Artist takes wing with love of birds

Times Colonist - - Islander - ROBERT AMOS On Art

Re­becca Jewell has flown here from Lon­don, bring­ing her solo ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled Soar­ing High, Landing Hard: The Ven­er­a­tion and Ex­ploita­tion of Birds (Alcheringa Gallery, 621 Fort St., 250-3838224, un­til July 6).

In a pre­sen­ta­tion she made shortly af­ter the open­ing, Jewell opened my eyes to both halves of her sub­ti­tle — the use of feath­ers as a supreme adorn­ment of chiefs and kings, and the cat­a­strophic de­struc­tion of all things that fly by we hu­mans. I came away both in­spired … and trou­bled.

Jewell is a Lon­doner, through and through. The child of two zo­ol­o­gists, she is the even­tual re­sult of those projects of the Bri­tish Em­pire: the Vic­to­rian-era col­o­niza­tion of the world, and an at­tempt to make that world bet­ter through sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing.

Af­ter univer­sity train­ing, she worked at Lon­don’s Mu­seum of Mankind (which closed 15 years ago), clas­si­fy­ing and sort­ing its vast col­lec­tions of eth­no­log­i­cal ob­jects. She strove to present them not as anony­mous ar­ti­facts but as works of art. In­spired by a year spent in Pa­pua New Guinea when she was 18, Jewell de­vel­oped a fo­cus on the arts of the South Pa­cific, specif­i­cally things made from feath­ers.

The mu­seum closed, by which time she had found the time spent clas­si­fy­ing de­ra­ci­nated tribal goods was un­sat­is­fy­ing. So she took up the artis­tic side of her na­ture and stud­ied at the Royal Col­lege of Art, where, in 2004, she grad­u­ated with a PhD. Her spe­cial study was in sci­en­tific il­lus­tra­tion with wa­ter­colours. Nat­u­rally, for sub­ject mat­ter she ap­plied her prodi­gious tal­ent to things with feath­ers. When feather capes and hel­mets from Hawaii are deemed too frag­ile to travel, mu­se­ums some­times loan Jewell’s paint­ings in­stead.

While work­ing as an artist in res­i­dence at the Bri­tish Mu­seum and else­where, Jewell was only too aware of the mas­sive col­lec­tions of dead birds: cap­tured, killed and clas­si­fied in the name of sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing. She told us of two ex­am­ples — the Whit­ney ex­pe­di­tion in the 1920s brought home 40,000 birds to the Amer­i­can Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum. In 1932, the same mu­seum pur­chased the Wal­ter Roth­schild Col­lec­tion of 300,000 birds. The sci­en­tific rea­son for this col­lect­ing mania — which is on­go­ing — seems harder and harder to jus­tify, in our age of pho­tog­ra­phy and DNA sam­pling.

Jewell’s sen­si­bil­ity was fur­ther height­ened by a trip to Malta in 2012 with the Birdlife or­ga­ni­za­tion. She was there to bear wit­ness to the anachro­nis­tic slaugh­ter of mil­lions of birds. They are sys­tem­at­i­cally taken, both spring and fall, from their fly­ways that cross this bar­ren Mediter­ranean is­land. Ten thou­sand “tra­di­tional” reg­is­tered hun­ters, in ra­dio con­tact, har­vest the skies: for sport, for tro­phies or to serve on plates as rar­i­ties for tourists.

While study­ing print­mak­ing in Lon­don, Jewell was in­tro­duced to “pa­per lithog­ra­phy” by which draw­ings — hers and oth­ers — could be pho­to­copied and printed with etch­ing ink onto all man­ner of ma­te­ri­als. She chose feath­ers. Her mother brought moulted feath­ers from their ducks and chick­ens, and Jewell printed im­ages on them. She printed an­tique draw­ings by leg­endary or­nithol­o­gists, tran­scrip­tions of bird song, and the long Latin Lin­nean clas­si­fi­ca­tions by which these in­no­cent crea­tures are de­fined and cat­a­logued. The feath­ers, white in the be­gin­ning, are some­times tinted with etch­ing ink. Jewell re­marked that the barbs of feath­ers took the ink in a way that re­minded her of the en­graved lines of the old prints she was copy­ing.

In many ways, her printed feath­ers take part in the ven­er­a­tion as­pect of feath­ers. She has made tiaras of printed feath­ers, and small repli­cas of the fab­u­lous royal Hawai­ian feath­ered capes. When as­sem­bled in di­ag­o­nal pat­terns, her printed feath­ers make at­trac­tive wall dec­o­ra­tions, which, from a dis­tance, look like paint­ings by Jean-Paul Riopelle. The artis­tic as­pect of her work is un­mis­tak­able.

She has also ap­plied her im­agery, in the form of pho­to­col­lage, to pho­to­graphs of the ships in which Vic­to­rian col­lec­tors sailed the South Pa­cific, bring­ing home car­goes that in­cluded the corpses of tens of thou­sands of birds. Jewell has ap­plied printed feath­ers to the (fi­bre­glass) shell of an im­pos­si­bly large egg. One of the most telling of her art­works is a grid of card­board name tags, each with a hum­ming­bird printed across it. The im­age of the lit­tle bird ex­tends be­yond the tag. The tags rep­re­sent what we know of the birds, but the lit­tle soul is seen just pass­ing by.

Jewell’s work is not a polemic, not an im­pas­sioned cry to save the nat­u­ral world in this “now or never” mo­ment. She re­tains a cer­tain re­spect for those am­a­teurs and mis­sion­ar­ies and ex­plor­ers who thought that cap­tur­ing and clas­si­fy­ing things was the way to truth. To her, mu­se­ums seem to be serv­ing an ed­u­ca­tional pur­pose with all their dried, pinned and la­belled spec­i­mens. When I re­flect on our own mu­seum’s cur­rent pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tion — the sub­ject is a no­to­ri­ously ex­tinct crea­ture — I won­der what we might yet learn from all those draw­ers of bird skins. Per­haps, as Joni Mitchell re­minded us, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

The most beau­ti­ful of Jewell’s art­works, and the most haunt­ing, is the cen­tre­piece at Alcheringa. A fine ny­lon “mist net” is stretched a lit­tle in front of the wall, its in­escapable knots cap­tur­ing flocks of printed feath­ers. Each car­ries a mem­ory — an en­grav­ing, a Latin or com­mon name, a trite tran­scrip­tion of some bird’s song. Mem­o­ries are, in far too many cases, all that re­main of more and more bird species. On the wall be­hind Jewell’s feath­ers, ghostly shad­ows hint at what was once a mir­a­cle of puls­ing, mi­grat­ing, fan­tas­ti­cally beau­ti­ful flight.

Hope, as Emily Dick­in­son said, is the thing with feath­ers.


Two works by Re­becca Jewell: Above: Bird­catcher’s Head­dress, printed feath­ers Left: A hum­ming­bird printed on feath­ers and a gilded card­board tag

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