Birds on the Border 

San Francisco-based artist David Tomb has loved birds since he was a young boy.

"I grew up in Oakland, Calif., and had some friends who were bird-watchers," he said. "So we used to go out and look for owls and hawks."

Tomb said he was also interested in art at the same age—so it's no surprise that he became intrigued by bird artists. It's also no surprise that winged creatures are the theme of his current exhibit, Borderland Birds, now showing at the Tucson Botanical Gardens' Porter Hall Gallery.

The birds in this exhibit aren't just your regular old pigeons. Tomb's birds are rare, often with exotic names: emerald green kingfishers, crimson-colored grosbeaks, ferruginous pygmy owls and vermillion flycatchers.

While the birds are rendered to scale, the paintings themselves are huge. In fact, one of the paintings, of an Aplomado falcon, is 6 feet tall. The colors are a mix of soft pastels and shocking bright hues. Tomb told me that he used a combination of watercolors and gouache—an opaque, water-based paint—for these paintings. While watercolors are translucent, gouaches are flat and solid. "They're kind of like the ying and yang of water-based paints," he explained.

Since the exhibit is inspired by flora and fauna along the U.S.-Mexico border, the paintings may make you feel right at home. The artist depicts racing roadrunners skirting along in the desert, and mischievous Gila monsters hiding behind agave.

Tomb finds his inspiration by getting out in the field. He's traveled far and wide to places like the Philippines, Ecuador and Mexico to get a firsthand look at his subjects. For this exhibit, he traveled along the Rio Grande in Texas.

Tomb also does quite a bit of research in libraries. "I have to do research on the botany—which plants and trees and habitats the birds live in naturally," he said. "That's a steeper learning curve for me."

Tomb spends a lot of time researching in museums, because while he's able to see most of his subjects up close, some birds, like the imperial woodpecker, are probably extinct. "It's probably been 40 years since the last sighting. ... The thing was freaking gigantic!" exclaimed Tomb. "I'm really sad that I never got the chance to see that bird while it was around."

In order to save the birds he loves from extinction, Tomb recently co-founded Jeepney Projects Worldwide, an art-for-conservation foundation. Tomb says that their first project will raise money and awareness for the critically endangered and spectacular Philippine eagle. "We're partnering with the Philippine Eagle Foundation in Davao," he added.

Tomb's opening reception is part of Tucson Botanical Gardens' Twilight Third Thursdays, and his exhibit is the third in a series of four shows this summer. Next month, the gallery will feature artwork from the Botanical Gardens' very own staff.

"Most of the artists who exhibit work are local to Arizona. David Tomb was an exception," said Darlene Buhrow, the Tucson Botanical Gardens' director of marketing and communications. "David contacted me—he thought the exhibit would be a good fit—and I said, 'I'd absolutely love to have you!'"

The Borderland Birds exhibit is a great fit, as the Botanical Gardens site is teeming with birds. "We have nesting Cooper's hawks in the garden," said Buhrow. "They're starting to hunt."

In addition to the hawks, there are finches, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, cactus wrens, white-winged doves, green and yellow verdins, Gambel's quail and a mating pair of cardinals. "There aren't any snakes in the garden, so the birds like that," smiled Buhrow.

At Tomb's opening reception, there will be music from local guitarist Domingo DeGrazia and violinist Beth Daunis. "They're both amazing," said Buhrow.

There will also be a cash bar and food available from Acacia and Isabella's Ice Cream.

Folks are encouraged to come and see the show, because "it's a great chance to see how spectacular and beautiful some of the bird life is here," said Tomb. "People are really surprised by how colorful and beautiful a lot of the birds we have in this region are."

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