Friday, July 13, 2012

Living in an age of extinction IV: an interview with Todd McGrain of the Lost Bird Project

Lost Bird Project, extinct species, passenger pigeon
Todd McGrain in his studio. Photo credit: The Lost Bird Project

Todd McGrain is an artist formerly on the faculty of Cornell University. Ten years ago he began creating sculptures of recently extinct birds of North America and placing them where the birds last thrived. Now called “The Lost BirdProject” (previously discussed here), Todd and his efforts are the subject of a new film (reviewed earlier this week – see it!). Recently, Todd kindly answered some questions I sent him over email.

Daniel Hudon. You’ve been working on the Lost Bird Project for the past ten years. How do you think it fits into your previous body of work?

Todd McGrain: I have always been drawn to natural forms and the way natural forms are held in a persistent state of flux.  Through erosion, accretion, growth and decay, natural forms are embedded with the markings of time.  The expression of this flow of time has long been the narrative in my work.  The Lost Bird Memorials are more literally representational than my previous work, and consequently, they have more specific narratives behind them.  Their forms, however, remain connected to my ambition to embody the effects of time in material form.

Memories, like beach stones, are softened and honed by the persistence of time.

Daniel In the film, The Lost Bird Project, we’re shown that your inspiration was from reading Hope is the Thing with Feathers, by Christopher Cokinos. What was it about the book that inspired you?

Todd: Most importantly, it was from this wonderful book that I was first introduced to some of these birds.  While I was familiar with the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck was completely unknown to me.  I was struck by the fact that the last of this species perished quite close to my childhood home.

I was also moved by Chris’s effort to balance his interest in natural history and extinction stories with his own personal challenge of dealing with the tragedy of extinction.  Reading the book, I felt as though I had been invited along on this exploration of history and heart.

Todd McGrain and the Lost Bird Project looking for birds
Andy Stern, Todd McGrain and a helpful ranger scouting
Photo credit: The Lost Bird Project

Daniel:  In his book, Cokinos travels around the Eastern US and the Maritimes of Canada investigating the histories of several famous – and unknown – extinct birds including the Passenger Pigeon, Heath Hen, Labrador Duck, Great Auk, and Carolina Parakeet, which became the subject of your memorials. You must have had to do the same to investigate where to put your memorials? According to the film, not everyone wants a sculpture as a gift – were you surprised by that?

Todd: The trips we made to find the most appropriate sites to place the memorials were true adventures.  We found places that felt haunted by the loss of the birds and at the same time met remarkable people doing incredible habitat restoration, historical preservation and ecology.  It was an inspiring period.

The challenges I faced in negotiating the placement of the memorials were amplified by my ineptitude and inexperience as a promoter.  As I became more committed to the project, more experienced in expressing my conviction, doors began to open.

Much of the resistance we encountered in negotiating the placement of the sculptures was based on legitimate concerns.  We do have to be careful about what we place in our parks and preserves.  Extinction is a difficult topic.  It is a subtle balance to keep the memory of the birds alive without casting blame and the paralysis that can stem from denial or even sorrow.  I can understand how accepting theses gifts would require consideration and thoughtful measure.  My sympathy for these issues may have led me to soften my initial pitch.  In the end, I was convinced that the memorials addressed these issues, in part, because of how well they were received in the communities that were quick to accept them.  I came to truly believe in the value of the work.

Daniel: All the memorials are in bronze – how long should a bronze sculpture last?

Todd: Despite all our advances in material technology, bronze remains one of the most durable materials.  Though forever is a long time, I believe it is fair to say that as long as these memorials are not intentionally destroyed they will remain.

Daniel: What was it like getting to know these extinct birds as you sculpted them? Did you feel any affinities for some more than others?

Todd: I fell in love with each of them in turn. Each bird is unique with a particular natural history and a compelling extinction story.  Though each had a different geographical range they now coexist in the shared habitat of our imagination and memory.

