Tracy Hicks, whose work was paired by the DMA with works by Damien Hirst in a 1994 exhibition, died Friday in North Carolina of a heart attack. Hicks grew up in Dallas and lived here until moving to Atlanta in 2010 with his wife, Dallas Morning News journalist and playwright Victoria Loe Hicks. The couple had recently built a home in North Carolina. (“We carved this house and studio site out of the forest” — as he writes in his website.)
Much of Hicks’ work was devoted to the intersection of art and science, particularly his installations. A 2005 show in Lawrence, Kansas, was even titled “Two Cultures” — referring to C. P. Snow’s famous separation of science and art into ‘two cultures,’ a separation Hicks regularly bridged.
The Kansas installation displayed the artist’s love of rare and beautiful animal specimens preserved in jars. It was made of wooden shelves filled with colorfully-lit bottles, each holding casts of extinct or endangered frogs and toads from the collections of Kansas University’s Natural History Museum and Chicago’s Field Museum. In 1994, Hicks had traveled with a research team to Guatemala, became fascinated by amphibians and began breeding species that were threatened with mass extinction. So in addition to science and art, “Two Cultures” contained a large element of environmental advocacy. Hicks even developed a process to create the urethane casts without damaging the original, preserved specimens.
“Most people will never see the vault at a natural history museum,” Hicks told the Lawrence-Journal World. “It’s an awe-inspiring experience. You walk into that vault and see all those animals dead — preserved — and if you don’t know what it’s about, it’s sort of revolting. Then when you find out this is the only way we would have known about the animals that are gone, it becomes extremely important that we have a way of measuring that change.”
Hicks’ website is itself a tremendous collection of beautiful photos and videos of specimens, live animals and bottles — an online equivalent to his own studio. He appears in many, sometimes nude in his North Carolina studio or tramping through the woods or skinning a salamander.
It only made sense then that, in 2010, Hicks became a fellow in SARF. The Smithsonian’s Artist Research Fellowship program had been established three years earlier expressly to bring together Smithsonian scientific experts and “outstanding visual artists.” Other artists that year included Sonya Clark, known for her work with hand-made fibers and human hair, and Joseph Gerhardt, whose work with his partner Ruth Jarman as the duo Semiconductor uses video and computer animation to explore the natural world.
Hicks had initially trained as a goldsmith, became a commercial photographer and then moved into his own brand of installations. In Dallas, his work was shown in solo shows at the Conduit Gallery, Brookhaven College, the African-American Museum, the McKinney Avenue Contemporary and Valley House Gallery. The DMA purchased one of his works for its permanent collection and he also collaborated on a photo archive of Houston’s Third Ward for Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses (below).
These are the last lines in Michael Granberry’s obituary in the Dallas Morning News: “His wife suggests that anyone wishing to honor Hicks purchase a piece of Texas art. The family plans a Dallas memorial service in the coming months.”