This thesis is a written (& illustrated) report on the ideas which have inspired my artwork. The work itself is a confluence of articulated spiritual visions, serendipitous discoveries and deliberate selections based on powerful, transcendent encounters between myself and birds. The purpose of this thesis report is to explain and explore the effect of powerful bird encounters, and the different ways they are manifested in the body of artwork in this thesis exhibition.
Special thanks to Carl Billingsley for his fire and brimstone and Catherine Billingsley for being the other over-organized graduate student. I am deeply grateful to Sharon Pruitt, my professor and friend, for opening my eyes to Africa. Thanks to Maria Modlin for her technical wizardry, and Patricia Olynyk for her confidence. Thanks to Francisco Souto for his courage in supporting personal creativity, and to Michael Ehlbeck for finally asking "why?"
Thanks to, Jathar Salij, for his sensitive translation of
my Parisian post card. What ever would Madame Poulette think?
I dedicate this thesis report to the love of my life, my greatest supporter, best friend, partner and husband, John Antoine Labadie. It took us three years and thirty thousand miles to graduate. Thank you, John Antoine, for your dedication to me and my work - which is - our work.
It's Friday, forever!
The artwork in this thesis exhibition is a confluence of articulated spiritual visions, serendipitous discoveries, and deliberate selections. The spiritual visions are powerful, transcendent encounters between myself and wild birds. These visions have occurred over a period of years, creating a synchronicity of mind and spirit that inextricably links artist and bird. This numinous bond has opened significant avenues for personal experiments in visual expression -- provoking combinations of heretofore unconnected ideas into collage imagery. Discoveries and selections of the hundreds of collected 'source' images and found objects have evolved from gathered materials merely grouped by subject, to finished works filled with convergent themes.
These visual distillations of convergent avian and non-avian themes form complex, yet discernable, personal metaphorical symbols. These symbols express ideas and respond to certain world situations and local realities. Underlying this symbol system, and included in this thesis, are examples of historical connections between people and birds. These examples are used to expand the reader's knowledge of the subject and to put into perspective the images depicted. Original poetry is employed to express the specific events and the artist's personal encounters with birds. More specifically, the focus of this thesis is to explain the effect of powerful bird encounters, and the different ways they are manifested in the body of my artwork.
Physical processes are essential to bringing forth ideas. The more one understands process, the more successful the work will hopefully be. But processes are only vehicles used to assist the artist in the expression of ideas. In readings from the history of collage from Picasso and Schwitters to Rauschenberg and Cornell, I have come to believe that sometimes the making of a work may be planned from beginning to end. An image may be made in more than one form, changing according to the needs of the work, but a primary goal in making collage art is to allow the imagery to transcend the process and speak to the viewer. After inventing many collage techniques, Max Ernst believed that "collage amounted to a bewitching of either reason, taste, or the will" and that, "in effect, it could produce a photograph on paper of the amazing graphic appearances of thoughts and desires (Janis and Blesh 1967, 107). It is in this spirit that my work proceeds.
In order to form a complete idea in making artwork, the deliberate gathering of what might be seemingly unrelated parts and pieces, whether physical or metaphorical, is necessary. Believing this, a continuous search is always underway for items that are both deeply meaningful and also visually interesting. To fulfill my significant artistic and personal goals, the work must be a seamless combination of processes shifting between digital and non-digital techniques and technologies. Melded together are original digital and traditional photographs, with digitally scanned or hand drawn objects. The artworks produced include digital prints, traditional lithographs, etchings, linoleum cuts and three-dimensional assemblages.
The following descriptions illustrate the combination of processes, techniques, and technologies included in my MFA Thesis. They include Loop Chicken, War Phase II, and Paris 1916.
In Loop Chicken (Plate 1) 35 mm photography, digital scanning and manipulation, linocut, collagraph, and etching are combined. This work began as a color 35mm slide of a chicken. The slide was scanned, digitally manipulated, and enlarged. The image was then transferred to linoleum, hand cut, and printed on Japanese paper. Next, a swirling background texture was printed on BFK Rives paper from a gauze covered collagraph plate. The printed linoleum chicken image was trimmed and chine colé'd (a technique to adhere paper to paper using a press) to the BFK Rives textured image. After drying, the chicken's head was hand colored using red acrylic paint. In a final version, a zinc plate received a hand-drawn image of chicken wire which was etched in a Nitric acid and water bath. Finally, the chicken wire image was traditionally printed in blue ink on top of the combined linocut and collagraph.
