While browsing in a used bookstore, I stumbled on a big old musty Audubon bird book that “spoke” to me. Brought it home, did a little research to make sure it wasn’t valuable (no signed prints, no rare editions) and then I started cutting.
My recent collage creations combine these cut up bird prints and my own mono-print backgrounds. The bird lithograph colors have a vintage patina that I love. They are subdued, maybe a little faded with age, but still have enough contrast. The silhouettes are graceful, and the textures are meticulously rendered. The mono prints are very gestural and have a lot of movement and so they create a kind of frenetic environment for the birds.
“The Birds of North America” by John J. Audubon, is a very well-known collection of prints based on a folio of original engravings by Audubon that date from about 1830. Those originals are very large, rare and worth a gazillion dollars. The humble yet heavy book that came into my possession has many editions and was printed and given away as an insurance premium around the middle of the 20th century. I discovered when I ordered an additional book on Ebay, that they are readily available, and the printing date matters. The 1941 edition is well printed on thick paper and the colors are smooth and consistent. The 1946 edition suffers by comparison. There had been a war, the paper was thinner, the register is off on many of the plates and the inks are all spotty.
Audubon was a master painter/engraver and I have come to appreciate him more as I study and devour the prints in these books. Although he has been criticized by ornithologists for his inaccuracies in some of the bird anatomy, and for killing and posing dead birds to paint them, to me the images are strikingly beautiful, perfect to up-cycle and inspired me to go in a completely new direction with my work.
The process of cutting the intricate shapes by hand, as any analogue collage artist will tell you, is very meditative and therapeutic. As I continue to cut, combine, and create more experimental compositions, I have started to realize that these are not just pretty juxtapositions of bird shapes. I think, they tell a story about climate change. The birds, in many of the collages are all darting, flapping, and crisscrossing as if looking for somewhere to go. They appear to be “crashing” into each other in a crowded, ink-streaked sky, as they are frantically trying to flee. The mostly improvised expressions on the bird faces, when taken out of the context of the serene backgrounds that Audubon created, are ones of vulnerability, anxiety and sometimes violence, and many of his prints depict bird carnage (birds of prey doing what they do). There is an ominous underlying feeling of unease that emerges. Alfred Hitchcock certainly recognized that birds could appear beautiful and majestic and at the same time threatening and violent. Do they sense an impending doom that they cannot control? And will they look for revenge or just safety? I will keep making and maybe arrive at an answer, or maybe I will find another old book of fish prints and I will go swimming in another direction.