Everybody knows the red head, that conceited rural dandy...this phrase from Conceited Rural Dandies originated from The Book of Birds, Volumes 1 & 2," a 1932 National Geographic publication, and it was selected for inclusion in this work by student collaborators from Lawrence University during the Paper Fox Printmaking Workshop in October 2016.
In this artist’s book, text and image was paired and layered to help the viewer explore a bit about the cultural history of birdwatching. Through a vellum layer of field guide drawings and images of feather-filled Victorian hats, the viewer can read letterpress printed text, originally written to describe birds as virtuous, vain, responsible and even caring. The poem on the first page, which I composed for this book, imagines what stylish Edwardian dressers who gave up feathered hats for binoculars, may have been thinking about birds & their behaviors. It sets the stage for the borrowed captions which refer to parenting, narcissism and masculinity. The unique cyanotype covers in this edition of 15 was also a collaborative venture; participants created cut out shapes echoing birds and bird habitats, and the cyanotypes were a result of collaging these shapes together and then exposing the paper to light.
The project began with birdwatching along the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin, an activity which brought birds and birdwatching to the attention of the project participants, all undergraduates at Lawrence. In a larger sense, it was an excuse to go outside and think about the natural world for a while. As a symbol of nature, and as some of the most ubiquitous creatures on earth, birds are very accessible to humans. Their sometimes eerily familiar behaviors are very relatable, which makes it easy to connect with them. Since birdwatching began as a conservationist movement and hobby in the early 20th century, those who observe birds have anthropomorphized their behaviors in endlessly creative ways. In this artist’s book, the Book of Birds captions we included almost read like poems because they contain such a sincere desire to frame bird behaviors in human terms.
Though birdwatching—if one browses contemporary field guides—seems to have evolved into more of a competitive sport than these early soft-hearted musings about birds, today's birders still connect with birds in very personal ways. Why do birds still capture our admiration? Maybe we are the "conceited dandies" who judge bird behaviors as good or bad, helpful or villainous; we feel compelled by our own vanity to assess their survivalist behaviors by our social standards. Or maybe we just admire the freedom they have to fly away from the earth to which we are naturally tethered. Either way, as part of The Language of Watching project, this work encourage participants to see birds as an integral part of nature, and for a few moments out of our busy lives, re-examine our symbiotic relationship with nature.
To purchase a book from this edition of 15, please inquire with the artist at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These students collaborated with me on the production of Conceited Rural Dandies in 2015-2016.