Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A trip to the Roger Tory Peterson Institute

This past June, when I drove up to Chautauqua to attend the opening for the 57th Annual Exhibition, I made a stop in Jamestown, New York to visit a place I'd never been to and only recently heard about - the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, named for the famous wildlife illustrator and native son of Jamestown. The Institute is part gallery, part educational resource, part research institution, and all a meaningful tribute to Peterson's commitment to observing wildlife.

Despite my obvious and long-term interest in birds, I hadn't known about this place until it was featured on a local radio program, the Allegheny Front, during a special bird-centric episode.

Inside the lobby of the Institute, with silhouettes modeled after the endpages in Peterson's Guides.

Roger Tory Peterson is probably best known for his Peterson bird guides, which were the first field guides developed for "non-experts." His system of identification which used lines to point out distinct field markings and the approachable, readable nature of the guides has made them favorites with bird lovers for half a century. The Institute houses some of his original drawings, and features a wonderful library of nature books and guides, a gallery, natural history displays, and lots of huge windows looking out into the woods for birdwatching whenever the urge strikes. (There are binoculars on every windowsill!) The story on Allegheny Front gives the Institute a thorough and wonderful review, so I won't repeat everything here, but wanted to share some photos I took and things I found particularly striking.

One of Peterson's original paintings. 

Original sketches from Peterson's notebooks.

A page of warblers in drawing form, and as seen in a Peterson Field Guide.

As one of my friends pointed out, if you've been looking at these guides for most of your life, it's easy to forget that every bird is an individual painting, each one done by Roger Tory Peterson. In person they are very lovely to look at - all crisply rendered and done with great care. As a lover of scientific illustration, it reminded me that drawings that exist for the primary purpose of conveying information can still be a pleasure to look at, and worth considering as legitimate artwork. Illustrators wield a wonderful power, in addition to creating works that serve as testaments to the amazing reward of looking closely: they define truth in a very specific way, a particularly important consideration at a time when books or illustrations (or the internet) weren't available to most people. I've always found that fascinating, as a child of the information age.

A display about Passenger Pigeons.
The last one, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo almost 100 years ago.

Drawing of a Northern Flicker

I was excited to read that an encounter with a Northern Flicker was one of the things that inspired Peterson's lifelong fascination with birds. It's one of my favorite birds too, even though it's fairly common. Maybe it's something about their unusual, non-woodpecker-like plumage, or the striking yellow on the underside of their wings, that attracts me so much.

It was a beautiful day to walk the nature trails.

I had never thought about the effort that went into producing these guides, or the legacy of wildlife appreciation and conservation that Peterson left behind, so I'm glad I got to visit the Institute to learn more about his work. And it turns out he's had a lasting impression on my work as well - I recently completed an installation for the Cataloguing Pattern show, made out of birds guides laser-cut into silhouettes. 

Mandala, 2014.

I hadn't thought about this when gathering materials for the installation in May, but I'd chosen Peterson guides because of the clear illustrations and the existence of many previous editions I could choose from. So, when I set everything up in the gallery, it seemed fitting to display an intact Peterson guide nearby for comparison. In some small way, I hope to reference the legacy of close observation that he's left behind for us.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Saying goodbye

I got some great news today - Aviary of the Mind, the drawing currently on display as part of the 57th Annual Exhibition at the Chautauqua Institution, was sold. I'm thrilled, although saying farewell to this work will be bittersweet for me. Not just because most of my previous sales have been prints, or to friends in the area that I see regularly, but because the work itself is about goodbyes.

I began work on this piece last fall, shortly after both of my grandmothers passed away within a month of each other. I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time around my grandparents growing up, and even though my grandmas' lives were full and long, their deaths were a profound loss for me. After my dad's mother, my Nanna, died, I inherited some of her art supplies, including a few mostly-blank sketchbooks with some tonal studies filling a few pages.

Later that summer I took a trip to Chicago and visited the amazing Field Museum, which is where I saw the case of warblers that's depicted in this drawing. I wasn't particularly interested in warblers at the time, but loved the aesthetic and composition of all the birds arranged in the display together. I was reminded of a model of memory I'd read about in a book - that one's mind is an aviary, and remembering is reaching into your aviary to pull out a bird. Sometimes you pull out a rock dove instead of a mourning dove.

Or, sometimes you pull out a mourning dove instead of a rock dove. I realized had found the visual portal to addressing my feelings about my grandmothers' deaths and my attempts to preserve the stories of their lives. I thought about the family history that my Nanna had written down so we would know about the family that came before us. I thought about the Alzheimer's that has obliterated the final years of grandparents on both sides of my family. I thought about David Eagleman's story from "SUM" (which I heard on this RadioLab episode) about true, final death being the last time someone on earth mentions your name or remembers who you are.

