'Birds of the Northeast' exhibit spotlights regional fowl at Fairfield University Art Museum

Bird lovers are going to enjoy a new exhibit that flies into the Fairfield University Art Museum this month. “Birds of the Northeast: Gulls to Great Auks” will explore environmental issues through avian art from the 19th through 21st centuries.

The exhibition, which will include paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, photographs and natural history specimens, will run from Jan. 22 through May 14.

Curated by museum director Carey Weber and Fairfield University biology professors Brian Walker, Jim Biardi and Tod Osier, the exhibition complements the installation on Fairfield’s campus of “The Lost Bird Project” by artist Todd McGrain, which will continue until August.

“I happen to love birds, though I’m not a birder or serious about it, but I just grew up in a house full of bird art, and I thought it would be a great way to involve the biology department,” Weber said.

She has been with the museum since it opened 10 years ago, and was named director about two years ago.

“Right about the time I was made director, I was trying to think of ways to work more collaboratively with the faculty at the university,” she said. “In the past, we’ve had faculty curate exhibitions, but for the most part those were art historians. I was more interested in introducing more interdisciplinary exhibitions.”

That led to the idea for avian art. The main gallery will feature birds that are alive and well and thriving in the Northeast, with the back gallery dedicated to the five lost birds that are part of McGrain’s exhibition.

“Years ago, we had an exhibition by James Prosek (a noted artist and naturist), and Dr. Walker wrote an essay for that catalog, so I knew he was interested in the same kind of experiences I was,” Weber said.

“We reached out to others in the biology department and got some other colleagues involved, and we’ve had a great time putting this together.”

The lost birds section of the exhibition boasts studies for McGrain’s sculptures, a Great Auk skeleton lent by the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, and paintings of lost birds by contemporary artists including Walton Ford, Ann Craven, James Prosek, Morgan Bulkeley and Alberto Rey.

Meanwhile, the living birds section contains specimens of a variety of common local birds, also coming from the Peabody. Among the highlights are Marsden Hartley’s “Give Us This Day” and Andrew Day Jackson’s portfolio “There Will Come Soft Rains,” which draws from numerous sources to explore both preservation and apocalyptic destruction.

Additional art includes works by Alexander Wilson, John Gould, Emily Eveleth, James Prosek, Carolyn Blackwood, Christy Rupp, Christina Empedocles, Paul Villinski and Rick Shaefer.

Shaefer is a Fairfield-based artist who will have two works in the show — drawings of a great horned owl and a barn owl that he did as part of a series of bird studies.

“They are colored pencil and charcoal on toned paper,” he said. “They represent two species that are common here in the Northeast and which are somewhat regulars at our home here in Connecticut, especially the barn owl.

“I enjoy bird drawings as they offer an extensive variety of shape, plumage and personality, and in so many cases imbue a sense of quiet dignity.”

He thinks the variety of species represented in the show will come as a surprise and delight to many viewers.

“If you’re not a birder, per se, you may not be aware of the diversity that surrounds us here in the Northeast,” Shaefer said. “Obviously, this show can only show a small cross section of the multitude of birds that inhabit our landscapes.

“And then the section on extinct species is a timely and engaging cautionary tale on our responsibilities as stewards of this planet. So much is being lost on a daily basis, and there are behaviors that can mollify that loss if we only pay heed.”

In collecting pieces for the show, Weber noted she has learned a lot from her co-curators and biology student Anne Panos, who handled the scientific labels.

“The exhibition will have art historical labels and information, but also these scientific labels,” she said. “We’ll also do an audio tour that’s like a playlist of all the bird songs of the birds included in the exhibition, and our biology student helped us with that.”

There is also a series of programming that will be associated with the exhibition that is historical and scientific, but accessible to those in the community.

On Feb. 10, Hartley will offer a virtual lecture on the painting of birds. On March 2, J. Drew Lanham, alumni distinguished professor of wildlife ecology and certified wildlife biologist for Clemson University, will present the lecture “Birding While Black.”

On March 9, Suzanne Chamlin, associate professor of studio art in the department of visual and performing arts, will offer a workshop on drawing a bird properly.

Wall labels and brochure texts will be available in English and Spanish, and programming will address how specific birds in the exhibition contribute to the ecosystem, the threats they face in their habitats, the ongoing efforts to preserve these species and the ecosystems of which they are part.

Since the exhibit begins in the cold of winter, when many bird enthusiasts may not be out in nature exploring their hobby as much as at other times of the year, the museum hopes to give them something worth looking at.

“It will definitely help people pass the time this winter,” Weber said. “It runs through May, but because of COVID the exhibition is closed to the public right now and will only be open to students, faculty and staff in person, but we’re hoping by May that will change.”

Of course, the exhibition is available virtually for anyone who wants to view the pieces, with the audio tour available as well.

There will also be a guide available highlighting the birds at Fairfield University and the birds of the immediate area, which people can download and use when searching for birds.

“The exhibit will be a huge gallery full of beautiful art, and people can see a lot of friends — blue jays and cardinals and ducks and these birds that you can look out your window and see,” Weber said.

“I think people will enjoy seeing how artists have interpreted them over the years, going back to the 1800s. And the lost bird gallery is a reminder of how fragile our ecosystem is and how we need to take care of our planet and not destroy the habitats of our bird friends.”

For more information about the exhibit, visit fairfield.edu.

Keith Loria is a freelance writer.