal Bridges curators collaborated on the exhibition layout in a way that tells a story. Knowing this method exists as you enter the exhibit hall helps you slow down and consume the pieces with collective thoughts in mind.

  • Natural Jewels – The first collection focuses on the jewel tones of exotic insects and the concept that insects are gems.
  • Reclamation and Conservation – The artist works with Indigenous peoples and conservationists who work in areas where various organisms are grown in natural habitats. By making their living studying or working with an organism, they are often more likely to be involved in the process as they die and helpful to sharing those organisms with others researching and preserving them.

We do not love nature because it is beautiful; we find beauty in nature because we are part of it, and it is part of us.” – Christopher Marley

  • Opacity, Transparency and Iridescence – The exhibit highlights the visual nature of some organisms and plants by examining their interactions with light, how it brings out new features of their covering, and how it shines through their covering.
  • Variation – This is the most effective way to experience the collection and notice the order, chaos, likeness, and difference among the same types of organisms.

Christopher Marley, Brachyura Triptych, Decapoda spp, crabs © 2024 Christopher Marley | exquisitecreatures.org

As a participant, you can interact with the art in multiple ways.

  • Sit and stare – several spots throughout the exhibit offer chairs for visitors to use. While you may need this for body relief as you walk, I’m challenging you to stop, sit, and look for a bit in all directions.
  • Walk silently by yourself. There is something about being alone in art, by yourself. You can observe, think, and be as creative as you want without interruption or collaboration.
  • Walk up close and observe—even as adults, we may need to put our hands behind our backs as we get close, but with this collection, walk up to the glass and look. Notice the eyes, the textures, the antenna, the way the wings touch each other, and how they look in duplicity.

Christopher Marley, Celestina Inflorescence, butterflies, beetles, parakeet, eggshells © 2024 Christopher Marley | exquisitecreatures.org

    • Wonder at nature and creatively let your mind wander to what you would do and how you’ve observed nature, which can be art.
    • Go with a group or your kiddo, like I did. Having someone with you to discuss what you are seeing helps you process and notice things they might be seeing that you missed.
    • Use your other senses – listen and watch. The artist’s family created the video experience and the soundtrack throughout the exhibit.
    • Use the VR (virtual reality) glasses to see the grounds around Crystal Bridges, just like a fly, snake or deer might see them.
    • Drop in the artmaking studio for children to explore making exquisite creatures from learning toys or collage art.

Christopher Marley, Son of Chamelibob, 2022, Old World Chameleons, 58 in. x 40 in. © 2024 Christopher Marley | exquisitecreatures.org

Exquisite Creatures Exhibit Highlights

Five works stood out to me; see if you can find them as you tour.

  • Son of Chamelibob – a collection of chameleons from Africa and Arabia.
  • Bamboo Sharks | Chiloscyllium burmensis – a Southeast Asian collection spread over a tryptic
  • Ornate Spiny Lobster | Panulirus ornatus | Philippines
  • Cerulean Gensis | Butterflies | Lepidotera spp. | multiple countries
  • Coleoptera Mosaic | Beetles | Cleopatra spp.

Kids and senior adults will enjoy the experience. Artists, botanists, biology teachers, and college science majors will all enjoy what they see and experience. Businesspersons, fashion designers, and adventure seekers will all appreciate every moment of observing the display and ponder through the curiosities of this collection. Just make a plan to get to Bentonville before the end of July!

Exquisite Creatures at Crystal Bridges | Bentonville

Purchase Tickets for $12 | Exhibit Related Events through June and July
Website | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube
As are most exhibits, all of the information in the collection is fully translated into Spanish as well.

Follow the artist Christopher Marley
Exquisite Creatures Exhibit | Website | Facebook | Instagram | future exhibit locations

You may also enjoy some of these experiences this summer at Crystal Bridges, including The Portal experience with musical artist Jewel. And it is not too early to start planning your fall or winter visits. Crystal Bridges is open year-round but closed on Tuesdays, and their restaurant Eleven follows a similar schedule to welcome guests when the museum is open.

The author took the cover photo of the Coleoptera Mosaic by Christopher Marley.

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Keisha (Pittman) McKinney lives in Northwest Arkansas with her chicken man and break-dancing son. Keisha is passionate about connecting people and building community, seeking solutions to the everyday big and small things, and encouraging others through the mundane, hard, and typical that life often brings. She put her communications background to work as a former Non-profit Executive Director, college recruiter and fundraiser, small business trainer, and Digital Media Director at a large church in Northwest Arkansas. Now, she is using those experiences through McKinney Media Solutions and her blog @bigpittstop, which includes daily adventures, cooking escapades, #bigsisterchats, the social justice cases on her heart, and all that she is learning as a #boymom! Keisha loves to feed birds, read the stack on her nightstand, do dollar store crafts, cook recipes from her Pinterest boards, and chase everyday adventures on her Arkansas bucket list.

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