As I have done the past few years, today I will talk about some of my favorite works from this year's edition of the much anticipated, annual Birds in Art exhibition at the Woodson Art Museum, which opened last weekend. Since the spotlight was off me and upon this year's honored Master Wildlife Artist, Barry Van Dusen, I was able to spend a bit more time admiring the works than last year, when I was otherwise rather occupied!
In the twenty seven pieces of art that follow, I've featured just some of the superb art works that graced the galleries at the museum. As I've noted many times before, I could easily speak about each and every one of the over 110 works of art selected by this year's jury of three last spring, but I've decided to focus upon these two dozen plus works as some that emphasize and encompass many of the elements and concepts that I have often remarked on as being the kinds of ideas that will separate a work from all the others that the jurors are viewing and allow them to key into a particular work distinct from the one seen before it and the one seen after it when viewing images for consideration.
I am often asked by young artists, and those who make attempt after attempt to 'make the cut' in a jury process, what can be done to have their work stand out from all the rest. What follows then, are some key points to consider when next submitting for a major jury where the competition is great and the chances are rather tight, and some fine examples of works that obviously caught the juror's eyes as they viewed 900 plus images for inclusion in this year's Birds in Art.
Subtle Strength characterizes the first pair of works, below, that caught my eye as I walked the galleries. Both works were rather small, the oil on the right by Jim Morgan (2008 named Master) being 12" x 18" and the one on left by first timer, Canadian, Michael Dumas, slightly smaller. Yet each commanded attention equal to any of the larger works hanging nearby through their strength of perceived movement, subtle yet attention grabbing light and shadow, and beauty of their soft palette. Dumas' work, as he noted in his remarks in the catalog, recalled a visit to the Louvre and the surprise of finding a gallery-bound sparrow fluttering about amid the marbles and Morgan's swans obviously recall time spent in the field observing and noting the thousands that migrate through his favorite haunts. Both works reminisce in a way and each artist has chosen to offer that reminiscence through paint on canvas. Expression of a personal experience will often show a deeper emotional tie to a work of art and often, as in the case of both of these fine paintings, perhaps make a momentary connection to a juror, one that will last long enough to make the impression needed to set that work aside as something more.
The trio of works, above, speak to a Spare quality, nothing excess to what is needed to make the point. As in the first two works mentioned, these works commanded my attention through their simplicity of line while still fostering a feeling of movement, a moment caught in time. Four time Swedish artist, Gunnar Tryggmo, noted about his wonderful pair of gulls (upper left), "I painted just what was necessary, omitting everything else." Some artists don't know when to stop; I include myself in that category sometimes. It is hard, often, to know when a work is 'done' and when it might need just a touch or two more. Tryggmo is quite the master at knowing when to stop. His spare palette and lack of unneeded adornment to the subjects easily grabbed the attention of many attending the opening and even in the crush of the crowd, many were drawn into the work for many moments of admiration.
Kristine Taylor's bronze parrot trio (upper right), whimsical in character, belied its simplicity with just enough attention to detail to give it strength, interest and anatomical correctness to have caught the juror's eyes and mine as well. Though small, at only a foot in height, it surely commanded every bit as much attention as larger sculptures scattered throughout the galleries due to its very abstract shapes and appealing, unique tail supports. Again, no excess or unnecessary adronment to distract from the intimate, nuanced relationship between the three birds.
Finally, the last of this trio is Bart Walter's charcoal swoosh of a magpie. Walter, known for his iconic sculptures in which one always sees and feels 'the hand of the artist', does the same thing in two dimensions, showing a graceful, simple yet precise depiction of his subject with minimal application to the paper. It could be a field study from a sketch book, but at 16" x 24" we know it is a studio work and yet maintains that 'spur of the moment' capture and flare that field studies often represent. There was no better work included in the exhibition, to my eye, that more fully spoke to the quality of being Spare.
This next trio of works (below) goes 180 degrees from the last grouping by focusing on Cluster. In first timer, Sue Gombus' lovely pastel rendering of a flock of snow geese (upper left), she has beautifully defined her birds with shape and color and texture and shadow and light, but at the same time has produced a marvelous abstract image of . . . shape and color and texture and dark and light as in any Jackson Pollock! You just need to squint your eyes a bit and the birds disappear and their shapes become abstract geometric figures melding into a luscious undulating sea of color.
Eight-time exhibitor, Mary Cornish, developed her work (upper right) of three hornbills with fewer subjects, but by jamming them up together, reminiscent of Taylor's three parrots, she has also brushed a very abstract assemblage of mass, color, texture, shadow and light that appears at once to be a conjoined unit of some sort which our eye must deconstruct to see its related components. Another smaller work, at just under a foot square, it held its own due to the intensity of the color and attention to detail.
And the final work of this trio by French first timer, Laurence Saunois, "The Sentinel", very much spoke to me with its energetic composition akin to the sorts of ideas I often tend toward. I found the juxtaposing of all the design elements quite striking and attention grabbing, yet calming in the coolness of her palette, sparked only by the intense reds which added just enough focus to draw my eye into the work.