In War, Phase II, (Plate 2) 35 mm photography, digital scanning, and etching were combined. This piece is made from a scanned three-dimensional wishbone and a scanned 35 mm slide showing the attacking claws of a red tail hawk. The two digitally manipulated images were transferred to a zinc plate using Imagon, a non-toxic, photo intaglio process. The zinc plate was etched in a Nitric acid bath and printed traditionally on Japanese paper.
Paris 1916 (Plate 3) combined assemblage and déchirage, a torn paper collage technique invented by Ernst around 1919. It also included all of the processes described above in Loop Chicken and War Phase II (Janis and Blesh 1967, 107). Found objects in the work included part of a baby cradle, chicken eggs, a puzzle piece and an old photograph. I tore up prints from the editions of War, Phase II and Loop Chicken and attached them with methylcellulose to the surfaces of the objects and plywood backing board. The three dimensional assemblage is encased in a painted wood and glass covered shadow box.
Once again, in executing these artworks, many printmaking processes and various techniques were used. They included assemblage, collage, déchirage, digital scanning and image manipulation, etching, lithography, linoleum cut, collagraph, and photography. As mentioned, these are the processes. The imagery comes from elsewhere.
It is important that the origins of my artistic background be made clear. For the record: I am the daughter of two scientist-teachers. The chemist taught me stone and fossil, dissection, and diversity. The botanist taught me plant and pattern, selection, and species. At a very young age, my sense of empirical knowledge began to outweigh "faith-based" knowledge, which was taught to me in parochial school, as well as by my parents. Disillusionment with structured religious belief systems grew, and I decided to believe in what I could see and feel: the physical, wondrous, natural world.
My understanding of birds and other species has grown through
scientific, political and artistic exploration of the natural
world. During a lifetime of observing, studying, and subsequently
fighting for the environment, I spent a dozen years in political
activism in Washington D.C. Five of those years on the board
of directors of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Environmental Education
and nine years taking artists to illustrate and photograph species
in the endangered rain forests of Central and South America.
Life energy is a sentient force, easily recognizable, and reliably present. It can be explained in a number of ways. Life energy moves through one's senses. It is the redolent fragrance of a rose and the ethereal song of a wren. Life energy is the uplifting sensation upon the sight of a gem-like dawn. It is the seductive taste of honey. And life energy is felt in the indescribable, yet understandable, touch of a sensitive lover.
In creative activities, life energy is analogous to the "pulsing" of energy that an artist feels when she or he gets "into a zone" or "finds her or his muse." One can experience this energy alone or in the company of others.
From a heuristic point of view, a vivid example of life energy is the spark of life seen in the eyes of living creatures. Some, who have witnessed the death of a beloved pet or person they know, often suggest they have seen the spirit leave the body; that the "sparkle" has perceptibly left the eyes. This "sparkle" is the life energy, which flows and connects us with the natural world. It is distinctly separate from the built-environment. Life energy binds us together with all living things, as part of a larger, living universe; it flows in all of us. Life energy is a tappable resource of which one can become aware.
In general, if one chooses to be open to it and feel its presence, I believe that one can become aware of the life energy of a place, a human, or an animal. Observing the vastly powerful, natural world is an essential activity in my life. But the encounters I have experienced since coming to graduate school are new; uniquely unprecedented in my life. Instead of gaining understanding by direct observation of the natural world, I have gained insight through direct communications with birds. Simply put, much of my imagery is bird-related because I communicate with birds; they are my guides and advisors.
Initially, what allowed my communications with birds was gaining the awareness that, in my daily life, I could tune into the observable flow of the life energy of birds. But what happened subsequently, is that birds pursued me, tuned into my life energy and brought me inspiration. As a result, I have begun to visually express myself in new ways. In other words, this energy that flowed from birds to me now flows through me in my artwork. My collective experiences in this regard have brought me to a newfound level of creative productivity, with birds as my spiritual guides.
