Skip to Main Content


Moving toward Life

Printer-friendly version | Email this article

Joe Trumpey teaches ants how to spell.

"I call it my Myremecological Literacy Project." The former Wabash College art/biology double major grins.

It’s not as complicated as it sounds.

Leaf cutter ants slice sections from the leaves of large plants to carry back to their colonies to grow the fungus that is their food. They work in groups, leaving behind whole branches of serrated-edged leaves.

Trumpey places Plexiglas letters over the leaves and calls in the ants, which dutifully slice and dice every millimeter of green from around the letters. He removes the Plexiglas and, Viola! The ants have spelled a word.

One of their favorites is "farm."

Trumpey’s literate ants are more teacher’s trick than a scientific experiment.

Whether he’s teaching college art students to more carefully observe nature, or elementary and middle school students in his Eco-Explorers program the wonders of the natural world, Trumpey stops at nothing to illustrate nature and scientific principles.

That’s his job—he’s science illustrator and associate professor in the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan.

His artwork graces the pages of the 17-volume Grzimek’s Animal Encyclopedia, for which Trumpey served as chief science illustrator over a team of 17 other artists, many of them his former students.

His murals hang at the Detroit Science Center, and he’s shown in Ann Arbor, at the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, and, most recently, as part of Nature Observed and Expressed at Wabash.

But as inspired as he is drawing nature, his deeper vocation is drawing others into nature. He’s calls it biotropism—literally, "moving toward life." It’s a philosophy that infuses his life as an artist, a scientist, a farmer raising rare breeds of livestock, and a teacher/naturalist leading excursions to wild places from Costa Rica to Southern Africa to the Sonoran Desert.

"I want students to know what it means to be human," the professor says. "I want students to better their relationship to life on Earth. Our society desperately needs creative and energetic people to create work that will bring science to the public."

He worries that Americans today are so far removed—physically, intellectually, and emotionally—from understanding and appreciating the growing cycles that feed us that they fail to care for the environment. He cites a study in which teenagers could recognize 85 corporate logos, but only 12 species of plants.

Worse yet, he explains, "high school biology doesn’t fill the void. Talks, slides, and videos don’t fill it. It is direct, first-hand experience that will create a relationship between Nature and a student’s life."

Trumpey gives his students that experience every chance he gets. When he can’t take them into the field, he hands out specimens in his studio of the creatures his students draw.

"Holding and feeling the animal gives you the sensory memory you need to draw it," he explains. "And how can you draw a beetle without first understanding how it folds its legs, or a bird without seeing and feeling how it moves its wings in flight?"

Trumpey credits Wabash and his liberal arts education for fostering "an inquiring mind, interested in so many fields." His unusual double major in art and science was the ideal preparation for his life’s vocation. He finds himself teaching his students almost as much about science and the amazing world around them as he does about artistic technique.

"I know how to teach technical skills like perspective drawing, or how to use watercolor effectively," Trumpey says. "But how do you teach essence or wonder? Is it ever possible?"

His students say he’s doing just that. Words like "beautiful," "scary", "exciting," "fragile," and "amazed" pour out of journal entries made during field excursions with Trumpey.

And if you don’t believe them, just ask the leaf cutter ants.

Links to more about Trumpey’s work:

For more information see: