The art of science at UH Hilo: Budding environmental scientist Saxony Charlot inspires appreciation of Hawai‘i’s ecology through her art

Environmental studies major Saxony Charlot’s aspirations for the future are mostly lab and fieldwork based, but her art plays a large role in her conservation practice and life.

Painting of bird at left, and at right, a photo of Saxony Charlot in the field, holding a small bird.
At left, Hawaiʻi ʻAmakihi and ʻAkala by Saxony Charlot, and at right, Charlot in the field conducting her undergraduate research on native Hawaiian birds. (Artwork © Saxony Charlot)

By Evangeline Lemieux.

Saxony Charlot pictured
Saxony Charlot

As an environmental studies major and gifted artist, Saxony Charlot is passionate about raising awareness for Hawaiʻi’s endangered and threatened species. As she pursues her scientific studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, her stunning artwork is flourishing.

“Hawaiian ecosystems are my passion,” she says. “It’s always just called to me. Since I was a kid, I’ve had a keen interest in Hawaiʻi’s native species and their conservation.”

Charlot was born and raised on Oʻahu and grew up on a small family farm in Waimānalo to a family of artists. She is the great-granddaughter of Jean Charlot, a muralist and painter of great fame, born 1898 in Paris, France, and who died in 1979 in Honolulu. (Jean Charlot came to the University of Hawaiʻi to create his first UH Mānoa mural in 1949. He liked Hawaiʻi so much that he decided to make it his home, becoming a part of the UH Mānoa art department. There are three additional murals of Jean Charlot‘s on the UH Mānoa campus.)

Saxony’s great-grandfather, Jean, and her grandfather, Martin, have both been artistic inspirations for the young protégé throughout her life and this background effortlessly melded with her love of conservation. She began the serious work of terrestrial environment conservation in 2015.

“I’ve been blessed to have had the opportunity to work and volunteer with numerous conservation projects on Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi Island, and in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument,” she writes in her web bio. “My field experience includes managing a native plant nursery, tagging Hawaiian monk seals, disentangling wild seabirds, surveying endangered honeycreepers, and more; I also have lab experience in micropropagation of rare plants and bioacoustics projects with native birds.”

The science

Logo: Listening Observatory for Hawaiian Ecosystems LOHE Bioacoustics Lab, University of Hawaii at Hilo. With bird and whale. Currently, Charlot conducts research at the Listening Observatory for Hawaiian Ecosystems, commonly called the LOHE Lab, at UH Hilo, where the calls of native birds and other bioacoustics are analyzed using a variety of cutting-edge software.

One program she works with is BirdNET, a bioacoustics program developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which uses a neural network that can be trained to recognize bird calls. This helps conservation scientists in the wild by making the process of recognizing bird calls simpler and less time-consuming.

Charlot helps train the neural network by annotating native Hawaiian bird calls by hand using the bioacoustic software program Raven.

Patrick Hart, UH Hilo professor of biology and founder of LOHE Lab, says Charlot’s skills and patience as an artist make her exceptional at the software work.

“Her work is contributing to the training of algorithms that will allow us to automatically detect these calls from future recordings,” says Hart.

The art

Precision and attention to detail aren’t the only things that Charlot’s lab work and art have in common. Her artwork primarily depicts native Hawaiian species, and her passion for species restoration and Hawaiian ecosystems greatly influences the subject matter of her art. She works primarily with alcohol markers in pen and ink, but often uses acrylics, gel pens, and color pencil for highlighting and detail.

One of her works, Ōu on ʻIeʻie, depicts the relationship between the now extinct native Hawaiian bird, the oʻu, and a native plant, the ʻieʻie, on which the oʻu fed. In 2022, the piece was featured in the prestigious Hawaiʻi Nei Art Exhibition, which is held annually at the Wailoa Center in Hilo and sponsored by several state and local conservation groups.

Oʻu bird perched in ʻie ʻie plant.
Ōu on ʻIeʻie, a work by UH Hilo environmental studies major Saxony Charlot, depicts the relationship between the now extinct native Hawaiian bird ōʻu and native plant ʻieʻie, on which the oʻu fed. This piece was displayed at the 2022 Hawaiʻi Nei Art Exhibition last fall. (© Saxony Charlot)

Charlot believes highlighting ecological relationships between species helps create a greater awareness of Hawaiian ecosystems and their diversity.

“A lot of our species are endangered and a lot are extinct, and so people might not [know] about those kinds of relationships,” she says. “My goal is to raise awareness of Hawaiʻi’s ecology and native species, and I’d like to help people appreciate species that they won’t encounter day-to-day.”

Charlot’s art supports her mission to help native Hawaiian species in practical ways as well. Portions of the proceeds from any art she sells go directly to conservation groups to help support species and ecosystem revitalization.

The 2022 Hawaiʻi Nei Art Exhibition, an exhibit that annually calls for submissions from Hawaiʻi residents that depict native ecosystems, was Charlot’s first time having her artwork displayed in public.

“Last semester my ecology professor Becky Ostertag encouraged me to submit my art to the Hawaiʻi Nei Art Exhibition,” says Charlot. “I had never submitted my art to any contest or exhibit before, but was inspired to enter [two] pieces, and they were both accepted.”

Although Charlot has been creating art for her whole life, she did not start showing her art to others until about a year ago. “I really didn’t expect to do much with my art, so just having it be publicly seen was a really big deal for me. It means a lot that anybody is interested in it.”

Charlot’s art is featured on her website Autochthonous Hawaiʻi and on her Instagram, where she posts the pictures along with a short write-up about each species featured in her artwork.

The art of science

Charlot’s aspirations for the future are still mostly lab and fieldwork based, but she acknowledges that her art plays a large role in her conservation practice and her life.

“The art is kind of an aside that pulls it all together in my life,” she says.

“It’s funny, the art has made me realize that reaching people is really important in conservation work. For years I thought I just wanted to do things in the field, but after doing fieldwork for so long I realized that reaching other people in the community has maybe even a bigger impact.”

Owl perched on a fire warning sign post.
Saxony Charlot’s photo of a pueo on a fire warning sign was chosen by UH System News last October as an Image of the Week for their series highlighting original photographs taken by members of the UH community. Charlot shares about the photo: “On the road up to Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, my team and I spot a pueo sitting quietly on a wildfire warning sign. We pause for a moment, then continue up to collect bioacoustics data for our projects in the LOHE lab, which involve more talkative birds.” (via UH System News)

By Evangeline Lemieux, who is double majoring in English and medical anthropology at UH Hilo.

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