The trio above, exemplify works that I will describe as having Forceful Line. Line, being one of the elements of good design, will often dictate the major direction of a composition and act as a ground upon which all the other elements of the composition rest. These three works, on the left by first timer Melinda Whipplesmith Plank, in the middle by another first timer, Tanya Lock, and on the right by seven time exhibitor Jenny Hyde-Johnson, all derive their interest from linear movement. Plank's woodcut quite naturally echoes the expected linear quality of the artist's process of carving into a hunk of wood while still incorporating enough softness to correctly feel the movement of water and rustle of reeds and grasses. The rather played-down palette also acts as a nice background to the spark of the red wing and I was quite taken with the strong L-shape of the compositional idea.
New Zealander, Lock, has dramatically used the very linear movement of the leaves to weave, in paint, the compositional nest in which her subjects reside. The strength of light and shadow also add great interest by moving the viewer's eye throughout the work till it rests upon the moorhen.
Vermonter, Jenny Hyde-Johnson, no stranger to Birds in Art, focused on a wall painting, colorful, angular, abstract in nature to use as her background for the three babblers that, as in Lock's 'hidden' moorhen, are suddenly observed as the viewer's eye makes the rounds of the intricate South African painted wall decoration. Each of these three works offered a distinctly different approach to the use of line in making an artistic statement, yet at the same time felt very interconnected in compositional structure.
Vibrance conjures up many synonyms (jauntiness, liveliness, ebullience, verve) not least of which, colorful. The three works just above not only utilized color to the max, but offered lively and inviting entry into each work. Cathy Sheeter's second entry into Birds in Art was beautifully represented by (on left above) her colored scratchboard of a macaw. Another of the smaller works in the exhibition at only 8" x 10", it surely leaped from the wall and demanded my attention with detail and texture and lovely light/shadow development. I generally am not well disposed toward scratchboard works that have added color, but in the hands of one who knows how to appropriately add color to enhance rather than detract from the meticulous workmanship of the scratchboard artist, I doff my cap. The close in crop of the subject, with eye commanding the focus as the circular movement of feathers and body gesture pull the viewer in, certainly must have been what stopped the jurors and added this fine work to their short list.
In the middle stands Don Rambadt's 5 foot tall great horned owl, one of over a dozen works in this year's exhibition with owls as the subject. I'm always drawn to Don's very jaunty view of the world and his ability to form figurative recognition out of abstract shapes. As he noted in his comments in the catalog, once you are able to move around his work, which unfortunately can not be done when viewing a flat photographic image, each different angle and viewpoint changes and shifts the 'meaning' of what is being seen adding yet one more dimension to his welded structures.
The third in this group of colorful works, and perhaps the most vibrant yet, is by first timer, Kris Parins. Her flamingos and white ibis radiated sunshine across the gallery as I approached the large (31" x 39") watercolor. I was lost in the abstract structure of the shapes and intensity of the colors at first and then, slowly, found myself standing amid a sea of legs and feathers. I am sure the overall high level of excitement generated by the bright colors and intermingling shapes is what appealed to the jurors as it sure was what pulled me into the work. I was so taken with the artist's unique approach, I spotted and identified her offering during the museum's Project Postcard and was able to add her little 4" x 6" version of this work to my personal collection.
Unique is often an overused word, but in the case of the next two works from this year's exhibition, I could not come up with a better descriptor. Both encompass the unique use of actual books as a backdrop for their subjects. In the first work, on the left, by British first timer, Kerry Miller (no relation!), a vintage book is used as a base for hand-colored cut out collage pieces that add immense depth to the work. Jonathan Quinn Aumen, another first timer from Virginia, mounted a charred book on a panel and painted over the pages in his very captivating piece.
With a flare for Nostalgia the trio of works, above, drew me into them as I walked the galleries and without doubt, did the same for the jurors. In the middle, second timer Scot Weir of Wyoming, in continuing a series of works he talked about in the catalog based upon the contrasts between manmade and the ''natural evolutionary elegance of birds", devised a wonderfully evocative work with attention to detail, lovely mastery of the oil medium and interesting placement of his avian subject. Another work that really spoke to me personally, due to its very singular compositional approach, I also liked its monochromatic palette and the 'ah ha!' discovery aspect of the bird's placement.
On the left, Ken Newman's fourth appearance in Birds in Art was represented by an assemblage of elements in his "The Great and Powerful". With great dimensional qualities to the work, I got lost in the discovery of all the various and interesting 'pieces of the puzzle' and the story that unfolded as I pondered.
The final watercolor work of the threesome, on the right, by Californian David Milton, certainly had flare in my mind. I enjoyed the search for the almost completely hidden wren and smiled broadly once found. The details in the painting were handled wonderfully and the focus on the sign as opposed to the bird, made the journey to find it that much more humor-filled.
