The famous Mobile resident that may leave some Mobilians saying "who?"
An APR News Feature
When artists create a painting or sculpture to honor someone, the subject is often someone who’s famous. That may not be the case with a new artwork in Mobile. It’s about a scientist who’s arguably the most famous Mobile resident that most other Mobilians may not know about. The four-story-tall work of art is about biologist E.O. Wilson. Our story with the local artist who’s working to immortalize Wilson with a mural.
This guy is here under our noses and nobody really knows it. People walk by and ask who's he? I explain it and they're like, oh wow, he's from Mobile,” said artist Andy Scott who painted the mural of EO Wilson.
He projected the image on the wall and traced it at night. Then he painted it in during the day.
“Some people asked why are you painting big ants?” he said. “There were other people who were big fans of him and his work. They were excited to see a large-scale tribute to him. There was a mix of I don't know who he is or I'm a super fan of him.”
And, a painting of E.O. Wilson without ants might be missing the point. A quick check of his resume explains why. Wilson discovered the country’s first colony of fire ants almost 80 years ago in Mobile. He was just 13 years old. Wilson later founded the science specialty called myrmecology, or the study of ants. He also discovered dozens of new species of the little bugs.
“The great thing about growing up in Old Mobile was the natural history around Mobile that was available to me,” said Wilson in this recording of the PBS Documentary “Of Ants and Men.”
“In a few minutes I could hop on my bike or be at the Mobile docks or the causeway,” Wilson said during the program. “I wish every kid could experience environments and natural history the way I did."
If Wilson’s groundbreaking work with ants wasn’t enough, he also coined the terms biodiversity and sociobiology and won two Pulitzer Prizes. Wilson was named one of the 25 most influential personalities in America by Time magazine. He won the National Medal of Science, and his portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Wilson traveled the world researching ants. He discovered they communicate with smells and can walk underwater. Wilson said everything goes back to his discovery of fire ants which he called “find of a lifetime.”
“It is fortunate for Alabama that Ed is one of its sons,” naturalist Bill Finch said.
Wilson’s initials E.O. are short for Edward Osborne. That’s why Finch calls him by the nickname Ed. Finch spent his career teaching about the richness of nature on the Gulf Coast. Finch now works with the E.O. Wilson Foundation to address conservation issues in Alabama.
“There is the landscape and there is the biodiversity and there are human tribes as well, but it is hard for the rest of the world to look past football and our history of injustice to see that. I think Ed can help and has helped to overcome that,” Finch said.
When Finch was director of the Mobile Botanical Gardens, he and Wilson once sat in Finch’s car sketching out how to preserve Alabama's biodiversity. Together they created the Alabama River Diversity Network to protect the Alabama River basin. Finch said if you don’t protect the land around the Delta, you can't protect the Delta.
“If you don't protect the river that comes into the Delta, you haven't protected the Delta” Finch said. “I think our project is about understanding the larger connection between the land and the rivers and what makes it diverse and the humans who live there. There's always been a really big human presence.”
Ecotourism is also beginning to grow in Mobile. Environmental journalist Ben Raines gives boat tours into the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Raines took Wilson out on several boat rides. Wilson said Mobile’s Delta is as little explored as the wilds of Borneo.
“I ended up getting to take him quite a few times,” Raines said. “He believes he found a new species of ant on one of our trips. It was fun to see. He was in his early eighties, maybe his late seventies. He was still spry. He could get around and he was like a kid running through the swamps. He was so excited about everything we saw and he was calling out the Latin names of, of all sorts of things.”
Raines said Wilson was also into dragonflies and butterflies and keeps a net with him to catch them.
“Seeing Alabama through his eyes. He said something to me in one of our first trips out on the Delta,” said Raines. “I've traveled all over the world and I've been to some of the most exotic and remote places you can find. And it turns out, you know, the most magnificent at all was right here where I started in, in this Delta in Alabama.”
The mural dedicated to E.O. Wilson is on the Athelstan Club building on St. Francis Street. The Mobile Arts Council, the Downtown Mobile Alliance and other community partners sponsored the work as a way to celebrate the life and work of the 91- year-old scientist. In addition to Andy Scott’s art work, the new science building at the Alabama School of Math and Science will be named in honor of Wilson.