I presented the following essay, written especially for the occasion, at “Sonoran Stories: for the Birds“, a story-telling event held at of Audubon Arizona’s Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Center, on 23 Sept 2012. It was part of a benefit for Sonoran Desert Heritage‘s efforts to preserve 750,000 acres of desert in Western Maricopa County. My thanks to Sarah Porter and Doug Bland for giving an unseasoned story-teller a voice in an all pro line-up! The photos weren’t part of the oral presentation since the audience was called on to conjure up images in their heads; I’ve added them to this website post, since they were the source for many of the descriptive passages. They’ve all appeared previously at threestarowl.com — click on the captions to link to the original posts. (All photos by A.Shock) Translation note: the name “Harfang” is from the French name for Snowy Owl: Harfang des Neiges.
Imagine the Shape of a Bird: vertical napping bark
Everyone has their own bird. And everyone’s bird is different. It might be your favorite bird from childhood. It could be, as birders say, your “best” bird. Maybe it’s a bird you know well because you lived with it – or an exciting bird you saw only once. It could even be a bird you’ve never seen, one you’d cross an ocean to find.
I’d like to invite everyone here to use your mind’s eye to imagine the shape of that bird.
Is your mind’s eye looking up? Did you see a Cliff swallow, swooping down from its tidy mud nest under a Salt River bridge? Or maybe you saw a Costa’s hummingbird at a chuparosa flower, flaring its purple gorget like a dinky dude twirling his cowboy mustache? Or maybe you waxed poetic and pictured the teetering float of a turkey vulture waiting for the sun-warmed scent of carrion – a redolent roadkill ragout – to rise up to its pervious nostrils?
We people like to picture birds in the air. We think of a bird as an airborne creature, aloft and at altitude. To those of us on the ground, birds make flight look easy – so easy that we commonly say that a bird is “at home” in the air.
But really, for many birds, when they’re on the wing they’re at work — whether it’s a day job or a night job, or whether, like a lesser nighthawk, they’re working the crepuscular swing shift. On the wing, birds are commuting, feeding, migrating, patrolling their territory, advertising their presence for the benefit of a potential mate or rival.
So instead of a flying bird – a working bird – I’d like to ask you to imagine a less dynamic, more domestic shape: a bird in the place it roosts, rests, nests, or digests. Imagine a bird at home: an elf owl sunning in a saguaro hole, passing for a patch of brown cactus crust. Or, a pair of Spotted Owls loafing shoulder to shoulder on a sycamore limb, doubled-dappled with sunspots and owl spots.
That’s my bird – an owl at home: Vertical Napping Bark. An owl at rest is a bird in its most basic shape, not doing much, maybe yawning occasionally, scratching its facial disc, or swiveling its head to glare at a scolding wren or agitated jay, cocking its eye upward to follow a red-tail’s flight overhead.
As a birder, I never tire of seeing that shape in the wild, even if it’s just a quick glimpse, or nothing but a silhouette screened by foliage. As an artist, that shape is something I think about a lot. I need to know how an owl’s shape forms and changes, how an owl organizes itself. A sleepy owl, an indignant owl, a startled owl – each of these owls has a different shape. Let’s consider a loafing owl now.
Since owls are good at not being seen, I’ve brought a ringer, a visual aid to help out. Meet my assistant: Harfang [fake owl unveiled from under black velvet bag]. You might notice Harfang is not a desert species. Nevertheless, he’s a local bird. He’s a plastic Snowy owl purchased from the garden dept of a now defunct big box store on Thomas Road, as a scare-pigeon. But in our yard, he perches on the garden wall for decorative effect, ignored by the lesser goldfinch and lovebirds who come to feed on the sunflowers we grow for them.
It’s not his fault Harfang doesn’t scare the songbirds — what could our desert finches, chatty scraps of dry yellow sunshine – know of a hunter of lemmings on the Arctic tundra? Really, though, it’s not geography that’s the problem. And its not because of the way he looks: Harfang’s designers have given him all the owly characteristics – starting with lots of “good feathery detail”. He’s gifted with a large, domed head that functions as a mobile radar dish, strong taloned feet, and alert, upright posture cloaked with cryptic coloration — in his case perfect for mimicking hummocks of tundra.