Daniel: There’s a great quote on your site and in the film by Aldo Leopold: “They cannot dive out of a cloud, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather, they live forever by not living at all.” Elsewhere Leopold writes about grieving for species that we’ve lost, like the Passenger Pigeon. It seems we’ve not only not grieved about their loss, we’ve forgotten about them, something your memorials are trying to address. Could you talk about this idea of grief versus forgetting?

Todd: While forgetting may seem to have a therapeutic value, in the end we are not rewarded for our forgetfulness.  Our bodies carry the burden of loss with or without our recognition of the cause.  Our nameless sorrows continue to weigh us down.  There is, in the end, an unavoidable callousness in forgetting.

Grieving can be productive.  There are lessons to be learned from our feelings of loss.
The experience of grieving can bring focus to the value of what remains.  Collective grieving, our shared compassions hold us together.

Daniel: What do you say to people who ask what extinct species have to tell us?

Todd: Extinct species tell us to pay attention.

Daniel:  Related… Endangered Species Day seems to be confined to zoos and botanical gardens. What do you think it will take to get the problem of species going extinct into the mainstream?

Todd: I think the plight of endangered animals is gaining recognition.  More and more people are aware of the challenges animals are facing but understanding and pursuing the best way forward remains a daunting challenge.  A lone polar bear on an iceberg is heart breaking, but if we don’t understand our role in climate change we will simply be stymied by sorrow.  Education in all forms must address finding and communicating solutions.

Daniel: What sort of response have you had to the memorials?

Installation of the Heath Hen sculpture on Martha's Vineyard
Installation of the Heath Hen, Martha's Vineyard
Photo: The Lost Bird Project

Todd: In general, the response to the sculptures has been positive.  It was reported that the Heath Hen Memorial on the riding path on Martha’s Vineyard spooked a few horse but there is no way to satisfy all critics.

Daniel: On Fogo Island, Newfoundland, the memorial of the Great Auk looks out onto the vast Atlantic from a rocky scrap of land, surveying its former domain alone. As a tribute and memorial, it’s incredibly elegant. But to think of the thousands of Great Auks that once shared that view is sad to the point of heartbreaking. In fact, the film achieves a fine balance of being a sort of light-hearted road movie where we visit places where the birds once thrived and then suddenly the significance of the memorial hits home. Did you make conscious decisions about the sort of tone you wanted ahead of time or did it just evolve?

Todd: The filmmakers Deborah Dickson, Muffie Meyer, Scott Anger and Roger Phenix get full credit for the expressive force of the film.  They collected over one hundred hours of footage to make this one-hour documentary.  We did discuss early on that the film could not be so depressing that no one would want to sit through it, but ultimately it was the filmmakers who found the balance.  One aspect of the project that added significantly to the levity of the film is the fact that my brother-in-law and companion on the project, Andrew Stern, is a truly hilarious person.  His mix of intellect and wit offered countless moments of levity.  The original score by Christopher Tin also plays a central role in the emotional force of the film.  

Daniel: How do you think the project has changed you?

Todd: I find myself reading more, writing more and speaking in public much more.  My sculpture work remains a rather solitary act, but as the project has broadened I have come to understand the necessity of engaging the topic of extinction in as many ways as possible.  I remain a sculptor and cherish the time I spend in the studio.  However, I know I will remain more socially and publicly engaged than I was before these lost birds called me out.
Carolina Parakeet sculpture from the Lost Bird Project
The Carolina Parakeet in Kissimmee, FL
Photo: The Lost Bird Project

Daniel: What’s next for the Lost Bird Project?

Todd: I’m working on a memorial to the Eskimo Curlew.  I’m also working on collaborations with groups that are looking for creative ways to communicate the urgency of our ecological crisis and to help publicize the ongoing efforts to mitigate its impact.

Daniel: I see the film is getting screenings at festivals. Any chance of it getting released?

Todd: I hope so.  We are working on it!

Readers can keep up to date with The Lost Bird Project by finding them on Facebook and, appropriately, by following their tweets on Twitter

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