So I made an aviary, or at least a fixed, preserved snapshot of a taxidermized, preserved one. I collaged in bits of my Nanna's drawings and copies of her old photos, used her watercolors, followed the tips on color mixing I'd found tucked in with her palette of quinacridone reds.

I can't shake the feeling, though, that forgetting is inevitable, and the slow grinding of time will crush my own memories into dust. Some birds are unfinished, or faded, or completed based on a hunch since the photo is too grainy. Tags are blank. The photos depicted are copies of reprints (and how many times can I copy and xerox transfer and copy that before the image of my great great grandmother's face in the nest fades away?). After this exhibition is de-installed and this piece moves on to its new owner, I'm left with the photos and the memory of its creation. Maybe I can do it all over again - make an aviary of the memory of the aviary of the mind.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Cataloguing Pattern opens July 11 as part of Gallery Crawl

Preparations are underway to install work for the next show in which I'll have my work - Cataloguing Pattern, at SPACE Gallery in downtown Pittsburgh, organized by Kristen Letts Kovak. It opens July 11th as part of a city-wide gallery crawl, so if you're in the area, there will be a lot of excellent art and events to check out.

I'll be featuring some new mixed-media installations, as well as this drawing, Sometimes these things just happen:

Hope to see you there!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Address Book Bestiary mentioned in Trib-Review article

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ran a survey of this year's TRAF Juried Visual Art Exhibition, and my Address Book Bestiary was featured, along with the amazing work of my friend Kelly Blevins. Check out the article to read about the piece in my own words:

Arts Festival's juried exhibit shows richness of works

The show will be up at the Cultural Trust Education Center, 805-807 Liberty Ave, every day from noon to 8pm until June 15th. If you're in the area it's a terrific way to see the zeitgeist of our region's artists.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Put a bird on it

This month I had the pleasure of traveling to Powdermill Nature Reserve for an open house. We got a close look at bird banding and a specially-constructed flight tunnel to test out bird-safe window glass. (More photos here!) While talking to one of the staffers and explaining the prevalence of birds in my art, he joked, "Put a bird on it!" I think he instantly regretted the implication that he was trivializing my work by referencing a now-famous skit from the TV show Portlandia, and apologized profusely. Honestly, I thought it was hilarious, and very true. People are compelled by birds (even if they don't actually want them in close proximity), and I use them in my art not just because I like them, but because people seem to connect with them and therefore take an interest in what my pieces are saying. Up until that point, I had never really thought about why people like birds so much, beyond their obvious beauty, so I went digging for the origins of humanity's love of the avian class.

A female Magnolia warbler at Powdermill's bird banding lab. Photo courtesy Maria Mangano

It turns out that humans have been depicting birds in visual culture and using them as metaphors since we've been smearing paint on cold cave walls. Birds are symbols of motherhood and fertility. They are symbols of national identity. Birds are metaphors for the human soul. In classical music their songs are famously imitated - or outright inserted - as a metaphor for hopeful existence in a complex and troubling universe. Most notably, birds appear in myth as go-betweens of the spiritual and the human world, or as gods themselves: Horus and Thoth in Ancient Egypt; Quetzalcoatl in Mesoamerica; Athena in Ancient Greece; in omen-interpreting practices such as augury and haruspex, and in stories as messengers of the gods.

Ancient Geoglyph (earth art) of a hummingbird created by the Nazca people of Peru, ca. 400 - 650 CE.

Looking at the sum of visual culture, birds have been representing every stage and sphere of human life, from infancy to after death, since ancient times. They are probably the only type of animal that is found in every culture's art around the world. So ... we've been putting birds on things for a while and we still do it today. Why?

There are a few obvious reasons that come to mind - firstly, people find birds beautiful. Their colors, motions, voices, behaviors all enchant us. Also, birds exhibit behaviors that people find relatable - courtship, nesting, and raising young, and moreover, some do these things in relative proximity to and comfort with people, compared to more secretive animals. Some birds are smart, social, and even seem to like interacting with us. In a way we're also biologically attuned to noticing birds. Science is telling us more and more about how birds interpret their surroundings, but we know that they process the world primarily with the same senses people use - vision and hearing (as opposed to animals with incredible senses of smell and touch) - and because bird appearance and behavior are adapted to appeal to those senses, we notice them too. Notably, there is one attraction that is definitely aspirational - many birds fly, and that has probably interested even the earliest humans looking to transcend our earthbound existence.

