Connected \\ October 31, 2023

PEMcast 34: Hanging with Bats

Bats have an interesting association with Salem, a place that celebrates Halloween pretty much year round. We’re used to seeing multiple versions of Dracula around town, including some of the million-plus tourists visiting the city. But lately, we’ve been spending a lot of time in awe of our latest installation: a small colony of live Egyptian fruit bats living in a specially designed enclosure in a gallery here at the museum.

Live bats in the gallery. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Live bats in the gallery. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

In this latest episode of the PEMcast, we talk with members of our staff who are charged with feeding and caring for these creatures of the night. We stop in for a 4 pm breakfast, just as the nocturnal bats are waking up, and watch them move, collectively and carefully, toward their food.

“Bats live in colonies,” says Aaron Cleveland of Build 4 Impact, the organization that raised the visiting bats in captivity and prepared them to travel as museum ambassadors. “They work together as a colony to provide protection, to raise their young, to signal to each other for different food, for predators – that sort of thing.”

We hear from our Curator Janey Winchell, who has wanted to bring bats to PEM’s Art & Nature Center for decades. “I would like people to like bats,” she says. “I think they're extraordinary and unique. But I'm less concerned with people liking bats than them respecting and appreciating them as really vital living beings on the planet.”

Winchell shares some of the latest bat science, like a protein found in the saliva of vampire bats called Draculin that is being actively researched for its role as an anticoagulant for people with clotting issues. Another theme awaiting visitors to this exhibition is the significance bats hold in different cultures around the world. The accompanying bat-themed artworks in the gallery range across a dozen countries and several centuries.

Resa Blatman, Small Bat Portrait 1, 2008 Oil on panel. Courtesy of the artist.

Resa Blatman, Small Bat Portrait 1, 2008 Oil on panel. Courtesy of the artist.

“We have the association here – which has often Christian roots – of how the Bible has portrayed bats as unclean animals, which then perpetuated a lot of the connections with bats and the devil, and the devil having bat wings, for example,” says Winchell. “If we go to China, there is a long-standing association in Chinese culture between bats and good luck. The bat has been used as a symbol of good luck and good fortune and happiness in China for centuries.”

We also feature Salem’s former Artist in Residence, Maia Mattson, as she learns about the facial and wing structures of bats while building paper mache sculptures for an installation down the street from the museum. The bats are in an old shop window, placed in a beautiful botanical world Mattson created with found plant material and ethereal silks dyed with the petals of native plants. The two walls are covered by one continuous sheet of stretched silk that has been dyed and coated with beeswax to both protect the material and create deeper color and texture.

The result of plant dyeing on the silks in Maia Mattson’s studio. Photo by Dinah Cardin.

The result of plant dyeing on the silks in Maia Mattson’s studio. Photo by Dinah Cardin

In her proposal for the project, Mattson wrote, “Like many pollinators, bats are attracted most to their native plant species. Both bats and native plant species are threatened due to continued habitat disturbance from urbanization and human impact. Both need support in order to survive these changes. Stylistically, this installation appears delicate and playful – plants and bats encircle each other gracefully. The botanical display hangs atmospherically within the display case. However, there is also a precarious nature to these choices, an inherent fragility and uneasy balance within the beauty.”

Join Mattson and I as we forage for native plants and head back to her studio for the resulting dyed silks, which reveal a watery mosaic of bright flower prints.

Paper mache bats in Maia Mattson’s studio. Photo by Dinah Cardin.

Paper mache bats in Maia Mattson’s studio. Photo by Dinah Cardin.

It’s all here. Art and nature. Bats and botany. Thanks for listening. Bats! is on view through July 28, 2024. To learn more about the exhibition and our visiting bat colony, explore our frequently asked questions. And don’t forget to swoop through our Bat Box pop-up shop right outside the museum. The PEMcast is produced by me, Dinah Cardin, and edited and mixed by Erika Sutter. It’s generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund. Thank you to Transom for the audio storytelling workshop on Catalina Island, where Dinah first made an audio piece about bats. If you liked this episode, please subscribe and share with a friend.

Maia Mattson putting together the window at 179 Essex Street. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

TOP IMAGE: Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Music Credits:
Lundstroem - Cute whistle song (The Chainsmokers could never)
Koi-discovery - Nekrapolis and Chromatismus
Brylie Christopher Oxley - Heavenly Motion
Geb - Flight of the Organ Drone
Serge Quadrado - Summer Forest
Uuriter - Post Drone
Triple5 Here - Driving The Mango
Kevin MacLeod - Inner Light
Rest You Sleeping Giant - Light Lab
Brylie Christopher Oxley - Needless Drifting
David Payne performing Little Blue Ball

Facebook Twitter Email