At Graham Carter’s Kids Club this weekend, we celebrated the launch of his new bird-inspired artworks, with a fun interactive workshop, teaching the children how to create their own bird-themed art.
Looking around at the walls of the gallery, we noticed that many an artwork features our feathered friends. Whether depicted in portrait form, or used as a motif to symbolise something deeper, birds are steeped in folklore and mythology and have appeared in works of art since the days of Neolithic cave paintings.
We’re swooping into the world of birds in art to discover how some of Enter Gallery’s artists have used the animals to imbue their work with deeper meaning…
As a master of animal portraiture, it’s no surprise Dave White has turned his hand to portraying birds in his art. Most recently, in 2021, White released a series of Hummingbird artworks that were exclusive to Enter Gallery.
Not only are hummingbirds beautiful to look at, they are revered for their healing powers. Symbolising lightness, joy and happiness, the birds are said to be good luck, and an indication that challenging times are over.
Dan Baldwin has been portraying swallows in his art since the very start of his career. Via his birds, Baldwin infuses his work with a sense of freedom.
In terms of symbolism, swallows are of particular importance to sailors, who adorn themselves with tattoos of the bird to represent the number of nautical miles they’ve travelled.
Swallows are known for migration patterns where they travel long distances from home and back again. Therefore, a tattoo of the bird represents the idea that, no matter how far they travel, a sailor can always find their way home.
British illustrator, Ralph Steadman, is best known for his work for Private Eye, The New Statesman, and for ‘providing chaotic texture to chaotic text’ during his time working with gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, most notably on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Steadman’s inclusion of birds in his art is an act of activism, designed to raise awareness of endangered species and to highlight many species that have already become extinct.
Steadman’s fixation on birds began when he was invited by filmmaker, Ceri Levy, to create a piece of art representing an extinct bird for an exhibition and box set titled Ghosts of Gone Birds (more on that below).
Levy’s request sparked something in Steadman and 100 paintings later, his project Extinct Boids was born. Its follow up, Nextinction, featured cartoons of critically-endangered birds that could well become extinct if we don’t fight to protect them, such as the Kakapo and the Giant Ibis.
Steadman’s depictions have ranged from the relatively well-known Great Auk’s and Dodos to more bizarre (and some made-up) species like the Needless Smut and the Gob Swallow, all with the humour and riotous colour for which the artist is known. As Steadman said, “It made a nice change from drawing politicians.”
Over the years, films have been made about birds, different species have been used as band names, and many a beloved cartoon character, from Big Bird to Scrooge McDuck, has come with wings.
This broad portrayal of birds in popular culture has caught the eye of the Godfather of Pop Art – Sir Peter Blake. One example is his coveted 2009 Venice Suite, in which we saw Penguins take an unprecedented holiday to the Italian city. Later he populated the forecourt of the Palais Garnier with birds in his Paris Suite.
Birds have also permeated the oeuvre of Brighton-based artist, Mark Powell, who is known for impossibly-intricate portraits created in simple Bic biro.
In his piece, Open Thoughts, Powell depicts a stork on vintage postcards. Associated with the arrival of babies, storks are considered a bearer of good news. Just as it feels like a treat to receive a postcard through your letterbox, this piece is a reminder of the magic of reaching out to those you love.
Rob Wass is a mixed-media artist and photographer whose interpretation of birds in his art comes in a more abstract form.
Every artwork that Wass creates begins life through the lens of his camera, with him heading outside with the intention of capturing the beauty and patterns of the natural world.
Next, he translates the intricate details that he’s captured, ranging from the markings on leaves to the patterns murmuration of birds make as they soar across the sky, into works of art.
Ghosts of Gone Birds
As mentioned above, another example of art being used as activism came back in 2011, when a number of artists collaborated on Ghosts of Gone Birds – a boxset created to raise funds and awareness for BirdLife International.
Chrisie Nimenko is an artist who creates arresting mixed-media collages that draw inspiration from the natural world.
Nimenko is another example of an artist who uses the symbolism behind bird imagery to add narrative to her artworks.
For example, in Darkness Within, Nimenko includes tropical birds in order to convey our lifelong quest to discover hidden aspects of ourselves, and in Moon Rising, her owls symbolise good omens and protection.