Water always has a tendency to intrigue me and when deftly handled, as in the two paintings above by two artists who know how to handle the subject exceptionally well, I always get stopped dead in my tracks. New Englander, Cindy House (work on left) not only knows how to depict water in all its states, but does it in pastel with such elegance. Cindy is a landscape artist without question. But her land and seascapes would not be the same without the additions of, even though often almost invisible, the birds that populate her works, just as they do in real life . . . sometimes on the edge, sometimes far off, sometimes totally hidden from first view. Part of the joy for me, of looking at one of Cindy's marvelous works is the fun of finding the bird! I think it must have been that way for the jurors as well.
Ralph Grady James, in his fifth inclusion in this annual, highly respected exhibition, painted two sanderlings flying over the breaking waves of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Light and shadow and spray and sparkle played a big roll in this very evocative work which I was immediately drawn into with the way he developed the nice angular movement of waves and bird's wings. The composition was very simple, straight forward and well observed. What made it stand apart from many of the other works surrounding it was his mastery with light on water and the quality of liquidity that he was able to capture in oil paint on linen.
When is a landscape painting, not just a landscape painting? To me it is when that landscape has Presence. Presence can be defined as something felt or believed to be present, or a noteworthy quality of effectiveness. I sense presence in both of the paintings below and can feel the cold of the snow or the soft wisp of a breeze that barely ripples the water. William Alther, in his ninth offering to Birds in Art (work on left) includes one of those owls that I mentioned before that seemed to become the 'theme' almost of this year's exhibition with so many representations of the subject included. Of course I was taken with his portrayal of the bird but what set this work apart for me was the handling of the snow and the dried grasses. The variation of hues in the snow, with blues and purples and soft bluish grays not only showed me that the artist knew how to paint, but that the artist knew how to make me feel cold and chilled just like the owl in the painting seemed to speak of the chilliness of the day being depicted. I also marveled at the haphazard-looking, yet well placed yellow and gold brush strokes that materialized into dried grasses. As in some of the earlier works mentioned above, simplicity and economy of structure, yet vibrant and strong in feeling.
James Coe, the 2011 Master honoree, depicted a tidal creek with such aplomb, I could almost smell the saltiness of the water. Painterly in technique, soft edges blending into each other with just enough definition between darks and lights to make the land separations known, I always appreciate the candidness of his brush stroke and the attention to his compositional structures. You should also note the position that both artists selected for their birds . . . on that often, here, referred to point that I like to call the sweet spot in the rectangular field of the golden mean.
Stark, maybe too stark a suggestion for the three works in the group above but nevertheless, my next to last signifier. Two works of sculpture this time, cradling a lovely painting by one of my favorite Birds in Art past exhibitors. First the painting by Kathryn Mapes Turner, her third inclusion in the exhibition since 2010's first appearance. A large, 2 foot square, oil, Mapes Turner, like Coe and House and many others of this year's artists, painted a broad view of the landscape and sky. But where the others might have added just enough definition of grass and ground and earth, she let the imagination of the viewer dictate the place and time; each viewer defining those locations for themselves. Her birds were mere brush strokes that gave focus and entry to the work, while the emotion and intensity of the color and vagaries of the overall composition let imagination fly.
On the left, sculptor Paul Rhymer, in his 6 foot tall pair of ravens, "Rant and Skeptic", made a grand statement of gestural movement in his very identifiable 'hand of the artist' style of sculpting. The stark quality of the spacial relationship between the two birds made for a very immediate connection with the viewer.
British sculptor, Simon Gudgeon, has embarked on a series of bronzes of skulls and his "Bald Eagle Skull" is one of the latest. Stark in its portrayal, Gudgeon eliminated the nit picky to focus on the broader, overall representation of the skull, harkening back to where this discussion began with talk about the Subtle Strength and Spare qualities of some of those first noted works.
A final thought and focus on what was, indeed, my favorite work in this year's exhibition, Calvin Nicholls' magnificent cut paper "Birds of Eden". At 3 feet by 5 feet, I was stunned to see the work in person, once having glanced through the catalog in my hotel room previous to the first visit to the museum and deciding that it was going to be a marvelous work to behold. This two dimensional photographic image does not do the work justice, and even as good a reproduction as is included in the catalog, to stand before the work in person was absolutely breath taking. The intricacy of the cuts, the details pronounced, the depth created through layering and lighting . . . all added up to a masterful work in monochrome that needed no addition of color at all to enhance or expand upon what already was present.
The diversity of the works I have chosen to spotlight here, are a mere representation of the quality of all the works included in this year's edition of The Woodson Art Museum's flagship exhibition that is Birds in Art. I hope that my words and attempt at zeroing in on what I think makes for a fine work of art may inspire you to a better understanding of what makes one work of art more outstanding than the next, or what makes one work of art appeal more than the next. I speak often about how focus on the tried and true, established and time-tested elements of good design can be combined into balanced, pleasing and desirable compositions and hope that by using the above 27 fine examples of what other artists have done to 'make the cut' of the jury process, will enlighten and inspire those who read these words.