STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
New and old worlds combine in the latest exhibit at Ursinus College’s Berman Museum of Art. “Rare Bird: John James Audubon and Contemporary Art” features original artworks by John James Audubon as well as contemporary artists’ pieces.
The works by Audubon, an ornithologist, naturalist, and painter, include 19th century drawings, watercolors, and prints. The ten contemporary artists featured in the exhibition are Brandon Ballengée, Walton Ford, Harri Kallio, Nina Katchadourian, Kate MccGwire, James Prosek, Duke Riley, Alice Sharp, and the artist duo Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris. Many of their works address the extinction of some birds, climate, and other related issues. Their work includes paintings, photos, sculptures, and more. Some show: a flock of passenger pigeons, the extinct Dodo bird in its natural habitat, a video of people on a party boat captured by a trained pigeon cameraman, and an environmentalist’s call to action through altered lithographs.
James Prosek made a site-specific mural on a wall with a fireplace.
“Harnessing fire, burning wood, allowed humans to progress,” he said in the press release. “Fire and the fireplace became the center of our shelters, our homes, where we nest, in a sense. This work alludes to bird nesting and natural shelters built by animals. We exploit our resources endlessly, but life will continue to proliferate, adapt, and diversify.”
Artist Edward Morris and his artistic partner (and wife) Susannah Sayler have a work in the show called “Eclipse.” It’s a video piece in which they memorialize the extinction of the passenger pigeon (the name is derived from the French word passager, meaning “passing by,” due to the migratory habits of the species).
“It’s rare to know when the final one dies,” Morris said in a recent telephone interview. “But the last one in captivity died on September 1, 1914.”
The passenger pigeon was, at the time, the most populous bird in North America, he said. Audubon compared the way so many flying in the sky looked to a noon-day eclipse, so they used that for the title.
In the artwork, the flock is like a negative photo image, he said – a white bird on a black background. The videos are shown in a vertical stack of monitors, about 20 feet tall. It’s a seven-minute loop in which the birds eventually make their way up into the atrium of the Berman.
Having his work focus on ecology is the norm.
“We focus on climate change, crises, the bummer issues,” he said. “We want to bring things to light.”
He is excited to have his work in the exhibit and to be able to do that at the Berman.
“It’s incredible – the pairing of Audubon’s work with contemporary works,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this – to compare his work with these newer ones is fascinating.”