There have been three projects in the body of work The Language of Watching so far. The first was in July 2015 at Constellation studios in Lincoln, Nebraska during which I launched The Survey, FLOCK and created the artist's book A Survey of Popular Birds & Their Behaviors. The next cycle came later that fall when students in my 2D Foundations course at Rollins College elected to join the project and expanded FLOCK for an exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. And this October, students at Lawrence University joined Mass Migrations by birdwatching, filling out surveys and collaborating on a new artist's book edition supported by the Paper Fox Printmaking Workshop. The process for this third cycle of the project was based on my experiences with the previous two, and included the group birdwatching excursion, discussion and reflection, and an examination of the 1932 publication The Book of Birds Volumes 1 & 2 to facilitate awareness of the ways in which humans impose our cultural and social norms, biases and stereotypes on bird behaviors through anthropomorphized descriptions.
A BIT OF BACKGROUND
My art practice have evolved over the years, gradually moving away from a solitary studio experience (a common model in graduate school) towards inclusivity and interaction with communities. I am interested in creating opportunities where viewers can become active collaborators, breaking out of traditional roles as passive consumers of art.
My current focus has been on creating print and book-based works through shared experiences and collaboration. The work that my collaborators and I make together are vehicles for generating awareness, both of ourselves and our place in the larger context of the natural world. In past projects, my topics have included ecotourism, marine pollution and global warming. Most recently, however, I have turned to the topic of bird behaviors and the culture of birdwatching through an ongoing project titled The Language of Watching . The ubiquitous nature of bird species makes a perfect topic to explore our connections with the natural world. In addition, the language of birdwatching field guides are reflective of our tendencies to characterize bird behaviors as we would human behaviors, with all of the social, cultural, and even political judgements that come with doing so. In this way, birdwatching has become a subculture that opens up dialogue about why we seem to identify animals as an extension of ourselves.
The Language of Watching always begins with an introduction to my practice and an overview of the project. Then we begin to share stories about birds. Sometimes we sit around a studio work table to talk and other times we might stroll down a tree-lined path, stopping along the way to identify the sources of birdsong we hear. At Lawrence, the local birder group loaned us several pairs of binoculars to share, so we headed outside for a walk along the Fox River. It was a cool and breezy day in October, and most trees still had vivid green leaves. Birdwatching is an exercise in mindfulness, in actually stopping to notice what is around you using both through sound & sight. Likewise, once we are back in the studio to work, the project extends that mindfulness towards thinking critically about birdwatching as a cultural pastime which leads to shared discoveries in printmaking.
After birdwatching, students were asked to read and choose illustration captions from The Book of Birds which seemed to read more as descriptions of human behaviors, not simply those of birds. After each student chose a caption (sometimes amused or incredulous at the barely hidden biases and stereotypes they found in the 1930's era language), others chose the best 6 captions to set with movable type. These would be featured in the final versions of the book. As they set type for the captions, I set a background for the book using type, ornaments and die cuts from Lawrence's letterpress collection. In addition, the students were also introduced to a photographic process called cyanotype, which we used to create covers for the books. The imagery we made for the covers included all things "bird,: i.e. talons, feathers, plants, trees, eggs and beaks.
Now I'll be working on assembling the edition, sending half of the edition of 20 back to Lawrence's Paper Fox Printmaking Workshop which supported my visit; the work will be included in their artist's book collection and copies will also be sold to support the program.
Yesterday I received a thank you note from the Lawrence students and their professor, my friend, Ben Rinehart. They thanked me for "sharing my expert art skills" & for helping them better understand my art practice. It was a sweet letter. And I have to say, the feelings are mutual. I learned a lot from our time together, too. Doing socially engaged work is a natural fusion of my teaching & studio practices. And paper Fox offered exactly the right kind of experience, at the right time, and really has helped solidify the direction for this work.