Migrations and murmurations
February 11, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.
During a day trip to the Skagit Valley last February, my date and I encountered a blizzard of snow geese near a farm on Fir Island and pulled over to wait out the scenic storm. As thousands of waterfowl swarmed above and around us, we took note of the birds we’d already spotted that day — from trumpeter swans and bald eagles to grebes, loons, great blue herons and a variety of ducks.
We plan to take another bird-watching excursion soon, hopefully before the migrating geese and swans depart. But even if we miss out on the avian action, a backup plan exists in the form of a trio of art exhibits with a focus on the winged wonders, starting with “The Birds.” Showing at Edison’s Smith & Vallee Gallery, the annual invitational began in the winter of 2012 when Farm to Market Bakery’s Jim and Lisa Kowalski and woodworkers and gallery owners Wesley Smith and Andrew Vallee kicked off the Edison Bird Festival. The event — which has mostly been put on hold during the pandemic — was a way to pay homage to the unique birding culture of the area, and hosting the show has been a way to take an even closer look at the creatures to be found in the Skagit fly zone.
“Birds are a delightful subject matter for art and it’s a way for our gallery to connect with a larger group of local artists and bird enthusiasts,” Andrea Vallee said, noting that more than 50 artists contributed to this year’s show. A glance at the lineup of paintings, sculptures and mixed-media works reveals eye-catching visions of owls (barn, grey, horned, monkey-faced and great cinereous), chickadees, seagulls, cardinals, egrets, hooded mergansers, hummingbirds, sparrows, woodpeckers and crows (among many other species). Open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays through February, the exhibit is a way to connect with the natural world without having to peer through binocular lenses.
From Smith & Vallee Gallery, it’s a short walk to i.e. gallery, where Natalie Niblack’s powerful one-woman show, “Migrations,” is on display from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays through Sundays through the month. Here, the birds are in imminent danger. In one oil painting, tree swallows fly above a field, backlit by fire and a smoke-filled sky. In another work, the bright-orange bill of an oystercatcher standing on a garbage-strewn beach pokes out of a plastic bag as the shorebird gasps for breath. “Ghost Bird,” a cast-glass piece on a metal stand, is both beautiful and frightening. A linocut print featuring a barn swallow points to the species’ declining population.
Fans of Niblack already know the Fir Island resident uses her art to make statements about everything from climate change to habitat loss, plastic pollution and vulnerable species, but even those who haven’t encountered her work before should seek it out. Her pieces can make viewers face uncomfortable truths, but they are rendered with such thought and feeling that it’s difficult not to give them full attention.
In “Migrations,” Niblack said her intention with the pieces is a “sort of extreme truth-telling,” and she’s looking to create works that are “simultaneously seductive and confrontational.” But does the artist herself have a hard time making pieces that signify the chilling effects of climate change and other man-made disasters?
“Yes, it is sometimes emotionally difficult, especially after doing the research behind the imagery,” Niblack said. “But I find that ignoring the immediacy of what is happening is impossible to do. More conventional landscape- and wildlife-based work often reflects what one venerates and idealizes, but it can also reveal what one doesn’t want to see. I feel it is an existential imperative to confront the damage being done now in my work. I feel to do otherwise would be to put blinders on and collude in a deception.”
Niblack said the feedback she received during an opening reception for the exhibit was overwhelmingly positive, and she hopes to provide even more details about the work that preceded the current show during an artist talk taking place at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 19.
For another look at how humans are connected to birds, make your way to downtown Mount Vernon, where Wyoming-based artist Shannon Troxler’s “Murmurations” exhibit is on display from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Feb. 28 at Perry and Carlson Gallery. Troxler said she has had a lifelong passion for birds, stretching back to a childhood spent stomping through the marshes of Chesapeake Bay observing waterfowl. At 19 years old, she spent a month trapping and banding raptors on the shores of Lake Michigan. These days, she’s an artist in residence at the Teton Raptor Center in Jackson Hole, where she’s able to sketch owls and hawks from life.
“I am fascinated by both the individual beauty of birds and their collective presence, which reminds me of how we humans function (migrations, murmurations and mobs),” Troxler said. “In many cultures, birds are the messengers between the earth and sky. I love that birds are such an ordinary presence in our everyday life, but remain wild and remind us of unattainable heights.”