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.