When you think of bird art, what do you see? Serene images of feathered creatures flying and feeding? Or something a little more jarring like Foghorn Leghorn or "Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen?
"I discovered something really amazing and that was that I had the same exact feeling when I fed baby birds as I did when I made art."
Meet Cynde Randall, the founding member of Bird by Bird. She says the project started when she volunteered at a songbird nursery.
In an art world rife with intellectual statements and a clinical approach to human and animal suffering, the idea of painting and drawing birds in trouble could seem a little treacly or overly sincere. But Randall says birds are an appropriate stand-in for many of society's troubles.
"Birds are in a way can represent really any species including human beings. If the birds are having trouble surviving given the challenges to the environment now, it really is like looking in the mirror."
Originally Randall started 'Bird x Bird' (pronounced 'bird by bird') as a project to raise funds for the Minnesota Wildlife Haven. She convinced artists to do paintings of birds at the haven with the intention of painting every one that came through in one year. The Haven has since closed, but the paintings have continued and expanded.
Carleton College art professor David Lefkowitz paints bird baseball cards. They are Audubon-like in style but he gives each a name.
"Alvin is a Monk Parakeet," he says pointing to one of his pieces.
It's an arresting image of an attractive bird, but there's a disturbing back story. The Monk Parakeet is an invasive species. It's native to South America, but some have made Chicago home.
"They seem to be doing well in that environment. People in the neighborhood love them," he says. "They're sort of, they're colorful and they're a real presence. But I think there's that question that because they're an invasive species are they doing damage, is their presence interrupting the niche that some other native species has?"
Lefkowitz was very deliberate in creating a bird baseball card. He says people tend to, as he puts it, collect nature, or see it twice removed, as in a photo of a tattoo of a bird. That also happens to be one of the pieces.
"Nature and culture are seen as this great divide," he says. "But there really is a lot more overlap. It's really a false dichotomy. I think a project like this reinforces that. It's about that human interaction with nature. But also a recognition that we need to be more aware and more protective of nature."
He says many artists in 'Bird x Bird' explore the relationship between humans and animals.
One artist in this year's retrospective is printmaker Jenny Schmid. With creepy detail Schmid draws injured bird bodies. But she gives them the heads of little, moon-faced girls. And wraps their bodies in words describing their injuries. Lefkowitz says in the first couple years artists based their work on the data provided about the injured birds at the Wildlife Haven.
"Initially in each of the documentation of the birds there would often be information about what their condition was when they were brought into the clinic," she says. "And so this one is officially kidnapped, which refers to being mistakenly rescued by well-meaning bird lovers."
Proceeds from the sales of Bird by Bird pieces now go to the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary as well as the Audubon Center of the North Woods.
Based on the success of the last five years Cynde Randall says starting this month a regular Bird By Bird show will take place at the Northrop King Building Gallery. The Bird by Bird retrospective will be on display at Carleton College in Northfield through November 19th.