The history of humankind is riddled with relationships between people and birds that cross all cultural boundaries and span thousands of years. From the first, the ability of birds to fly and to seemingly disappear into the sky has fascinated humans. Folklore has evolved from observation. Birds such as vultures carry the souls of the dead to heaven while storks bring new babies. Birds returning from migration foretell the changing of the seasons and predict weather. In some cultures the traits of birds are so well understood that the depiction of the animal is enough to impart a message. Birds are common visual metaphors.
Birds are well known in prophecy, magic, myth and fable in
cultures worldwide. From the 13th century, Tales of Arabian Nights
tells the story of Sinbad the Sailor who encounters an island,
which turns out to be an egg of the giant Roc bird (Armstrong
1975, 93). The mythical caladrius, also of the 13th century,
appeared in drawings as the auger of health or death (Armstrong
Throughout all of Oceania colorful feathers have historically
been highly prized and often woven into mosaic panels. Feathers
of "Lemon, pink, scarlet, violet, black, orange and white
may all merge in a superb mélange, imaginative and wildly
dynamic" (Armstrong 1975, 157). In the past, feathers were
made into impressive capes worn by royalty on the Hawaiian Islands
(Wardell 1994, 9-10) and in New Zealand feather cloaks were worn
by dignitaries (Armstrong 1975, 161). In Melanesia, bird skulls
and beaks were incorporated into sculpture while along the coast
of New Guinea feathers became parts of large headdresses (Wardell
In Africa the Edo people of Benin believe in the power of deities, including the goddess Osun. Osun specialists can transform raw materials of the forest, such as herbs, into instruments of power. Masks or brass heads of Osun always include birds. "The Edo believe that evil witches, azen, send out vicious night birds to take the life-force of victims and transform their souls into passive animals, such as goat or antelope, so they can devour them. Because of his knowledge of the forest, an Osun specialist shares the same powers as the azen, but he uses them toward good ends" (Ben-Amos 1995, 73).
Looking elsewhere in Africa, historically in waging war and
for military display, the Zulu and Massai decked their heads
with ostrich feathers (Armstrong 1975, 162). In Egypt, the history
of combating desert heat was told through feathers. It appears
the first royal air conditioning was discovered when two large
feather fans with long handles were found in the tomb of King
In Guatemala, the feathers of the resplendent Quetzal are
iridescent and the tail feathers extremely long. This secretive
bird lives high in the cloud forests above 6000 feet above sea
level. The ancient Maya used the Quetzal feathers in royal garb.
In trade they were considered both divine and precious. The Mayan
people depicted warriors and elite personages wearing Quetzal
plumes on ceramics and in carvings at archeological sites throughout
what are now the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and
Norse countries have their share of bird related deities. Swans are linked with thunder gods. According to tradition, a swan's eggs will only hatch during a thunderstorm, and then only when lightening strikes the shell. If a swan stretches its head and neck over its wings, a thunderstorm is brewing (Strömsborg 2003).
A utilitarian function associated with luxury, beds stuffed with eiderdown may be the warmest, yet most expensive bedding in the world.
In South America, the Peruvian condor carries important religious significance for the Qeuchua people and their spiritual universe. And while its meaning is obscure, one of the largest depictions of a bird is of one of the smallest birds in the world. One of the manmade Nazca line images in the Peruvian desert is a huge picture of a hummingbird.
Native Americans of North America wear elaborate feathered headdresses and carved bird masks. In waging war and in ceremony, oral histories of peoples and their relationships with animals are passed down in song and depicted in dance. The feathers of various birds are essential in such ritual activities. The various Pueblo peoples, e.g., Hopi, Zuni, Keres, Tewas, Tiwas, and Towas, have religious ceremonies that are the center of their cultural lives. Birds are seen as spiritual messengers and are completely integrated into the traditions of these Native American communities. More than one hundred species of birds are essential to parts of the Pueblo culture. Birds mark the passing of the seasons. They are considered to have valuable spiritual properties needed by members of the Pueblos (USGCRP 2003). The presentation of feathers from particular birds is required when fulfilling such tasks as building a room or planting a field. These feathers become counters that keep a complex symbol system in order (Tyler 1979, xi-xii).
