A nest in the hand

Artist Carol Moth­ner


Santa Fe artist Carol Moth­ner grew up in Brook­lyn, think­ing birds were spe­cial crea­tures. But all she saw of birds in the city were pi­geons, spar­rows, and maybe the oc­ca­sional robin if she were in­vited to the coun­try — which, she said, meant Queens. Her late hus­band Daniel Mor­per, on the other hand, was an avid bird en­thu­si­ast. At the age of eleven, at a state fair in Min­nesota, he found him­self at an Audubon bird booth with a dis­play that read, “See how many birds you can iden­tify.” “Daniel gave it a try,” Moth­ner told Pasatiempo. “A few weeks later, Daniel’s mother got a call from the Audubon So­ci­ety: ‘I would like to speak to a Mr. Mor­per.’ It turns out, he had iden­ti­fied 98 out of 100 birds.”

Mor­per, who died on April 8 at age seventy-two, was a re­al­ist painter of at­mo­spheric land­scapes and cityscapes. He painted box­cars, gorges, canyon lands, and mul­ti­ple ren­di­tions of the Bosque del Apache Na­tional Wildlife Refuge. He showed reg­u­larly with LewAllen Gal­leries, which is pre­sent­ing a me­mo­rial ex­hibit of his works in Oc­to­ber. He also im­parted his pas­sion for birding to his wife.

Moth­ner is show­ing a new col­lec­tion her paint­ings in a solo ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled Aloft at Nüart Gallery, which opens Fri­day, Sept. 9. Like Moth­ner’s pre­vi­ous work, Aloft is a per­sonal and in­ti­mately scaled body of work, her first since Mor­per’s death, and its im­agery of nests, eggs, and fowl are in­spired, in part, by her hus­band’s life­long en­thu­si­asm for all things bird-re­lated.

While nests are the pre­dom­i­nant sub­ject, many of her paint­ings also fea­ture vari­a­tions on the form of the egret, a type of heron that she saw on vis­its to the Bosque del Apache with Mor­per. “We went ev­ery year on New Year’s Eve,” she said. “There are wa­ter birds there. You wait un­til the sun is set­ting, and by then, all of the snow geese have set­tled for the evening on the wa­ter. You have to get up re­ally early, and as the sun is ris­ing, they rise with it. So there’s tens of thou­sands of birds ris­ing. It’s an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Moth­ner has a col­lec­tion of aban­doned nests that she has made the sub­jects of pre­vi­ous bod­ies of work, de­pict­ing them tucked into al­coves. In con­trast, most of the nests in Aloft float freely in blue skies, hov­er­ing high above the land. “Daniel died after a 16-year bat­tle with Alzheimer’s dis­ease,” she said. “It felt so much bet­ter to have them as­cend.”

Even though Moth­ner of­ten paints nests from mem­ory or sim­ply in­vents them, she has spent enough time study­ing them to be fa­mil­iar with their struc­tures. Birds’ nests are as var­ied as the species that build them, and in hu­man-pop­u­lated ar­eas, they are of­ten com­posed of a com­bi­na­tion of or­ganic and in­or­ganic ma­te­ri­als. Sticks, mud, grass, and spi­der­webs are com­mon nest-build­ing el­e­ments, but you oc­ca­sion­ally see wire, bits of plas­tic, fab­ric, even hu­man hair in them — and Moth­ner paints these, too, adding a hu­man el­e­ment to the com­po­si­tions, deep­en­ing their meta­phoric sense of home and do­mes­tic­ity.

“When my daugh­ter El­iz­a­beth was a child, and I brought home the very first nest I found as a gift for her after I made some draw­ings of it, nest-find­ing be­came an ob­ses­sion for both of us,” she said. “El­iz­a­beth thought that the in­side of a nest was the per­fect place to bring up a baby. They aren’t in­trin­si­cally beau­ti­ful — their col­ors are dull, their shape pre­dictable, but be­cause of what they are used for, they touch many of us.” On a stu­dio visit, Moth­ner pulled out a hum­ming­bird’s nest that had been at­tached to a sec­tion of out­door string lights, and it looked like the nest of a spider. Its cushy in­te­rior, while small, looked cozy enough for the bird’s pur­poses, like a thim­ble lined with cot­ton bat­ting. “It’s the ugli­est nest I ever saw,” she said.

Moth­ner is a fig­u­ra­tive painter whose com­po­si­tions are as finely de­tailed as those of a re­al­ist, but her sub­jects of­ten take on as­pects of fan­tasy. The paint­ings in Aloft — no­tably Per­spec­tive and To­ward

Heaven, in which tufts of clouds float like puffs of smoke above an ob­long nest — re­call some of the sur­re­al­ist im­agery of René Magritte. Un­like those in more nat­u­ral­ist paint­ings, Moth­ner’s nests are di­vorced from their habi­tat, forc­ing the viewer to

con­sider them more di­rectly as aes­thetic forms, which adds to their dream­like qual­ity.

Moth­ner paints birds in the same man­ner as she paints the nests. She’s fa­mil­iar enough with bird anatomy to in­vest them with a sense of re­al­ism, but other than some that re­sem­ble egrets, they are not in­tended to rep­re­sent spe­cific species. A sense of the tran­sience of life per­vades the work: Birds mi­grate. They aban­don their nests. But many re­turn, cycli­cally, re­spond­ing to the ebb and flow of their na­tures and the turn of sea­sons. “Daniel was the one who in­tro­duced me to birds,” Moth­ner said. “I am not re­li­gious in the tra­di­tional sense, but I feel that some part of him is aloft and that he would be happy to be close to the crea­tures he loved so much.”

Carol Moth­ner: Per­spec­tive, 2016; op­po­site page, left, Re­flec­tions in Blue and White, 2016; right, First Home, 2016, all fluid acrylic on panel

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