Saturday, January 19, 2013

Bringing Back the Dead

     “Extinction is Forever.”
      We've all heard it, all read the warnings that if we don't do something to save endangered species they'll join the death rolls as extinct. None will ever be seen again.
      What then?
      Do we forget  about them, tuck their quaint Audubon portraits into our school books, and tsk our way to the next environmental crisis?
      Or do we do something to avoid further extinction- that of forgetting them entirely?
     According to sculptor Todd McGrain, “Forgetting is another kind of extinction.”
     When McGrain read Chris Cokino's book ,"Hope is the Thing with Feathers; a Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds",  he selected five bygone species that spoke to him the most and resurrected them in blackened bronze.
     Why blackened bronze for the birds? According to the sculptor, it's because the medium gives the sense that these birds are in a black void.
     He called his work “The Lost Bird Project”.
(Photo from

     The Labrador Duck, the Passenger Pigeon, the Great Auk, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Heath Hen all took shape as huge minimalist sculptures that conveyed the spirit, rather than the details, of each bird. And they’re large- up to 6 feet tall, 750 lbs.
     “I want them to be big and ponderous,” McGrain told an interviewer. “but I also want them to be really big and beautiful.”
     To get the birds right, McGrain studied pictures and specimens of each bird at museums in Rome, Toronto, and Ithaca, NY. He kept a homing pigeon for a while to observe its actions and personality more closely.
     But they weren't meant to be just stand in museums.
     They were made to stand in the places where the last live birds of their type were sighted.
     That means that the Great Auk (which was like a penguin) ended up on Fogo Island in Newfoundland, and the Passenger Pigeon sits on the Audubon reserve in Columbus, OH, 50 miles away from where the last of the birds was shot by a 14 year old boy in 1900. Their sites lend them additional power and poignancy.
     Discovering them in the wild unexpectedly can be a visceral experience. Since McGrain believes that once you come in contact with and touch a bird, you will be more aware of what the world has lost.
     "Once you know something of the life of that species, you realize that not having it in the world is a huge loss," McGrain said.
     That often, of course, leads to taking action to protect today’s wild animals..
     According to the ASPCA, the US has 450 animal species on its endangered list, not only due to climate change, but due to man's actions. People who are aware of the loss we all suffer when these species are gone are more likely to do something to stop it.
    Last year, the film "The Lost Bird Project" began making the festival circuit. It tells not only about the birds themselves, but about the placement and making of the sculptures. You can see the trailer at  .
     In his unique way, McGrain brings art, history, and environment together.

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