Pairing of photos, illustrations reveals conservation successes and failures in Ohio

In 'The Art of Wildlife Conservation' at Grange Audubon, montages by photographer Jim McCormac and illustrator Juliet Mullett tell stories of 25 common and overlooked creatures from across the state

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Gray fox

The photo looks simple enough: two orangethroat darter fish, a male and a female, side by side among some rocks in a stream. But after learning the lengths to which naturalist and photographer Jim McCormac went to get the image, the photo becomes a small miracle.

McCormac found the orangethroat darters at the bottom of a Shawnee State Forest stream that was small enough to jump across. But he couldn’t just point and shoot to make the photo. First, McCormac lugged a table to the spot and assembled a temporary fish tank on the side of the brook. “We reconstruct the stream bottom with the stuff that's in the stream where we caught the fish. You have to rinse everything because everything is all dirty. It's a lot of work,” said McCormac, clarifying that he never harms the creatures he photographs. “No one dies. Even the bugs.” 

Using distilled water, McCormac had to make sure the sides of the tank were clean to allow for a clear photo. And the fish, of course, don’t pose cooperatively for pictures. True to their name, they dart back and forth, hiding among the rocks. Plus, the colorful male, displaying bright hues of green and orange, only shows off his impressive, emerald pectoral fin when he’s agitated.

And those colors? They don’t last long. The males only brighten in the early spring during breeding season, when the water is a certain temperature. “If you take them out of that water, within 15 minutes they’ve lost half their color, because you can't keep the tank the same temperature,” he said. “So that makes it even harder. You get a window of about five minutes to really get on these things before they fade.” 

The green and orange colors of the fish pop even more in local artist Juliet Mullett’s illustration, currently mounted adjacent to McCormac’s photo at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, where the two teamed up for a recently opened exhibition, “The Art of Wildlife Conservation,” which features 25 animal species (amphibians, birds, crayfish, fish, insects, mammals and reptiles) and pairs Mullett’s watercolor pencil illustrations with McCormac’s images. As the show’s name implies, the artists convey a conservation message along with the artwork, explained and contextualized in statements mounted with the montages on several walls throughout the Audubon Center.

"Gray Fox Cubs" illustration by Juliet Mullett

Some of the displays tell comeback stories, like the return of the eastern bobcat and bald eagle in Ohio. Others recount failures, such as the gray fox, which has declined significantly in Ohio due to deforestation, trapping and other threats. Those tales hold lessons about the state's wildlife that we might take for granted. The orangethroat darter, for instance, is relatively common in Ohio, but its delicate habitat balance can be easily disrupted. The fish rely on small headwater streams, like the Scioto County brook where McCormac photographed the male and female.

“Many of the small streams that this fish favors have been rendered uninhabitable due to channelization, excessive siltation, removal of streamside tree cover and agricultural contaminants,” McCormac writes in the text accompanying the photo and illustration. “A recent proposal – House Bill 175 – in the Ohio legislature seeks to remove legal protection of headwater streams, paving the way to allow new sources of degradation currently prevented by federal law. There are over 115,000 miles of headwater streams in Ohio, and they are the capillaries that feed all of our streams.”

Mullett’s artwork first made its way to McCormac thanks to one of his regular Columbus Dispatch columns that focused on the longnose gar, a prehistoric-looking fish sporting an elongated snout studded with tiny, razor-like teeth. “People hate predators. … Fishermen, they kill [the longnose gar]. There are a lot of misconceptions about them, but they're wonderful. They're one of the most primitive fishes,” said McCormac, adding that he likes “going to bat for the underdogs.”

Jim McCormac

Mullett happened to love the gar, and after reading the Dispatch column, she sent McCormac an illustration she’d recently made. “I volunteer at the nature center down at Battelle Darby Creek. They have an indoor stream, and it's really long, and they have a gar fish,” Mullett said. “So when I would feed the stream, I'd see him lurking in there. A lot of times he'd go after the stuff that I was feeding, and I just fell in love with him. He's got spots on him like a leopard.”

"Northern Flicker Chicks," illustration by Juliet Mullett

From there, the two artists hatched a plan for the collaborative show, “The Art of Wildlife Conservation.” “It takes me 40 hours to produce one piece,” Mullett said. “I work four hours a day, and it takes me 10 days to finish a piece from start to finish, so I had to produce two pieces a month for almost a year [to get ready for the show]. But it was fun. I loved it. It got me through the pandemic.”

A montage featuring the rosy maple moth could lead the pair to a future collaboration focusing on moths. For that project, McCormac and Mullett will have more than 2,000 Ohio moth species from which to choose, compared with about 140 butterfly species found across the state. “Ecologically, you can make a case that moths are more significant [than butterflies], by a long shot,” said McCormac, who has a forthcoming book titled Gardening for Moths

Plus, the two artists likely won’t face a lot of competition from others looking to display their moth photos and illustrations. “I think we'll have a lock on that market,” McCormac said, chuckling. “I don't think anyone's ever done that.”

Northern Flickers