Environmental Matters

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Setting X
Joni Mitchell, life-size bodies, mapping, maps, First Nations' territories, bones, remains, species, extinct, extinction, songbirds, European settlement, rail lines, untamed land, extirpation,stilled lives, "Stilled Lives" endangered, habitats, prairie winters, settlers, nature's habitats, indigenous peoples, indigenous beliefs, beliefs, values, threatened species, human activities, prairie grasslands, endangered species, altered landscapes, habitats, bird habitats,etched glass, dead birds, life, death, etching, shadow, sacred ground, Pine Siskin, nature, natural habitats, flight, migration, bird migration, victim, song birds, songs of song birds,agriculture, subduing nature,

“They took all the trees
Put ‘em in a tree museum”
– Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

In Mapping the Land and Body, an exhibition staged in 2004 at Regina’s Rosemont Art Gallery (now the Art Gallery of Regina), Marsha Kennedy presented 15 life-size nude bodies on which she had inscribed maps of Saskatchewan’s highway system, rail lines, the locations of historic church missions and trading posts, and lines marking traditional First Nations’ territories. Each of the figures held the bones or remains of an animal or plant species found on the province’s southern plains, many of which over time have been become extinct, or been extirpated (killed off), endangered, or threatened by human activities.

start quote...try to bring a sensitivity to the animal or plant that I might be looking at and it's that sensitivity to that animal or species that kind of brings the viewer in.end quote-- Marsha Kennedy

It is a curious fact that while Canada’s prairie grasslands might seem to be an example of wild and untamed land, the prairies are in reality one of the most altered landscapes on earth. When hundreds of thousands of settlers poured onto the prairies at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century they “broke” the land and drained wetlands to create their farms. Today, less than five percent of the native grasslands present before the settlers arrived remains on the prairie landscape.

In her  artist statementA commentary by an artist on an artwork, and exhibition, belief system, or any other topic.  for an exhibition called Stilled Lives, a  seriesA number of things or events standing or succeeding in order, and connected by a like relation; sequence; order; course; a succession of things; as, a continuous series of calamitous events. (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  of paintings, of which Setting X (presented here) was one, Kennedy wrote that she “…envisioned the first European settlers arriving on the vast prairies with attitudes that were contrary to the beliefs and values of  indigenousNative; produced, growing, or living, naturally in a country or climate; not exotic; not imported. (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  peoples. The songs of birds must have been a powerful  symbolVisual image that represents something else.  of hope for the early settlers struggling to survive our harsh prairie winters.”

While the songbirds may have been a symbol of hope and new life, as those same settlers  setThe hardening process of paint, plaster of Paris, concrete, resin, an adhesive, or any other material which must harden before working with it further. (Artlex.com)  to work on the land, they also subdued nature and eliminated the  habitatThe natural abode, locality or region of an animal or plant.  (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  that attracted the birds in the first place. In Setting X and the other paintings in Stilled Lives Kennedy presents us with one of the outcomes of Saskatchewan’s transformation into an agricultural province.

Kennedy has created a series of paintings of table place settings, each with the body of a dead bird, edged in deep black. In Setting X she presents the body of a Pine Siskin  setThe hardening process of paint, plaster of Paris, concrete, resin, an adhesive, or any other material which must harden before working with it further. (Artlex.com)  on a white embroidered tablecloth. Rather than a table displaying a bountiful and varied harvest from the land, we are served up the body of a lone dead bird in a  settingThe hardening process of paint, plaster of Paris, concrete, resin, an adhesive, or any other material which must harden before working with it further. (Artlex.com)  that is sterile and empty of life. Kennedy reinforces this image with the museum-like glass panel that accompanies the two painted panels. Etched into the glass panel is the  shadowDark value of a colour made by adding black.  of the bird in flight, overlaid with the words: "Disturbed Ground" that she says “…refers to the disturbance of a grave or the sacred ground of original peoples and nature.” These words, delivered with scientific detachment, illustrate how we have disconnected from the natural world.

“All the dead birds I’ve painted,” Kennedy explained in her artist statement, “are dead birds that have fallen prey to the dangers of human living such as windowpanes,  domesticRemaining much at home; devoted to home duties or pleasures; as, a domestic man or woman.  Living in or near human habitations; domesticated; tame as distinguished from wild; as, domestic animals.  Made in one's own house, nation, or country; as, domestic manufactures, wines, etc.  One who lives in the family of an other, as hired household assistant; a house servant. Articles of home manufacture, especially cotton goods.  (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  cats, cars, and electric wires. Most of the birds fell victim as they passed through Regina during the spring and fall migration. These stilled and delicate bodies had once flown to far and incredible places.”