Birds as spiritual messengers are common to many cultures; they are neither unusual nor are they isolated to a particular place and time historically. A tiny part of this history now includes this artist. I find it thrilling that what started as simple communications with birds has grown steadily into varied and complex, emotionally charged encounters. In these human-avian communications, I feel a strong (and sometimes seemingly perfect) sense of mutual understanding and heightened awareness. Pleasant, vocalized greetings between me and a variety of songbirds have become an everyday occurrence in the last few years. But much more powerful exchanges have taken place with large birds - birds associated with day and night, air and water. In such enlightening encounters, I am a listener, enveloped in an experience, cognizant of a deep spiritual linking. The crossover from observation to personal interaction with wild animals has been both strange and wonderful. I do not consider such experiences to be unnatural or supernatural but perhaps more deeply natural and in tune with the life energy I have referenced herein. The regular and repetitive nature of my encounters with birds has heightened my already acute awareness of our strong connection. I now live in a state of heightened awareness that has become a significant part of my artistic consciousness.
My artwork is informed by birds. It is the outward, visible expression of both the events that have inspired me and the visual themes defined and inspired by the events. Images such as Marge and the Heron (Plate 4) and Ostrich Moon (Plate 5) depict specific, real life events. Whereas, Transformation in the Heron Feet Forest (Plate 6) represents the impact an encounter with a blue heron had on me. Uncaged (Plate 7) and What's On Your Hat? (Plate 8) express the remarkable beauty of birds and make social commentary on humans' use of birds throughout history. The pieces grouped under the name War Love Letter Series incorporate bird imagery as metaphor to express my feelings about human tragedies such as war and the separation it causes.
Part of my artistic growth has been a movement from a subconscious to a conscious use of bird imagery in my work. But why focus on birds? Part of the answer to that question became evident to me while working on a piece inspired by the events of September 11, 2001.
The Manhattan Project (Plate 9) began on September
12 and ended on November 28, 2001. The theme was flight: objects
flying in space - up, down, and out of control. The colors: black
for hate, red for blood, on a stark white background. On the
day of 9-11, I could not contact my brother who works for the
Department of Defense, at times in the Pentagon. Eventually,
I did get a two-word email, "I'm fine." As I reacted
to the events of that day, the arduous process of my Manhattan
Project continued day and night, for almost three months. While
I was passionate about the piece, the pain, and fear of reliving
the day, made it seem a task without end.
In my observations of these birds, I saw that some species, and even individual birds within a species, would not easily come to the porch until I spoke directly with them. Before long I began to understand the personalities of the local birds. The changing of seasons brought unfamiliar visitors like migrating rose-breasted grosbeaks who would, with a little coaxing, come down to the porch from the surrounding trees.
Nearly three months had passed when The Manhattan Project was finally completed - after midnight on November 28th. Feeling mentally liberated from the pain of the piece, my energy level that night was at a peak. I kept working at the computer and within an hour produced two more works. The first, called Bounce, was a physical exercise in mouse-freedom from the tight manipulation that the Manhattan Project had required. The second piece, Feather, Blue and Amber, was the essence of feather, a study in bright, complementary colors that provided a release from the blood red, sadness of Manhattan Project.
Feather, Blue and Amber (Plate 10) evolved from my subconscious. The evolution was similar to hundreds of doodled feathers I sketched over the years. But this sketch was no longer tucked away in an old journal, nor filed with old lecture notes, or stored away in the pages of conference materials. Wholly formed as an image on my computer screen, this skeletal feather leapt from my subconscious as the first image of a greater awakening. This new insight inspired me to incorporate feather imagery in the piece entitled Reticulation and Feather (Plate 11).
