Brandon Ballengée interprets the natural world in the lab, on canvas, and beyond
A hundred yards behind Brandon Ballengée’s art studio, in a former cane field near Lafayette, Louisiana, his dog lollops right over a snake. “Oooh, look at that! A black-masked racer!” says Ballengée—a biologist by training—in a thrilled whisper. “Hey, it’s okay. You’re okay,” he tells the snake, before it slithers into the forest of pecan, holly, persimmon, and pine.
Four decades ago, these woods—home to tanagers and buntings, opossums and rice rats, coyotes and bobcats—were a monoculture, like the adjoining soy field turned prairie to which Ballengée and his family moved six years ago, fulfilling his dream of running a nature reserve. “There was nothing,” says Ballengée, who is forty-seven. “It looked like the surface of the moon.” But after years of planting, the fields have come alive. Grasses shoot roots into the soil, sequestering carbon. Butterflies browse the wildflowers, while Baccharis pollen floats like snow—a triumph of his science and art.
Ballengée spent his childhood in ponds and streams around his Ohio home, observing animals. After school, he’d trap tadpoles and fish and bring them to his bedroom lab, where he’d spend hours drawing them. Later, he studied deformed frogs in polluted landscapes during a PhD program at the University of Plymouth, in England, and the Zurich University of the Arts, in Switzerland, where he focused on the ways art can inspire conservation. For Malamp, the artistic culmination of that project, he displayed the frogs as relics—illuminated specimens and toddler-sized photographs of sacred individuals, lost through human action.