Why I Paint Birds (Or How I Feel about Portraiture)December 14, 2018
People have all sorts of involved, ecological, and philosophical reasons for drawing and painting birds. Years ago, participating in a group show of nature art I was faced with writing an artist’s statement about why I paint birds. I thought long and hard. I was an outlier at the show because all my bird paintings depicted what ecologists call invasive species. I wrote something about being an urban girl, being an observer, being interested in nature in unlikely places. But that doesn’t quite cover it.
Basically I simply love birds. I find birds beautiful. I find that even stationary, even leg bound, they float because of the nature of, and the promise enclosed in, feathers.
Ultimately I paint birds because wherever I have traveled there have been birds as subjects for me to sketch. My favorites have always been the scruffy urban birds, the pigeons and the gulls —the chancers, the immigrants, the survivors, the individuals.
It’s why my bird paintings are portraits and not full taxonomic renderings. In most instances I’m not interested in the body, the feet, the environment—I’m interested in the individual, and you know an individual by looking him in the eye.
What we desire, whether it is connection with other, relation through the examination of shape and value, the visceral understanding of form in space, or absorption in beauty, as artists our predilections come out in our art. The viewer might not understand what it is they are seeing in exactly the way we intend it, we can but try.
As I type this in my studio I look up and see eleven of my bird paintings hanging around me. One is sleeping, eyes shut. Let’s leave him undisturbed, he needs his rest.
But the other ten birds regard me, with unembarrassed, unrelenting, steady, and unwavering gaze—a gaze which follows me wherever I go in the room. (A little something I call alternately “the eye of god” or “the gaze of Christ.” Something I learned from all those childhood visits to museums where along with all the secular art hung centuries of western Christian art—it didn’t matter where you dodged in the halls, the gaze of Christ was always on you.)
The act of seeing and acknowledging is one of the most profound activities humans get to engage in. It’s what helps us achieve connection. It’s what holds us to our humanity because in acknowledging the gaze of another we are forced to look at ourselves in relation to that other. From there it’s just a step towards the issues of ethics which bind and form us, creating the basis for an examined life, and the politics of life demanding a decision on how we want to “be” in the world. A gaze which ultimately has the power to call us to action.
Yep, just some birds I met upon the way.