The processes used to produce Reticulation and Feather
were straightforward. Using distilled water, tusche (pronounced
'toosh' - a pigment which is suspended in the water) was puddled
on an aluminum lithography plate. With a lot of patience, reticulated
patterns formed as the water slowly dried. Through traditional
lithographic processes, the image was printed, and then digitally
scanned. The reticulation pattern was combined with a scanned
drawing of a feather. The feather, made into a repeated pattern,
falls through and disappears into the reticulation. Finally an
actual feather was scanned, and with great effort, made to appear
as though floating in front of the work. The entire finished
piece is digitally printed. I was extremely pleased with the
results, and at the same time, worried.
My first powerful encounters with birds occurred the day of the final critique of my digital work. I describe the day in the following poem, in which the questions asked of me in critique were as bewildering for me as the answers I must have given. Herein lies the answer to "Why birds?"
This poem describes the very powerful, and enlightening encounters of that day. Similar events have occurred on critique days since then: red tail hawk in the morning, owl at night. Bald eagles have marked the first and last days of nearly every semester, by either hovering over me, or appearing nearby, filling me with renewed hope and energy.
The most powerful encounter to date is one with a blue heron. Driving down a back road in North Carolina, my husband saw a bird lying next to the road. We stopped and I asked him to photograph it for me. For scale, I wanted a picture of me holding its wings open. But the juvenile great blue heron had just been hit by a vehicle. Upon touching the bird, I felt the spirit of the bird leave the heron's body. The following poems describe the encounter with the great blue and the making of a self-portrait, inspired by the experience.
These poems describe the encounters and feelings behind creating the artwork. I describe the themes and imagery within the work less poetically. As referenced earlier, the Pueblo peoples give significant and unambiguous meaning to feathers by species and type of feather (e.g. wing, tail, etc.) This complex symbol system allows instantaneous visual understanding of such things as what ceremony will take place by noting the feathers worn by a participant.
Conversely, my artwork gains meaning through the depictions of combinations of symbols and themes. These are loosely grouped into the themes found in this thesis. Individual works are each listed below with an accompanying description.
"War, love, and separation" are grouped as one theme in my work. Compelled by a strong objection to the current war in Iraq, I reach back in time, to other wars, and remember the unnecessary family divisions war causes. Not much has changed in this century from wars of the past. Soldiers are still separated from loving families; couples anticipate each moment for news of each other.
One of two triptychs in my thesis show, War, Phase II; Surrender, Phase II (Plate 12) and Rebirth, Phase II, illustrates the larger concepts of war, love and separation using bird symbols as metaphor. "Bird talons" for instance, represent imminent attack, as well as strength. When turned upside down, talons represent ultimate surrender. The "wishbone" is used as a symbol of hope and dreams for the future. In this case these hopes are about to be dashed by the talons of war. The wishbone is also a symbol of separation, for the bone must be broken for one to get his wish. The theme of war, love, and separation serves additionally as a metaphor of my time in graduate school and my separation from my husband.
A second triptych, War Love Letter, Phase III, (Plate 13) Surrender and Lover Letter, Phase III, Rebirth and Love Letter, Phase III, also illustrates the concepts of war love and separation, but uses handwriting to bring it to a human level.
The image made of the writing from a post card that was sent between two lovers during World War I becomes a theme as well. The urgent, stylized script infuses a human factor into the artwork that physically eclipses the imagery of War, Phase II; Surrender, Phase II; and Rebirth, Phase II.
Handwriting was employed extensively in many of the artworks. How desperate words are in war. Communication is sporadic and urgent; each letter can be the last words between two lovers. Examples of the various media in which the handwriting is used include the digital background of War Post Card (Plate 14), as a lithograph in War Love Letter (Plate 15) and as part of the etching of War Love Letter , Phase III.
When I purchased the postcard at a flea market in France, I could not read most of the French. But I was sure of one word: "Poulette" which means "chicken." Learning the actual meaning of the card in English was particularly satisfying because it fit both visually and metaphorically within the themes of war, love and separation.
The image on the front of the postcard became the central focus of two works in my thesis show, What's on your Hat? and Uncaged. Scans of the front and back of postcard are shown in Plates 16 and 17.
