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Dead Bird
dead bird, section of land, unsettling art, barbed wire, viewer, pathos, poity, agricultural domination, accident, difficult subject matter, humans and nature, natural territory, borders, metaphor, fences, borders, colonialism, First Nations mark territory, photograph, gelatin silver print, inclusion, exclusion, disenfranchisement, territory, honesty, kill, death, accident,
start quoteI would like to honor my father's life by creating a space where family and friends can gather and tell stories.end quote-- Sandra Semchuk

Sandra Semchuk’s Dead Bird from 1972 is just what its title suggests. It depicts a small section of land with a fence running through it; the fence is made of barbed wire and the branches of trees, and a dead bird hangs from the wire by its neck.

This work is deeply unsettling, and it should be. Semchuk has made no attempt to gloss over the image, or to soften its content. Even her title for the work is direct and difficult - it is a painful honesty. It is the honesty of this image that allows us to feel its weight so intensely, and it is its honesty that shocks us.

Pathos is the primary force at play here; the sadness we feel towards the fence’s victim borders on pity. As we reel from this, Semchuk is forcing her viewers to identify with the bird as the victim of agricultural domination. The bird was not killed for a reason, but by accident, and yet the accident was caused by our tendency to mark territory and to bar others from it.

Knowing Semchuk’s background and interests, it may be easy to draw a parallel between the barbed wire fence and her view of  colonialismThe practice of domination of one group (i.e., the colonizers of a country) over another (i.e., the indigenous population of the country colonized). See the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy for further information and examples:  in Canada, with its various methods of exclusion and division. The bird suffers from having its natural territory interfered with by the drawing of arbitrary borders, a situation the  First NationsFirst Nations is a contemporary term referring to the Indian peoples of Canada, both status and non-status (definition from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada). To find out more about Canada’s First Nations, go to: Assembly of First Nations: Village of First Nations: Canada’s First Nations: Wikipedia:   people of Canada can doubtless identify with. In this way, Semchuk is using the bird as a  metaphorUsed in art as in speech. A term, regularly used for one object, is used for another and suggests a likeness between to the two.  for disenfranchised people within the prairie landscape.

additional resources Things to Think About
  • Do you think it was right for the artist to photograph a dead animal? Does her reason for doing so justify it?
  • Think about why Semchuk might have chosen to create Dead Bird as a black and white photograph, rather than as a colour photograph or reproduced as a drawing. How does the black and white photograph affect us?
Advanced Activity

A Saskatchewan problem:

Sandra Semchuk responded to an issue about loss/changes of  habitatThe natural abode, locality or region of an animal or plant.  (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  through her photography. Here is a current and ongoing issue concerned with habitat.

  •  Every year gophers (seen below at right) destroy huge areas of land that are designated for crops. There are two sides to the debate over what to do about this.

    • GophersAgriculturists need to destroy the gophers, but naturalists are worried that if gophers are destroyed by poison, endangered species such as burrowing owls, swift foxes, golden eagles and feringuous hawks who eat gophers, will also be destroyed. 

    • On the other hand, agriculture is a major aspect of our lives in Saskatchewan, so if gophers are allowed to continue to destroy cropland, this will have a devastating effect on agriculture in this province. Read a bit more about this debate on a Saskatchewan CBC program at:

  • Discuss this issue with friends, fellow students, and teachers, and think about how you would could respond to this or another environmental issue through a visual project. Do you think visual art is an effective way to communicate opinions?

Cross curricular Science/Social Studies activity

List situations where humans have caused loss of  habitatThe natural abode, locality or region of an animal or plant.  (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  for wildlife

  • City highwaySome examples might be highways, airports and building sites. All of these constructions are necessary for us to function in  contemporaryCurrent, belonging to the same period of time. Usually referring to our present time, but can refer to being current with any specified time. (  life. How might we provide sanctuary for birds and other animals as a counterpart to these kinds of constructions? 

  • Imagine you are the federal Minister for the Environment. Write an essay about your intentions, giving some solutions to enhance our natural surroundings so that we do not end up living in a future wasteland. 

    • Will you create green spaces and quiet courtyards in busy cities, set noise limits in certain areas, clean up air, soil and water? 

    • Will you actively encourage scientists to find solutions to help balance industry and nature?
Advanced Activity

Articles with information and photos that support Sandra Semchuk’s artwork

Online Activity
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Imagine you are an environmental landscape artist.   DesignA plan, or to plan. The organization or composition of a work; the skilled arrangement of its parts. An effective design is one in which the elements of art and principles of design have been combined to achieve an overall sense of unity. Also [applied design], the production of attractive and well crafted functional objects. Subcategories of the design arts include: architecture, bonsai, fashion design, furniture design, graphic design, ikebana, industrial design, interior design, landscape architecture, stagecraft, textile design, and Web page design. (  a virtual garden or park where humans and wildlife can co-exist.


Studio Activity

Artists in the environment

Many  contemporaryCurrent, belonging to the same period of time. Usually referring to our present time, but can refer to being current with any specified time. (  artists focus on working in and with the natural environment. Their art materials are renewable components of landscape.  For example, they might focus on earth, sand or snow.  Others create with garden landscaping materials or they may even plant trees or other plants as part of their work. Art Junction:  A  collaborative artTwo or more artists coming together to develop ideas, work through their plans and create an art work.   spaceSpace can be the area around, within or between images or elements. Space can be created on a two-dimensional surface by using such techniques as overlapping, object size, placement, colour intensity and value, detail and diagonal lines.  for teachers and students is a website that has a list of artists who work in this way and examples of what they do.  Some artists seek to revitalize waste disposal sites and eliminate toxins from soil or water, making a friendlier environment for wildlife. The fate of our environment and how we as humans co-exist within the environment is a major issue in contemporary society all over the world. Scientists and artists are striving to find solutions so that economic progress can be made without the destruction of nature as so often has happened in the past.
Make a difference as an artist

  • On your own, or with a group or class, investigate an area of your community  where you can clean up or enhance the area to attract birds and other wildlife. For example, you might investigate a street, a park area a parking lot, or a school playground in your city/small town.
  • Document your progress and see if you can display photos and documentation in a public area such as a library or town hall. 


Ideas for planning projects in art-related environmental science

  • Art Junction:  A collaborative art space for teachers and students is a website that has a call to teachers for participation in environmental art projects. Included is a list of artists (along with their websites) who are using creative ways to solve environmental problems by revitalizing waste sites, building gardens and planting trees, recreating landscapes and encouraging wildlife to flourish. American artist Lynne Hull is one such artist who creates sculptural installations for birds.  You can find out more about her at Lynne Hull – Environmental Artist:  In addition, check out some of the other artists’ websites on Art Junction for more ideas.

Author unknown.  Sandra Semchuk.  Art History, Concordia University.  Retrieved from the Internet on May 11, 2008 from:

Borsa, Joan, and Sandra Semchuk. Sandra Semchuk: Coming to Death's Door - A Daughter/Father Collaboration. Vancouver, British Columbia: Presentation House Gallery, 1992.

Regan, Margaret.  ‘‘How Far Back is Home’ Celebrates a Photographer Who’s Come a Long Way.’  Tuscon Weekly, July 28, 1997.  Retrieved from the Internet on May 11, 2008 from:

Semchuk, Sandra.  Biography.  Emily Carr Institute of Art Design.

Semchuk, Sandra Semchuk and Laurel Tien.  ‘Telling Story! Voice in Photography: An online visual art critical studies program evaluation.’ International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 5, Issue 3, 2004.

Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning