JANUARY 13, 2019
I’M A BIRD-LOVER and a book-lover in almost equal measure, and I have come to expect three kinds of books about birds — field guides, coffee-table books, and studies in scientific ornithology. Jane Kim’s The Wall of Birds, however, doesn’t quite fit. It disturbs my categories. But it creates its own space and purpose that dazzles with the color and life of its paintings and intrigues with the story it tells.
The Wall of Birds is decidedly not a field guide — it has heavy board covers, measures nine inches by 10 and a half inches, and weighs in at just over three pounds — too large and heavy for a birder’s knapsack. It wouldn’t be very useful in the field, since it doesn’t offer the information a birder often wants: nothing, for example, about identifying marks, mating practices, habitat preferences, call/song, diet, et cetera. It’s not really a coffee-table book either, though it has something of the look of that genre, with Kim’s fabulously detailed head-portrait of a great hornbill (Buceros bicornis) occupying about one third of the front cover, and with hundreds of her energetic, brightly colored paintings inside.
As soon the reader opens it, however, she finds a serious essay in scientific ornithology from the unique point of view of a scientific illustrator-artist. It’s also a fascinating artist-diary explaining some of the hundreds of decisions Kim had to make as she painted 243 full-color, life-sized images of birds onto a 40-by-100-foot interior wall at the Visitor Center of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. That wall became her canvas when she agreed — enthusiastically — to take on the project.
The Lab’s director, John W. Fitzpatrick, describes the final agreement:
243 bird families, each to be depicted by a single example, painted in full color and life size. With the help of paleo-ornithologist Julia Clarke, we chose an additional twenty-one extinct forms to depict the evolution of birds from lobe-finned fish and archosaurian ancestors. To the colorful bird families, we added one representative from the order Crocodillia (which shares an ancient ancestor with birds) and the five families that were hunted to extinction by humans, each to be painted in ghostly gray tones over their respective lands of origin and extinction.
Fitzpatrick is one of the three “authors” whose names appear on the title page and one of the three personalities who contribute to the tone and substance of the book. The other two are the author, Jane Kim, and her husband and collaborator, Thayer Walker, an experienced outdoor publisher and writer (who never speaks in his own voice in the book but whose understanding of the project may be assumed to have been integrated into Kim’s narrative). Of the three, Kim’s is certainly the dominant one — the single narrator of the book’s story, which is an account of two and a half years of research and daily work on a project that combines the scientist’s passion for truth and the artist’s desire to stir in her audience an answering passionate engagement with the subject.
The canvas that Fitzpatrick offered for Kim’s work was not perfectly blank. It was a white wall of roughly 4,000 square feet in the interior of the Visitor Center at the Lab — large and naturally lit by windows but interrupted along all its edges by other architectural features (windows, a stairway, a stairwell, doors, et cetera).
Kim began work on the wall by drawing pale gray outline maps of the great land masses in the Earth’s oceans — North and South America, Africa, Europe and Asia, Antarctica, and Australasia, leaving the oceans themselves white. In other areas, she sketched in 21 even paler outlines of earlier life-forms to acknowledge the evolution of birds from their reptilian forebears. Comically enough, several of these forebears, these birds-to-be, follow the railing along the 30-step stairway that makes its way down to a pair of doors leading into meeting rooms. At some points it appears that the not-yet-birds are perching on the railing — or perhaps marching down along it. The mural is serious and grand, but it is not solemn.
Nor, perhaps, is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the work to which Kim’s wall has most often been compared: both artists worked off the ground and in a space that was already there, not purpose-built for art but kidnapped, as it were, and coerced into the service of art. No one, so far as I know, has claimed that Kim’s wall is the artistic equal of Michelangelo’s ceiling, but the similarities of circumstance — Michelangelo lying on his back to paint the ceiling; Kim standing in the bucket of a lift truck to paint her specimens on the wall — have led to Michelangela as a nickname for Kim.
The actual painting of individual birds began in the lower-right area of the wall, over an outline of New Zealand where Kim placed her image of the North Island saddleback (Philesturnus rufusater). And just over a year later, she finished by painting the great blue heron (Ardea herodias) near the Atlantic Coast north of Virginia and south of the Canadian border — perhaps somewhere near Ithaca, New York, the home of the Cornell Lab — on the shadow map of North America.
Like John James Audubon, perhaps the greatest of the bird artists, Kim created her portraits of birds alive, in their worlds — singing, hunting for prey, grooming, et cetera. But unlike Audubon, she did not include any contextual props — no limbs for perching, no prey to pursue, no nest with hatchlings: just the single adult bird, whose feet may be curled around an invisible limb, whose throat may be swollen with inaudible song, or whose eyes may be intensely focused on a square inch of imaginary underbrush or water, where the next meal may await.
Kim holds a bachelor’s degree in art and a master’s certificate in scientific illustration, and she worked in the classic manner of scientific illustrators, using mostly preserved specimens, photographs, and video references as source material. But for the very last portrait, she worked “from life.” The live great blue heron who served as her model took up residence outside her office window just as she was finishing her work. All the daily life of the herons was “unfolding in plain view” and she “had, literally, a front-row seat to the action.” Kim’s account of this last painting is poignantly titled, “Farewell to an Old Friend” — the friend being not just the heron, one supposes, but the project itself.
Here is a selection from her celebration of the heron as artist’s model and natural wonder:
Painting this heron felt like revisiting an old friend. I composed it as if it were stalking the shallows of Sapsucker Pond waiting for a fish. A gentle breeze has blown its head feather aflutter, a graceful compositional counterweight to its sharp and hefty beak. The bird’s blue-gray body is the color of Ithaca’s moody spring sky. Its sweeping shapes — that long, S-curved neck and those stringy chest and back feathers that help it shed the muck that comes with a life in the wetlands — made me feel as if my brush was sculpting the bird rather than painting it.
The pair fledged four chicks.
I don’t mind — in fact I like — Kim’s willingness to admit sentiment into her narrative. Birds can stir that kind of feeling in me as well. My only serious reservation about the book is a resistance to the grand claim of comprehensiveness the book tries to make when it announces on its cover and several times inside that the Wall offers a vision of “One Planet, 243 Families, 375 Million Years.” Of at least 11,000 species of birds now extant, 243 is only a sample size of about .02 percent of the total; of 375 million years, the 21 pre-bird ancestors will be called upon to represent something like 18 million years each.
I find the grand claim too much of a strain and prefer to give my attention to the paintings and the intriguing narrative and commentary that accompany them. In Kim’s paintings and in her story of their making, there is matter a-plenty for any art-lover, book-lover, or bird-lover.