Nature In Three Dimensions – Marley’s ‘Exquisite Creatures’ inhabit Crystal Bridges

Nature In Three Dimensions – Marley’s ‘Exquisite Creatures’ inhabit Crystal Bridges
April Wallace

To take a walk through the woods with artist and naturalist Christopher Marley, you need only step into the latest exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

“Exquisite Creatures: a dialogue with art, nature and science” is a three-dimensional exhibition of more than 400 individual preserved plants, animal specimens and minerals, all of which were sustainably gathered, carefully preserved and artfully arranged by Marley. It’s the first time for the exhibit to appear in an art museum, and it will be on display at Crystal Bridges through July 29.

Assistant Curator Xuxa Rodriguez said the exhibit is a perfect fit, since the connection of the outdoors and nature is a major part of Crystal Bridges’ mission. Plenty of STEAM-based programming will be available for K-12 students in the region throughout the duration of the show.

”We hope you’ll come back often and early to not just look more closely at the works but to continue to have the experience,” Rodriguez says.

Video at:

Start with the video at the beginning to hear Marley talk about his work and how he’s come to his practice. It will answer some of the universal questions about preserving plants and animals. Then his voice will find you at other moments in the gallery.


If the connection between nature and the art world doesn’t strike you right away, it will surely hit you once you glimpse the spectrum of colors in “Exquisite Creatures.” One glance, and the variety and vibrancy are clear.

“This is exactly what you’d see in the natural world,” Marley says during a recent press preview of the exhibit. A small bit of vibrancy is lost, which is to be expected after a plant or animal dies, but in the scheme of things, Marley has only had to restore color to a small percent of the organisms. “Everything you see is true to life.”

If insects give you the heebie-jeebies, you’re not alone, Marley says, because they weren’t his first choice either. But they are a renewable, sustainable resource and one of the few things you cannot over-collect, as long as there is a healthy habitat and population of host plants.

Many of the organisms on view are what Marley calls reclaimed organisms, meaning they weren’t killed for art. They died usually in captivity, but not always. To collect them, Christopher has previously bought fishermen’s bycatch in Borneo and the Philippines and worked with various institutions and museums, zoos, breeders and importers.

“Everything dies eventually, and what I’ve found over the years, almost universally, is that the people who work with these organisms love them, and they don’t know what to do with them when they die,” Marley said. In almost every institution is a freezer full of beautiful specimens. That’s where he’s found so many of them.


“Exquisite Creatures” has been on display at a variety of natural history museums and science museums, but the transition to art museums is a natural one, Marley says, given that his first passion was art. As a little kid, he was always drawing and painting — typically monsters and other crazy creatures.

Young Christopher was a reptile fanatic who spent a lot of time outside, always looking for snakes and lizards, turtles and frogs. He entered the fashion world when he was 18 years old and began to work all over the world, living in about 40 different countries. On his travels, he would venture into the jungles to look for snakes and lizards, which he had a hard time finding. But insects were easy to spot.

“I had an antipathy for insects, I was not a big fan, so almost therapeutically I started looking at them from a design perspective,” Marley said. “When I looked at beetles in particular, as an industrial design marvel, I was fascinated.”

With so many thousands of species of beetles and the knowledge that every single one of them has an important role in their ecosystems, Marley became hooked on finding them, discovering more about them and eventually collecting them. He was making a living in fashion, but as soon as the clothing shoots were done, he would run back to the jungle to find the craziest, weirdest bug he could find.

It was the late ’90s, and Marley didn’t have a camera, so he didn’t take a picture in the first 20 countries where he lived. All he had to show for it were these insects he brought home to Los Angeles. Every time he showed them off to his buddies, they told him they loved it and that people would pay for his preserved bugs. But it took years for him to fully believe them and give it a try.

Finally, in 1999, Marley opened a tiny gallery in Hermosa Beach, Calif., right on Pier Avenue. He expected it to be a temporary thing, selling some of his preserved arrangements for Christmas, but it took off. He was there two years, then went to work with stores and galleries, at the height working with Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue — about 450 stores total.

Ultimately that sapped all the fun out of it for Marley, and he backed out of those corporate relationships, deciding instead to return to making things that were meaningful to him and told larger stories.


Marley felt like placing the organisms in museums would do greater justice to the once-living beings.

In this iteration of the exhibit, each room of “Exquisite Creatures” has a theme. And if you’re mentally checking out because you’re not someone who’s a fan of the outdoors, Marley says, the way the exhibit is set up is an entry point just for you.

Although he never minded getting dirty while hunting for snakes and lizards, he certainly did not like insects at first.

“I couldn’t see beauty in them,” Marley says. “All I could think about was what they were going to do to me in the middle of the night, get in my hair or whatever.

“To be able to clean nature up a little bit, to organize it, to show it in a clean, antiseptic, even inorganic way is a way for people who don’t already naturally have that passion for nature” to appreciate it more, making it easier to take in and comprehend.

That in a nutshell describes his initial objective: trying to remove “these crazy bugs as far from their natural context as possible … so they were comprehensible, so we could focus on the design elements as opposed to its mannerisms.”

Marley hopes that each guest will find something in the exhibit that they make a connection with, opening their eyes to something they weren’t aware of, or showing them something familiar in a new way.



‘Exquisite Creatures’

WHEN — Through July 29

WHERE — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, 600 Museum Way in Bentonville

COST — $12; free for members; other discounts available

INFO — 657-2335 or



The Specimens

A few things you’ll see while walking through “Exquisite Creatures”:

Baby Varanus Salvators, the second largest lizard, which get up to 9 feet and 50 pounds when they’re fully grown and another organism that has the widest wingspan of any aquatic insect in the world.

Different colors of seahorses you wouldn’t see often in the wild and so many snakes — the most venomous kinds in North America; the Inland Taipan, which looks basic but has the most toxic venom of any snake in the world; a 13-foot-long King Cobra; and the Santa Catalina Rattleless Rattlesnake, which is the rarest species in the exhibit and nearly extinct in the wild.

The only leafy seadragon ever to be preserved. One of the longest walking sticks in the world. Incredibly rare orchids. A wall full of lizards and another replete with beetles, including the Dynastes Hercules, the longest beetle in the world that gets up to seven inches long, and the Titanius Giganteus, which is the overall largest beetle, an incredibly powerful one that could amputate a digit. And the cephalopods, something Marley is particularly proud of, since octopus and squids are notoriously difficult to preserve.

Among the most valuable pieces in the exhibit are the raw diamonds on display. They might look like gravel to the untrained eye, but they’re still high quality and expensive.

A wall of minerals is on display in part to appease the “rock hounds” out there and because Marley wanted to have some degree of representation for the entire natural world.

And to better show off the beauty of natural specimens’ vibrant colors, a number of the pieces in the exhibit light up. Without it, it would be difficult to appreciate the saturation of, say, an iridescent beetle.

Categories: Galleries