Birds aren't the only type of animal in my work, although over the past few years they've become a greater and greater percentage of my subject matter. Now I tend to seek out bird resources in book stores, head straight for the bird hall at any natural history museum I visit, and derive a lot of inspiration from other artists, old and new, who use birds in their work.

John James Audubon, Gyrfalcon engraving in Birds of America.

One thing I love about birds is, like other natural objects, how much amazing detail is contained in their features when you take the time to look closely. Their bodies have an incredible level of physical complexity, and I find this particularly beautifully illustrated in the structure of feathers, which have such an intense and fractal degree of intricacy. The scale between the tiniest barb of a vulture's flight feather and the grand, dreadful arc of its enormous wing is, to me, a powerful allegory of a microcosm that is somehow more cosmically truthful and animal-centric than the historical idea of the human body as a model of the universe.

The conceptual arc of my work has also shifted to include birds more and more. I like to explore the intersection of nature with human culture, especially in the form of museums and academia, but I try to look for it everywhere. Just like how birds are in every culture's art, I've realized that birds are usually the most common and universal link all people have to wildlife, even those living in very urban settings. People may not be able to identify the tree next to their window, but nearly everyone in the world can recognize and name a few human-friendly bird species. The permanency of that connection, even with the degree of removal most people have from nature, is a way for me to connect with others through my work. Many birds are also indicator species - the health of bird populations can tell us a lot about the general health of an ecological system - so when I make work about extinction or human-influenced changes on the natural world, birds are a useful symbol for those repercussions.

Maria Mangano, Winter wren. Drypoint and engraving.

Ok, ok, Maria, you're saying. You like birds. But they're always dead. What's with the dead? Firstly, please allow me to call out anyone who has ever seen a dead bird and not wanted to take a better look at something they don't usually get to see up close. It's your chance to bridge a little of that people-nature gap. Of course you want to look! I reenact that connection every time I make work, hoping to generate a bit of the same pull on a viewer's soul.

It's not purely morbid fascination, though. Lately, as I've begun to make pieces that are more autobiographical and personal, and less commentary/reactive/purely observational, themes of mortality, memory, and frailty have become a larger part of my work. Perhaps because birds seem fragile or delicate and have traditionally served as messengers from or symbols of the supernatural, using them to explore death, tragedy, and the afterlife in a personal way has proved to be a powerful symbol. A less interesting but still important reason is that animals that aren't moving are much easier to draw - its stationary quality allows me to have a relationship with and investment in a subject that only close observation can give.

Maria Mangano, Sometimes these things just happen. Mixed media on paper.

It would be easy to just say that birds are my "spirit animal" and leave it at that, but their historical precedence as our connection to an existence beyond what we know, and their role in natural history as our constant subjects of study, from Audubon to Darwin's finches to the current problem of window-killed birds, has positioned them at the center of everything my work is about. Until something else comes along that captures my attention and my imagination in the same way, I'll keep putting birds on things.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Aviary of the Mind" to travel to Western New York State

I'm very excited to share that my mixed-media piece Aviary of the Mind was selected to be a part of the 57th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art, curated by Jerry Saltz, senior art critic at New York Magazine.

The show will be at the Strohl Art Center inside the Chautauqua Institution, and the opening is Sunday, June 22 from 3pm to 5pm. Admission to the grounds is free on Sundays, so check it out if you are in Western New York.

I'm excited to go to the opening and see Chautauqua again - I attended the school of visual art as a student in 2008 and returned the following summer to work as the Print Technician. The experience of re-centering my post-college life around my art and exposing myself to a wide range of disciplines to inform my work has influenced my practice ever since.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

'Locusts' opens at Sweetwater Center for the Art's 'Wild Things' show

Last Friday, Sweetwater Center for the Arts held a reception for their 'Wild Things' exhibition. My piece Locusts was in the show. Here it is next to Cynthia Shaffer's Twister & Yahtzee, made from the feathers of her pet pigeons.

Cynthia curated the exhibition and chose the location for my work - she wanted it crawling behind and up things like real insects!

 The exhibition features work by a wonderful and varied crew of artists in many media, including my friends Randie Snow and Kyle Ethan Fischer. Some unexpected stars of the show were real-life wild things brought in by the National Aviary, much to my surprise and delight! Here is an African Penguin:

And here's one of their Eurasian Eagle Owls, Gandalf. He was a little cranky so he got a nice chicken foot to munch on.

'Wild Things' will be up until June 21st, so check it out if you're in the area!