These are the marks of owliness, recognized by every cautious bird and small scared mammal. This fundamentally owly shape is so recognizable that when a real owl wants to disappear it can hide in plain sight by making slight changes in that shape: it might turn sideways, draw itself up like a thinnish branch, and squint to hide its vivid eyes. Then, to perfectly complete its innocent stick impersonation, an owl removes itself from the scene by holding…perfectly…still.
And that’s why Harfang, the heavy-duty plastic K-Mart Owl, owly as he appears, fails to effectively frighten. He’s motionless, and therefore invisible: an abstract branch, a bleached stump. Hunted animals know a stump won’t eat you, and you can sit on a branch. To them, Harfang – like a ball park umpire – is merely part of the field.
So physical presence isn’t the whole story of shape. It doesn’t start at the cranial tufts and end at talons or wingtips. It’s not merely what a bird looks like — it’s bigger than that. Ecologists strive to quantify it; hunters, photographers and artists each in their own way try to capture and display it; storytellers remind us: the whole shape of a bird is how each one fits into the world, an interlocking, integral part of a larger picture, like a puzzle piece, or the fibers of a basket.
It’s a Gambel’s Quail hen pecking at grass seeds while in her nest nearby, three of her eggs are being swallowed by a young gopher snake – the unwilling process of a quail turning grass into snakes. It’s also a rural school kid explaining that her grandma always says that when you hear a hoot-owl call, it means someone’s going to die. It’s a well-worn clay pot in the Heard Museum decorated with burrowing owls and spadefoot toads, meant for holding the fruits of the monsoon harvest. And it’s the motivation of a group of people working to preserve the Sonoran Desert not just for what it can do for humans, but simply on the desert’s own merit.
So whenever you think of a bird, imagine its whole shape. The shape that’s made up of all of these things: a bird’s body, its biology, its presence on the land as well as the place it holds in human minds and hearts – like ours here today as we illustrate stories of birds with our imaginations, along with the help of one funky plastic owl.
… “Ossuary: an archæology of resurrection” in the show Death and Rebirth at Maryville University’s Morton May Gallery in St.Louis. The show will be up until this friday, December 2. Click here for details about the show and about the Ossuary.
<< Detail (photo and piece, A.Shock)
I felt like a paparazza, drawing as close as I dared, trying to hold my proper camera with the big zoom steady in the failing light. But she was calmly perched out in the open, low on our back fence, mobbed by smaller birds. Hummingbirds orbited her, scolding, like cheeky electrons, but she ignored them. She looked at me, and looked away, bored. She might be the same one I took photos of last year in our big pine tree; maybe, maybe not.
<< tonight’s Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus (all photos A.Shock, Canon EOS xti)
She was clutching E’s rain gauge — you can just see its acrylic rim over the fence, one of her dark talons curved over it. Tomorrow morning I’ll go out to see if she left scratches in the plastic, like the woodpeckers do scrabbling for balance on the swinging hummingbird feeders.
I had been hearing the flickers, hummers, a couple of irate mockingbirds, the pair of thrashers who live in the yard, and even a gnatcatcher for a few minutes before it occurred to me go out to see what the fuss was all about.
Flickering flicker. If you’ve ever wondered why this woodpecker species is called “gilded flicker”, you can see the golden coloration under the flight feathers and tail >>
The owl was overlooking a part of the yard where the cottontails have little cover but apparently there was no action, because after a while, she made a short flight into a small palo verde that has volunteered in the alley, and sat there for a while until it grew dark, looking around at her hostile avian entourage, glaring upward at a circling helicopter as if it were mobbing her too, yet still keeping a downward eye hoping for dinner.
<< On the palo verde throne, fierce-footed
When last seen, she launched towards the butte into the dusk, a gray blur against the graying sky.
Feather Bundle Jar with Owl (13.5″ ht, stoneware 2011, photo and object A.Shock) >>
What you can’t see in the photo is the interior glaze, a fiery glossy red that contrasts strongly with the dry, dinosaur-green outside. The jewel-like red studs give a hint of what’s on the inside, however.
