Of Birds and Art

Migration – moving from one place to another. A simple concept yet, depending on its application, the results can be quite different. The Red-winged Blackbird migrates, triggered by a southerly traveling sun, in order to find enough food to survive through Winter. It was an image of this bird in the Charles E. Burchfield painting Song of the Marsh that began a migration of sorts in my own destiny. Unwittingly, I started to turn from one direction to another triggered by the scene of this bird in its natural habitat.

In 2010, when beginning to pursue a masters degree focused on environmental education and research, I envisioned the end result would be to spend long hours in the wilderness conducting observational studies of packs of wolves or soaring raptors or elusive bobcats. These species have a difficult time of it due to the challenges of disappearing habitat, an uneducated populace and greedy industries which exploit wilderness for monetary gain and find predators an expendable nuisance. I dreamed of a life of research on top predators so to help convince the world of their importance to the health of our planet. It was only natural that my thesis would involve such work and plans were laid on how the research would be conducted.

Then there was this painting and this blackbird.  I was in awe of it for some reason, a quiet nagging in the back of my brain loud enough to get my attention but too muted to fully grasp the message. I like Red-winged Blackbirds, as I do all wild species. But they were not particularly special to me. They are a common sighting in the wet meadow that dominates the acre of land my house sits upon. And I do enjoy the “tick, tick, tick” sound they make as they fly over me while I tend the garden. And for fun, I sometimes respond back to the males calling “cock-a-lee” as they reconnoiter their territory, teasing them into thinking perhaps another male is trying to usurp his land or mate. But I tease the Cardinals, too, and the Chickadees, and babble along with the Finches, as well.  What was it about this Burchfield work that kept whispering to me? It would take another bird in another painting a year later to remove the muffler from that voice and begin my own migration.

This Spring, I am among the students registered for the course Foundations in Museum Education. We find ourselves fortunate as we meet for class in the Burchfield Penney Art Center. As part of our course obligations we get to work directly with the exhibits. This is how James Vullo’s Bird entered into my world, leaving me again awe-struck. There it was, this magnificent Crow-like avian wonder dominating the artist’s cubist rendering of a boreal forest. He captured my psyche and breath, swirling in and out of my thoughts for days.

Each morning as I drive into work, greetings are shared with whichever creatures catch my sight along the route. Most often they are birds and most common among them are the Crows. “Good morning, corvid. Have a wonderful day” is a common salute. And one morning during such an interchange, the veil was stripped away and the impact of the Burchfield and the Vullo works came to me full force. These paintings are instruments of science and education – they can serve far beyond décor or esthetic pleasure. They can help teach the science of ecosystems to each and every person who looks at them. What a beautiful and meaningful way to share the intricacies of nature through the eyes of artists inspired by its wonders.

And so the migration from predator research to inspired education is in process as I begin my thesis work. Instead of sitting for hours alone in the wild hoping for glimpses of a wolf or hawk in order to note each and every behavior, I will take a different route, such as that done by Roger Tory Peterson. I will use the beauty of art and illustration to show how they can enlighten and inspire others on the sciences that encompass our natural world.

I have not abandoned the predators, however. Remember migration is a two-way behavior. One eventually returns again to home base. Just as everything else in nature, the migratory path is cyclical – one continuous trail with infinite stops along the way.

Mary Jo Graham
AED604 - Foundations of Museum Education