Kennedy seems to be saying that a disregard and disrespect for nature, as well as a detachment from nature, makes our lives poorer, not better; she seems to be asking us to make changes before there are no songbirds to announce that spring has come.

additional resources Chickadees and Clouds
Duration: 2:59 min
Size: 12576kb
Growing up in Rural Saskatchewan
Duration: 2:20 min
Size: 10300kb
Her Images Tell a Story
Duration: 2:39 min
Size: 11420kb
Nature and Politics in Her Art
Duration: 2:01 min
Size: 8804kb
Stilled Lives, Setting #10
Duration: 2:39 min
Size: 11133kb
Things to Think About
  • Marsha Kennedy said that she first began to think about birds as a  subjectA topic or idea represented in an art work.  for her art after her son came home, upset, to tell her about a dead bird he had seen. Do you recall the first time you saw a dead bird or other animal? How did you react? Why do you think you reacted that way?
  • Does Kennedy’s work give you a new way of looking at environmental issues? How is her approach to addressing environmental issues different from others’ approaches?
  • Is there something in your immediate environment that you think might be threatened? What could you do to help protect it?
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How might the work of artists help to preserve our natural habitat? Might artists be as important as scientists in promoting a green environment? Explore this by reading an award winning book about wildlife and landscape in Saskatchewan: River in a Dry Land by Trevor Herriot, (Stoddart)

Also, observe the eco-activism efforts of Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman by taking a look at a few of his paintings and reading the comments he makes below the images on his website:

Birds as a source for art beyond observation

Birds show up in many illustrations and designs from  medievalRefers to the Middle Ages.  The period in European history between the collapse of Rome and the Renaissance, from 476 CE to about 1450. Also known as the medieval period, and as the Dark Ages.  (Artlex.com)   tapestryA woven piece of textile depicting pattern or narrative or symbolic images. A tapestry is composed of weft and warp threads, but in tapestry all warp threads are hidden and it is the weft threads which result in an image.  to the 19th century wallpaper of William Morris , to decorative  embroideryTo embroider is to ornament with needlework — making and arranging stitches of variously coloured threads — or to make by means of needlework. Embroidery is the act or art of embroidering. Or, it is ornamention of fabric with needlework, a piece of embroidered fabric, or embellishment with fanciful details. Fabric to be embroidered can be more easily worked if it is stretched within an embroidery hoop. Most embroidery needles are curved. (Artlex.com)  and book illustrations. One example is The Strawberry Thief by William Morris.

The Bedside Book of Birds by Graeme Gibson (Doubleday) contains poetry, stories and artwork from many sources.

Birds also have significant cultural meaning in many cultures. Look at  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: http://www.afn.ca/ Village of First Nations: http://www.firstnations.com/ Canada’s First Nations: http://www.ucalgary.ca/applied_history/tutor/firstnations/ Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Nations   cultures, for example:

Can you find evidence of the appreciation of birds in/by other cultures including your own? Asian cultures, African cultures, North and South American cultures, European cultures, Australian cultures…and others…

Where do you find bird species represented in these cultures? (For example, in stories, songs, costume design, fabric painting, masks, sculptures, repeated patterns in music, dance, visuals.)

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Science and drawing link

Suggested materials and methods for these drawings

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Do sounds influence how we imagine images? Or when you look at an image, do you imagine sound?

  • Match each bird below to a bird song you hear. Drag the bird’s image beside the sound clip you think is correct.
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The poignant  imageryAn image is a picture, idea, or impression of a person, thing, or idea; or a mental picture of a person, thing, or idea. The word imagery refers to a group or body of related images. (Artlex.com)  of Kennedy’s work reminds us of the delicate  balancePrinciple of design dealing with the arrangement of the visual elements in an art work to produce harmony of design and proportion.  of life in nature. The health, presence or absence of wildlife is an indicator of the ecological state of the natural environment. Kennedy presents a straightforward message about her concerns for planet earth. The activities and resources presented here are designed to bring attention to the importance of birds in our natural environment, and their value as sources of visual inspiration.

In Saskatchewan, we are fortunate in our daily lives to be able to observe a wide variety of over 350 species of birds. But will this always be so? Birds rely on a predictable climate, a constant source of fresh water, and a compatible, well-balanced, natural environment. Are birds important to us? Why?

Be an Observer:  Artists who choose birds or other wildlife to focus on, become observers in the same way as naturalists do.

  • Explore a small section of the outdoors and observe the landscape, birds, and other wildlife present.  If you live in the rural countryside, it could be a farmyard or field that you explore. If you live in a city, you might use a backyard or a park as the source for your observations. The following example is of pelicans that can be see on Saskatchewan lakes and city waterways in the spring.
  • Keep a “diary” of your observations for a specific time. This could be for an hour or a day or for whatever amount of time you choose.  Create a display with the information you discover.
  • Use a bird book or Saskatchewan bird checklist to identify any birds you observe. You can find checklists at the following sites:

Anderson, Jack.  ‘Culture’s effect on nature in Kennedy’s images.  Regina Leader-Post, October 6, 2004.

Anderson, Jack.  ‘Marsha Kennedy’s work speaks through irony.’  Regina Leader Post, October 14, 1999.

Anderson, Jack.  ‘Life through botanical images.’  Regina Leader Post, December 13, 2007.

Arnott, Ryan. Phantom Limbs.  Exhibition catalogue.  MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan, 1994.

Beatty, Gregory.  ‘Body Politics.’  Prairie Dog, September 2, 2004.

Kennedy, Marsha and Lee-Ann Martin.  Stilled Lives.  Exhibition catalogue.  MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan, 1999.

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