The workshop began yesterday with the arrival of Karen Kunc's 85 year old mother and three sisters. Many more arrived until at around 4:20 we had a critical mass. As they sat expectantly around plastic folding tables, I introduced my work, using images on my website and examples of the book pages I’ve printed so far. I explained the Migrations project and what I would like from them as participants. I made a point to ask for each person to fill out a survey about their favorite birds. And then we got started. As we worked, we talked about birds. I heard so many stories; about canoeing with loons in Michigan, Cowbirds laying their eggs in cardinal nests, seeing a Whooping Crane for the first time in a ditch by the side of rural highway, a young child’s love for owls, the excitement of seeing a Bald Eagle, looking for someone’s escaped parrot in their neighborhood, the sweet song of a Meadowlark, seeing a bush absolutely full of Cedar Waxwings or relating the tiny size of the Black Capped Chickadee. Participants made enough birds to fill both 18’ wires in the gallery. I imposed certain limitations on the project, only to provide some visual unity across what I anticipated would very diverse approaches to making the birds. I provided three ink colors, three paper colors, and pre-cut stencils to make plates. Despite these boundaries, an enormous amount of variety and creativity came pouring out of the group, from their choices to layer different colors together, blend colors on the same bird, create new patterns and even invent new bird forms. It was astounding. Just a quick glance at the birds reveals that they were made by many different minds and hands, each maker with different stories to tell about their interactions and relationships with birds. In a way, nothing has changed since the early years of the last century when the birth of birdwatching encouraged the general public to embrace birds as animals which were worth protecting because they were like us in so many ways, we could relate to them and value their lives because of how we perceived their behaviors as human. We seem to know them as our neighbors (some loved, some reviled); we notice when they do not arrive in their usual numbers or when their nests are invaded by cowbirds, jays or crows. Almost all of the surveys indicate that it was easy for participants to identify 3 favorite birds, and most identified a nuisance bird as well. Commonly identified as favorites were Sandhill Cranes, Cardinals, Black Capped Chickadees, Hummingbirds and Great Blue Herons. Comments about these choices seemed to indicate that favorites had “good” virtues not unlike our own: beauty, loyalty, good parenting, expressiveness or fearlessness; or they are perceived as being useful in some way, i.e. as farmers, insect eaters and hunters. Many participants named Bluejays, Crows, Starlings, Cowbirds and Grackles as birds they considered a nuisance, though many did not see any birds as a nuisance. Comments about nuisance birds revealed that it was mainly the birds’ behaviors that landed them in that category; i.e., large chicks who “refuse” to leave the nest; exhibiting noisy, aggressive or rude behaviors towards other birds or humans and those with poor hygiene a.k.a the mess makers. Interestingly, being a favorite bird had as much to do with the bird’s looks as it did with behavior, but being a nuisance bird was almost exclusively pinned on behavior, and the bird’s size, coloring or appearance in flight weren’t mentioned at all as a reason that they were disliked. One participant complained about the Turkey, but it was because eating it made them sleepy.
Mass Migrations is a socially engaged art project happening in July 2015 in Lincoln, Nebraska. During this time, I am the Artist in Residence at Constellation Studios, owned and operated by printmaker and UNL faculty member Karen Kunc. The project is still unfolding, and but currently is informed by my research into the social/political ramifications of bird representations in field guides and their problematic abstraction or de-contextualization of birds, the historical and current practices of birdwatching, and the relationships between birdwatchers and birds. I am conducting a survey of project participants’ attitudes towards birds as they help create a flock of abstract bird silhouettes through relief printmaking. The project will have multiple components including a small edition of a letterpress book based on “The Book of Birds” published in 1932 by National Geographic, a second artist’s book investigating the overlap of migration routes and pipeline maps and the collaborative community-created bird flock. For more images and information, please visit www.constellation-studios.net.