This piece will be available starting tomorrow at the Three Star Owl booth at Audubon Arizona’s Gifts from Nature event tomorrow and Sunday (12 – 13 Nov, 10am-4pm, click here for details).
I’ll also be offering functional pieces, including frog skeleton mugs, scorpion mugs, beastie pitchers, and ravenware, just for starters. As always it bears repeating: Come early for best selection!
And, they’ve pretty much taken rain out of the forecast for Saturday, at least — so really, there’s no excuse!
The Camelback Studio Tour in the Sherwood Heights neighborhood of southern Scottsdale is over until the next one (that’s March 9, 10, 11, 2012, by the way, so mark your calendars now), and I’m tired but happy. Thanks to all who came by to visit, shop, or both. The sale seemed to occupy the last hot days of summer — I can’t recall ever getting a sunburn at an art sale before — and now desert autumn has set in, with sudden refreshing showers, cooler temps, and pranking breezes.
<< content horned owl (detail; A.Shock 2011)
My next event is in less than three weeks: the Audubon Arizona Gifts from Nature benefit art event, Saturday and Sunday the 12th and 13th of November. More about that soon, when I have more details. Hope to see you there and, the forces of clay willing, Three Star Owl will have some new work for you to take a look at. Meanwhile, Happy Diwali!
The VLO (Very Large Owl) sculpture “Windblown Owl” found a new home recently. The next VLO is underway, currently drying and eventually migrating to a client in California (shhhh, it’s a surprise), and I wanted to use the same greenish-golden surface coloring and glazing effect on the new owl.
I had a basic idea of what had been applied to “Windblown”, but I needed specifics. That meant doing a bit of sleuthing. The obvious place to start was my own notebook, which by means of hasty drawings, measurements, and notes records much if not all Three Star Owl clay work, theoretically in detail, although in practice I’m not always as good about it as I should be. Happily, next to a small sketch, I found helpful marginalia on the slips and glazes used on “Windblown”.
Windblown Owl VLO sketch (photo and drawing A.Shock, click to enlarge) >>
I enjoyed revisiting the drawing, which made me smile, the owl looks so much like a dog riding in a car with its head out the window. The discoloration of the white background page is a photo-editing effect, a result of mercilessly and excessively bumping the contrast for more stimulating web viewing, as is the ability to see the drawings on the back side of the page, which in the actual book are only faint ghosts of lines. Shades of paleographical or even forensic document investigation:
- “I say, Holmes, you can see right through the page!”
- “Precisely, Watson. Evidently our potter had made a bowl with a conical foot and hummingbird squares stamped on it, some little time before glazing the large nocturnal bird.”
- “By Jove, Holmes, how can you possibly know that there were hummingbirds on the bowl?”
- “Because I’m eating my porridge out of it right now.”
- [Watson chuckles] “Capital, Holmes — a bowl with cleverly stamped hummingbirds on it. Well done!”
- “And, may I add, my dear fellow, it’s made entirely by hand…”
By the way, definitely Rathbone and Bruce, here, I’d say. Brett and Hardwicke would never have shilled for Three Star Owl.
Update as of Monday 22Aug: thanks for all of your enthusiastic responses! And thanks to Kate McKinnon for posting them, and loaning me the fine box they were roosting in, too! All the owl whistle necklaces have found new homes – the owl/owl-craver ratio was excellent, and there was only a little disappointment. If you’d like to be contacted when a new batch is ready to go, please email me. If you are one of the owl-owners, I will invoice you through PayPal soon after you send me your mailing address, and ship your owl to you after that. Thanks again, everyone!
Here they are; the six remaining clay “retro” owl whistles from Three Star Owl. They’re all different, and strung either on black faux leather lacing or brown suede lacing. Each has a suitable smaller bead above it. Each necklace is $42, and can be yours if you contact me ASAP on the contact page; it’ll be a first-come-first-served sort of arrangement (perhaps include a second choice?). They’ll be going back into the public eye at the Tucson Bird and Nature Festival tomorrow morning. (Colors in photo are not exactly perfect but fairly close.)