In High Feather


(This 1196th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 23, 2014.)



A bowerbird site photographed by Janelle Iglesias


Janelle Iglesias is an artist who arranges otherwise prosaic objects (aka stuff) into interesting projects. Tree branches, a boat oar, tennis rackets, parasols, a crutch, soda straws and sawhorses come together in a kind of (oxymoronic) asymmetric balance to form near hypnotic displays. (Her previous work is at this website.) If this is modern art, I must admit that I like it.


Janelle is here at the University at Buffalo now working on a project in the Center for the Arts Lightwell Gallery. There her public display will open with an artist's reception from 5-7 this Thursday, February 27, and continue until May 10. (Gallery hours: 11-5 Tuesday through Friday; 1-5 Saturdays.)


But this is a natural history column and I am well out of my depth as an art critic. Why then am I reporting on Ms. Iglesias? As Shakespeare would have it, "And thereby hangs a tale."


Several years ago Janelle came across an article in National Geographic Magazine about bowerbirds. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about them: "The most notable characteristic of bowerbirds is their extraordinarily complex courtship and mating behavior, where males build a bower to attract mates. In and around the bower, the male places a variety of brightly colored objects he has collected. These objects may include hundreds of shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, and even discarded plastic items, coins, nails, rifle shells, or pieces of glass. The males spend hours arranging this collection." Apparently the displays play the same role as bright colors in male birds for the most attractive displays are set out by the drabbest species.


Janelle saw her art as similar to that of the bowerbirds and when she learned about a travel and research grant for artists she wrote a proposal to visit and observe these birds. Three years later, through support of the Jerome Foundation, she traveled over 9000 miles to West Papua to see them.


You cannot, of course, just travel to a country encompassing 54,000 square miles and expect to find a particular bird species. After some research she enrolled in a birdwatching tour through Papua Expeditions, exceptional guides dedicated to genuine ecotourism. In addition to three trip leaders her five colleagues included two biologists and three retirees.


What an opportunity. I have friends who would give an arm and a leg to have joined them for 677 avian species have been recorded in Papua. To provide some sense of how exotic those species are, I went through the checklist and found 18 that I have seen in a lifetime of birding.


The two-week tour did not focus solely on bowerbirds, of course, and among the beautiful birds Janelle got to see were several species of birds of paradise with the males' spectacular crests and tails of a wide range of colors, many of them iridescent.


But bowerbirds were her target and Janelle was able to see and photograph some of their complex bowers and the collections of objects arrayed around them. These differed from place to place. As you might expect, those near populated areas included many colorful labels and plastic containers all too familiar to our throwaway society. Only deeper in the forest were the items restricted to natural objects.


To see these birds at work gathering and arranging these artifacts, the observers had to watch and listen from blinds. Janelle stresses "listen" because bowerbirds have a wide range of vocalizations and are great mimics. From her description I would rank them well ahead of our own mockingbird. They produced perfect renderings of dogs barking, a rifle shot, the snorting of pigs, the songs of other birds, village noises and even electronic whining. They were ventriloquists as well: even when they saw the bowerbirds' mouths open, the calls seemed to come from different directions. The experience was even worth putting up with the hoards of mosquitos that descended on their blind.


Now Janelle is bringing some of the sense of her adventure to the Lightwell Gallery, calling it "In High Feather". Her structure is being mounted in a two-story high space and will be viewable from both ground floor and balcony. In keeping with her adventure she is also providing opportunities to view her structure as from a blind.-- Gerry Rising