It presides in the shallow waters, standing atop beanpole legs, surveying the pleasure boats cruising the channel, oblivious to the cawing of the gulls overhead. Occasionally, it dips its needlepoint beak underwater for a fish. At bedtime, it tucks its beak under its voluminous white wings.
So it's a pleasure to see an art version of the regal bird at Tohono Chul Park just before I make my annual trek to Long Beach Island. Julie Brokken has used the lowliest of trash to represent this most graceful of birds, crafting her "Egret Totem" out of found wood, wire and bells. But the larger-than-life sculpture is a beguiling piece of work.
The bird stands on a tall drink of tree branch, stuck in a pot of river rock. It has a sleek, elongated body, and its open wings fan across its chest, their feathers made of wooden slats whose white paint has begun to peel. The reclaimed wood is perfect for an animal that stands just between civilization and nature, between the beach houses and the briny deep.
For the Birds, a group show of 26 Arizona artists put together by Tohono Chul Park curator Vicki Donkersley, is at least the second avian exhibition in Tucson this year. Last winter, the Tucson Museum of Art staged the massive Birdspace: A Post-Audubon Artists Aviary. New Orleans curator David Rubin asserted with that show that contemporary art was decidedly ornithological.
Donkersley makes no such grand claims for the charming works in her summer show, though she has written up a nice précis of bird lore. Her exhibition brochure details artists' use of birds all the way back to ancient Egypt, when Horus, God of Day and Night, was represented as a falcon-headed man. (Apparently, the Lascaux caves in France have the very earliest bird art, a Stone Age painting of a bird-headed man that could be 13,000 years old.) And her exhibition has all kinds of media, from classic oils on canvas, to woodcuts (by the gifted Donna Atwood), to idiosyncratic woven watercolors, to photography, to clay, to trash.
Despite the show's light-hearted title, plenty of the artists took the bird assignment seriously. Owen Williams made a pair of shiny paintings on aluminum--using what he calls fused pigment--that make the bird a symbol of the life force.
In the first panel of "The Natural History of the Human Heart as a Singing Bird," a singing yellow bird is perched where the heart should be in a human anatomical image. In the second painting, the yellow bird is flying away, and the now-dead body is returning to nature, overtaken by a tangle of peacocks and flowers.
"Sometimes when we least expect it, the singing stops, and the bird flies away," Williams writes in an artist's statement. "This is what birds and hearts do ..."
Kate Breakey is well-known for her Small Deaths series, photographs of tiny dead desert critters blown up to larger-than-human size, and then hand-colored. Exhibited in recent years at the Tucson Museum of Art and Etherton Gallery, the poignant birds quietly profess the value of every life, and the value of every death. Breakey delicately handles her colors, sketching in every feather, every piece of down. The care she devotes to every bit of the body, coupled with the works' extreme magnification, force viewers to pay attention to the life this animal once lived.
Breakey has put two of the big works in this show. "Icterus cucullatus, Hooded Oriole" is a majestic fellow, decidedly dead, with brilliant yellow-feathered head drooping down to its chest, its wings a bold black and white.
Joy Fox's "Queen of the Night" could almost be one of the ancient sacred images that Donkersley writes about in her text. A big, blackened clay work that hangs on the wall, it alternates between clay untouched and charred, and between surfaces plain and etched. The chiseled patterns, a tumble of checkerboards and spirals, resemble those in Native American pictographs. Likewise, the bird's head on the human body, a frequent motif in Fox's work, complements Native American beliefs that humans have companion animal spirits.
Still, there are plenty of pieces that aim mostly at avian good cheer.
Janet Miller has made one of her familiar reverse glass paintings. This one, "Pilgrims," pictures an obliging blackbird giving a fish a ride through the air over the waterless desert. The grateful fish is grinning gill to gill.
Jane Kelsey-Mapel celebrates the near-universal human desire to fly. Her "Flight Dream," a colored stoneware piece, places an ecstatic woman with wings outflung atop a carrier bird.
The patterns in a carved Hungarian chair and Japanese kimono fabric inspired Cynthia Miller's "Red Bird Waves Gold," a lively mixed-media painting in glittery gold, mint green, yellow and blue. A fairy tale mélange of colors and designs gives way to the fine red bird sitting on a curving branch at right.
Farraday Newsome, a new artist to me, has created a cornucopia of downright exuberant sculptures. Crafted of terra cotta, and glazed in colors ratcheted up to crayon-bright, her 3-D pedestal pieces suggest bursting fertility.
"Blue Garden" has great spherical oranges, lemons and green leaves busting out of the base, a square of shiny royal blue. A coral starfish lies next to a white shell that swirls ever upward. And above all else in this beachy landscape perches a cheerful little bird.
It's no egret, perhaps, but all dressed up in yellow-green feathers outlined in black, it's king of its own little world.