The front of the post card has two parts. The handwritten
The message on the back of the card translates as follows:
In my work, "feathers" symbolize flight and flight from fear. The feather is the quill pen. It is both communication, and the passing of words into history. Feathers carry desperate messages, just as carrier pigeons once did during war. The use of the feather quill for writing goes back many centuries and through many wars. In three pieces, each called War Love Letter (Plate 18), printed feathers, sewn on to the prints, carry off parts of messages, metaphorically taking words to flight.
"Eggs" symbolize many things in my work. In Paris 1916, broken eggs symbolize death and destruction of civilization vis a vis crumbled architecture. While in Love, In War, (Plate 19) the ostrich egg carries hopeful, yet secret, handwritten messages.
"Chicken wire" imagery speaks of separation and entrapment. While "military and non-military decoration" such as medals and ribbons, are symbols of chivalry, bravery, valor, and enlightenment. Many of these objects contain feather and bird imagery. These include the plumed knight in Ostrich Moon, and the winged, gold bird carrying a musical note in What's on your hat?
Religious symbols are used sporadically throughout the work. They address the theme of "religious devotion." The rosary beads in Ostrich Moon help viewers send prayers for the thousands of ostriches who were slaughtered to embellish knight's helmets and queen's hats.
Domestication and exploitation of birds by man is an underlying theme throughout this thesis work. The imagery addresses the uses man has made of birds, for both practical and frivolous purposes. The issue of birds as food is illustrated in Chicken Magnifique. (Plate 20) The beauty of the bird itself is meant to outshine the commodification of chicken as food. A gorgeous, golden bird is collaged with a mercantile receipt from 1885 which reveals a purchase of twenty-one dozen eggs at eighteen cents per dozen. The viewer can metaphorically make the leap to any American grocery store to see that the merchanidizing of eggs has changed from a small farm commodity to a multi-million dollar industry.
In Ostrich Moon the bird finally gets its revenge by mooning the viewer. Displaying its rump in a grand flourish, this work lets the ostrich comment on the knight (which also acts as a moon in the piece) whose helmet is adorned with ostrich feathers.
Another overarching theme in this thesis is the time period at the "turn of the Twentieth Century." The palette is rich in muted reds, violets, golds and browns that make digital images like Uncaged appear as hand-colored photos and the etchings such as War, Phase II appear worn with age. Collected antiques such as romantic photographs, wedding lace, chic-looking cigarette packs and imported cigar boxes are incorporated into the works. They are blended with depictions of far off lands and exotic images such as desert pyramids, Egyptian gods and British explorers. These kinds of images appear in both What's on your hat? and Sarah Cigarettes. In Joan of Arc Box, a Canaria d'Oro (golden canary) cigar box is used. This demonstrates yet another way in which man has employed birds - as a marketing vehicle. Here birds are used to suggest fine quality.
What's on your hat? specifically recalls a time when smoking was truly chic and colonial conquest of Africa and the Middle East was mysterious and full of intrigue. It was a time in the United States and Europe when tens of thousands of wild birds were slaughtered for ornamentation on fashionable lady's hats. Many of these bird species never recovered. Cigarettes are still sold with illustrations of pyramids and palm trees suggesting far off exploration and treasure.
In writing this thesis, I was asked to explain, "Why Birds?" A lifelong fascination with birds started me down this path of exploration. Source materials were gathered like so many feathers in a pillow. My first prints only hinted at deeper meaning. A background study of collage in its progression through the 20th century served as technical knowledge; as did research into the interactions between people and birds. But my unique and spiritually powerful interactions with birds that brought me to this point. These encounters heightened my awareness and also compelled me to collect certain objects in my path. Old ideas connected and hatched into fully realized imagery. This thesis work is the evidence that a clarification of personal themes and symbols, formed of disparate parts, has evolved into a flock of finished works. I believe my thesis work is only the beginning of my journey as a documenter of birds, a feather printer, and a student of winged messengers.
Adjunct Professor, Art Department
Researcher, Center for Sponsored Research and Programs
Coordinator, Digital Academy
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Box 1510, Art Department
Pembroke NC 28372