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GrrlScientist Explores The Museum Below: The Mosaics of NYC’s 81st Street Station

On 04, Dec 2011 | 12 Comments | In Et cetera | By man-admin

Latimeria species, the legendary coelacanth, a living fossil

You may not know this, but there are actually two American Museums of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City.  There is the one hiding in plain sight at the corner of 79th and Central Park West.

And then, there is the second AMNH, the one buried deep in the earth directly beneath the museum – an extensive collection of mosaics and reliefs that cover the walls, stairwells, and floors in the 81st Street Subway Station.  For Want of a Nail (2000) was a collaborative effort between MTA Arts for Transit and AMNH  designed to mimic the key disciplines explored in the museum above.  The title refers to an old proverb that speaks to how small actions can have large consequences – like the loss of a species.

California Quail #4

A California quail, Callipepla californica,
with the shadow of a pigeon (passenger pigeon?) behind it,
It happened that a young woman (who goes by the pseudonym “GrrlScientist”) used the station twice a day on her way to do post doctorate work in ornithology at the museum.  On January 1, 2008, beginning with the ceolacanth above, GrrlScientist began posting photos of the mosaic animals on her blog, and, being the good scientist that she is, classifying each of the species for the benefit of the reader.  After 89 posts, GrrlScientist had created a wonderful catalog of the intersection between science and art.

We contacted GrrlScientist, who characterizes herself as an evolutionary biologist, ornithologist and writer, to find out more about the project.  She very kindly answered all of our questions and gave us permission to repost her photos and captions for you here.

A common basilisk, Basiliscus basiliscus, with the shadow of Velociraptor spp. in the background

In the mosaic above, you can see how the designers sometimes combined images of living species with their extinct relatives.  Other works, like the owl and frog below, are notable for the artists’ skill in creating quite life-like mosaics.  
We are also struck by the fact that the white, square field tiles also provide a background for the images akin to that of a page in a large-format coffee table book or catalog.
Owl #19
Eastern Screech-Owl, Megascops asio, in flight
I think this is a Leopard frog, Rana pipiens.
We were curious, so we asked GrrlScientist if she carried a camera with her all the time.  Her response:
Of course.  There’s always something to photograph, especially in NYC.  Besides, carrying a camera also carries the obligation to actually look around for something to photograph, so it makes me actually pay attention to the world around me instead of just rushing around.

Which is one of the reasons why we are addicted to our new mobile phone. Ladybugs #27

Ladybugs, Coleoptera species

These ladybugs are an excellent example of how the artists (Arts for Transit Collaborative) turned a design problem – integrating oddly shaped mosaics into a gridded field of white tiles – into an asset.  The andamento of the tiles surrounding these insects is designed not just to fill space, but to indicate the movement and connectedness that one sees in a swarm of ladybugs in real life.  (And yes, it is a “swarm”  These mosaics made us get our science on!)

An alligator, Alligator mississippiensiswith the shadow of a Stegosaurus behind it

Marbled salamander, Ambystoma opacum (left) and Fire salamander, Salamandra salamandra (right)

GrrlScientist points out that several of the animals have question marks worked into the designs.  It is curious.

The tiger beetle, Cicindela formosa

 Galapagos giant tortoise, Geochelone elephantopus (but I am not sure of the subspecies)

Our guess is that the question marks may allude to the fact that these species are on the endangered list – their fate still uncertain.

Another design element in For Want of A Nail is that subjects are often found in likely places, like this garden spider placed up in a corner.

Yellow garden spider, Argiope aurantia, guarding her egg case

And this snake (some kind of boa?) hanging from a signage ledge.

Unknown (to me) species of snake

For Want of A Nail also includes areas devoted to geology and earth sciences.  Here, you see a stairwell that GrllScientist calls “A journey to the center of the earth.”

A journey to the center of the earth (view 1, uptown stairway) If you look closely, you can see fossils in the rock layers.
A journey to the center of the earth (view 2, uptown stairway)

When asked which mosaic was her favorite, GrrlScientist told us it is the first one she published, the coealanth.  “I think it is just stunning.”

We are sad to see a question mark on the coelanth.  Maybe, just maybe, subway travelers will be inspired by the beauty in the AMNH station to supply the “nails” that will save a species.

Huge thanks to GrrlScientist for allowing us to publish her photos and captions.  We highly recommend that you follow her blog at The Guardian  She’s got a spunky voice that makes science approachable and birds, in particular, fascinating.

Enjoy –  Nancie


  • GrrlScientist’s “A Brief History of the Subway Tile Art at 81st and CPW (AMNH Station)” post here
  • Jeremy Cox’ (aka “Subway Nut”) extensive photo catalog of the AMNH station and more MTA art here
  • MTA’s description of For Want of a Nail here
  •  American Museum of Natural History here
  • “For Want of a Nail” Wikipedia analysis here

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  1. Nancie Mills Pipgras

    I think you may be onto something there, Lillian. This body of work is referred to as a collaborative effort between the MTA, the artists, and the museum so — I guess we'll never know whose hands went into the making.

  2. Nancie Mills Pipgras

    Hello, Lori! How nice to read your voice. It has been much too long. You'll have to catch me up on what you've been up to. And yes, NYC is chock full of reasons to go there. I could spend a week in the subways!

  3. Lori

    That was great, yet another reason to go back to NYC! Thanks Nancie for posting.

  4. sfmosaic

    thanks Nancie..Perhaps an artist list is missing by design. As in the ancient times it is not to be seen as individual expression but the brain child of the 'collective'.

  5. Nancie Mills Pipgras

    Thanks, Lillian. I did do some digging of my own trying to figure out who the designers and artisans were. The MTA website and book "Along the Way: MTA Arts for Transit" credit "Arts for Transit Collaborative." I did find references to several artists who appear to have contributed to the work – but there is no list. The installation is so huge I can imagine it was a large team which undoubtedly included Miotto.

  6. sfmosaic

    Nice post Nancie! Aside from reference to Arts for Transit, there's no mention of who designed and executed these stunning mosaics and ceramics. The mosaic treatment looks 'Miottoesque' to me. Any further info? thanks!

  7. Nancie Mills Pipgras

    I can see how these mosaics would strike a chord with you, Christine. Your animals are lovely. Happy holidays!

  8. cbmosaics

    Love these! Thanks for passing on her blog, will go check it out next. :)

  9. Maureen

    I love these! Who could not smile coming upon them after entering or while deboarding. They're one reason I don't mind taking the subways in NYC.

    The system in DC/MD/VA wasn't designed to feature art in this way, although art is beginning to appear underground and sometimes on the platforms or entries. Sam Gilliam's is the most recent artwork, and it's fabulous. We definitely need more art underground!

  10. Nancie Mills Pipgras

    John, I do envy New Yorkers their access to the art collection in the MTA. Thanks so much for commenting. Here's wishing you many smooth connections!

  11. John Lee

    Thanks for this…have spent man hours waiting for the train at that stop, enjoying those great mosaics…they help the mood when you just miss that C train!

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