The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art

October 30, 2014 — February 22, 2015

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
An artwork with two birds

Fred Tomaselli, Migrant Fruit Thugs, 2006, leaves, photo collage, gouache, acrylic, and resin on wood panel, 96 x 78 in., Glenstone, © Fred Tomaselli. Image courtesy Glenstone

Birds have long been a source of mystery and awe. Today, a growing desire to meaningfully connect with the natural world has fostered a resurgence of popular interest in the winged creatures that surround us daily. The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art examines mankind’s relationship to birds and the natural world through the eyes of twelve major contemporary American artists, including David Beck, Rachel Berwick, Lorna Bieber, Barbara Bosworth, Joann Brennan, Petah Coyne, Walton Ford, Paula McCartney, James Prosek, Laurel Roth Hope, Fred Tomaselli, and Tom Uttech.

The presentation of The Singing and the Silence coincides with two significant environmental anniversaries—the extinction of the passenger pigeon in 1914 and the establishment of the Wilderness Act in 1964—events which highlight mankind’s journey from conquest of the land to conservation of it. Although human activity has affected many species, birds in particular embody these competing impulses. Inspired by the confluence of these events, the exhibition explores how artists working today use avian imagery to meaningfully connect with the natural world, among other themes.

While artists have historically created images of birds for the purposes of scientific inquiry, taxonomy or spiritual symbolism, the artists featured in The Singing and the Silence instead share a common interest in birds as allegories for our own earthbound existence. The 46 artworks on display consider themes such as contemporary culture’s evolving relationship with the natural world, the steady rise in environmental consciousness, and the rituals of birding. The exhibition’s title is drawn from the poem “The Bird at Dawn” by Harold Monro.

Rachel Berwick’s large-scale, mixed-media installation, Blueshift, will be on public display for the first time as part of the exhibition, as will a temporary, site-specific mural James Prosek has created for the exhibition’s gallery space. A behind-the-scenes time-lapse video of the installation of this mural is available, along with other exhibition-related videos, on the museum’s YouTube channel. Artworks by each artist can be viewed in our online gallery, below.

The exhibition was organized by Joanna Marsh, The James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art.

Meet the Artists

David Beck

David Beck’s meticulously crafted paintings, drawings, and sculptures evoke both curiosity and wonder. Each intimately scaled object references a range of sources, from medieval miniatures to American folk art and eighteenth-century mechanical toys. Beck has been depicting the dodo for nearly forty years, beginning with sketches based on an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Beck’s diminutive sculptures evoke the surprise and discovery of childhood, but these playful curiosities belie a serious message about vulnerability, loss, and longing.

Rachel Berwick

Rachel Berwick’s sculptural installations investigate ideas of vulnerability and loss in the animal world. Her past projects have explored the extinct Tasmanian Tiger; the Galápagos giant tortoise, Lonesome George; and Martha, the last passenger pigeon. Berwick employs materials such as amber, crystal, and glass to reference natural phenomena and create haunting reminders of what has been—or is nearly—lost.

Lorna Bieber

For the past thirty years, Lorna Bieber has been using images appropriated from books and magazines as the starting point for her art. She then reinterprets the source images through a layered process of manipulation that involves enlarging, reducing, cropping, drawing, and collaging. By altering the original photograph, Bieber invites viewers to see the known world in utterly unfamiliar ways.

Barbara Bosworth

Barbara Bosworth collects samples of flora and fauna, not in specimen cages and bell jars, but with her large-format view camera. Bosworth’s photographs speak to the interconnectedness between humans, animals, and the environment. Her subdued images mimic the quiet, meandering walks she took as a child growing up in the Chagrin River valley of Ohio. They are about many things but most importantly a deep appreciation for nature.

Joann Brennan

Joann Brennan’s photographs grapple with the question of how we sustain wildness in a human world. Her work recognizes the paradoxical nature of human efforts to control and conserve wildlife. In her Managing Eden series, Brennan captures stewardship efforts across the country, showing the intimate relationship between scientists and their specimens.

Petah Coyne

Petah Coyne derives her inspiration from a range of sources, including literature, film, theology, and art history and personal memory. Her elaborate installations involve an ever-changing array of unorthodox materials, from human hair to religious statuary. Coyne began incorporating taxidermy into her work during the mid-1990s. Birds specimens, in particular, can be found in many of Coyne’s recent sculptures, representing themes of life and death, remembrance and renewal.

Walton Ford

Walton Ford has been depicting animals for as long as he can remember. Although immediately reminiscent of traditional natural history painting, Ford’s images double as complex allegories, blending depictions of nature with historical events and sociopolitical commentary. Over the last twenty years, Ford has created more than one hundred paintings and prints with birds as the primary subject.

Laurel Roth Hope

Laurel Roth Hope uses traditional techniques of carving, embroidery, crochet, and collage to transform ordinary materials into elaborate animal sculptures that are both playful and poignant. Her work is influenced by her background as a park ranger and focuses on the relationship between humankind and nature, touching on topics such as environmental protection, animal behavior, and species extinction.

Paula McCartney

Paula McCartney photographs constructed landscapes, both those that she finds and that she creates herself. Whether portraying fake birds among real trees or real birds amidst simulated habitats, McCartney’s images explore the gap between our idealized vision of nature and our actual experience of it.

James Prosek

James Prosek is an artist, writer, and naturalist whose work pays homage to the history of natural science while simultaneously addressing contemporary environmental concerns. His diverse body of work is the result of extensive travel and field observation. From these explorations, Prosek creates paintings, drawings, and sculptures that evoke the immense biodiversity of our planet and its imaginative potential.

Fred Tomaselli

Fred Tomaselli draws upon decorative traditions from around the world to create richly detailed paintings that pulsate with both abstract and figurative forms. In his signature pieces, natural materials such as leaves and seeds mingle with collaged imagery and painted patterns beneath clear layers of resin. The hybrid nature of Tomaselli’s work speaks to the relationship between humanity and the natural world.

Tom Uttech

Tom Uttech’s work is inspired by wide expanses of unspoiled wilderness in his native Wisconsin and neighboring Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. Uttech’s paintings, which take their names from various Ojibwe words and phrases, are fantastic imaginings, often populated with hosts of birds and other animals that traverse the landscape in a flurry of natural diversity.

Meet the Artist Videos


The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Rollin W. King, The Margery and Edgar Masinter Exhibitions Fund, Caroline Niemczyk, Debbie Frank Petersen, Rosemary L. Ripley, Holly and Nick Ruffin and the C.K. Williams Foundation.