[Seeing Nature] [James Prosek, Artist and Author] I think that the arts and biodiversity sciences are both fundamentally about observation and I would consider myself as an artist to be primarily an observer and recorder not of what I see, but what I see filtered through my mind. This wall of bird silhouettes and numbers is kind of a work that acknowledges the culture of birding. A work that would pay tribute to the field guide which has single-handedly revolutionized the way that people go into nature, the way people see nature, because often times what you get is just a silhouette of a creature against the sky. Once the design was completed it was blown up and printed on big sheets of paper. The physical execution of the wall involves taking the sheets of paper, putting a piece of graphite transfer paper on the back of a piece of paper, taping it up the wall, pressing down around the outline of everything, taking the paper off the wall, and then painting within the lines with a relatively small brush. There’s 140 species of birds on the wall. There’s a number next to each of the birds, but there’s no visible key. I want people to look at the wall, the diversity of forms and structures of the birds, without being able to satisfy their urge to know what it is. There’s five different habitats: tropical rainforest, southwestern and Sonoran desert; an Everglades type of mangrove estuary; Atlantic coastal habitat, and northeastern forest like Ithaca, New York. I drew birds up until about the age of nine and then I started becoming really obsessed with fish. A few friends of mine suggested that while we were up here working that we get outside, which was nice to do even in the winter. What I think I love most about that whole process is the mystery of what is down there. You look through that hole in the ice and it’s just all blackness. A lot of what I think about and what I do is about preserving that element of mystery. Names are the starting point for all knowledge. When I was a kid and my father would take me out in the forest and say that’s a sugar maple, thats an ash, that’s a white oak, that’s a red oak, before I had those names the forest was just this green blob. The sugar maple besides being a tree with slightly shaggy bark and a particular shaped leaf can also be a home for wood ducks… it’s part of a greater ecosystem. It’s interacting with the world, affecting the evolution of other things and not static in any way. Ready? One, two… The beauty of being human is the friction between the named the world and unnamed world. The world that’s named is the world where our minds and language kicks in. The unnamed world is that world that we all experience when we lose ourselves in nature. [You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the bird… so let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing. That’s what counts. I learned very early on the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. —Richard Feynman, physicist]End of transcript
Often all you see of a passing bird is its silhouette. Expert birders will tell you that shape is more important than color in identifying birds in the field. That’s why the original Peterson’s Field Guide featured endpapers adorned with simple black silhouettes of common birds. It’s also why artist James Prosek focused on silhouettes in his mural for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s visitor center. In this artwork, Prosek asks us to contemplate the incredible diversity of bird shapes and appreciate each unique form. Hear the artist’s thoughts on the power of observation in art and science and see how he harnessed this perspective to create a gigantic visual ode to birds and biodiversity.