Australian Fine Artist

Venue: McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park

Topic: Nests from the Museum of Victoria and Bilson Collection

Janine Burke writes mostly about Australian Art, previously through HEIDE, covering such artists as Albert Tucker, Joy Hester and Sydney Nolan. She first went to HEIDE when it was a private home and has seen it through some of it’s most dramatic changes over the years. She has also spent time on the board.

During this time she has observed artist’s responses to the natural environment, especially those artists who lived in small flats in the city or suburbs close to it. She has done a lot of research into artists’ responses to painting plein air in the Australian countryside and outback, finding that nature and art is a major theme over generations of both artists and writers.

As a writer herself, she spends time going for walks to clear her head and finds herself watching the local bird life. For the naturally curious, it soon comes to you to ask, how do birds design their nests, how do they construct such a variety of them, and how much creativity is involved in the making rather than mere practicality. She has seen various exhibitions where artists have attempted to recreate what birds do naturally, create artistic nests. So what would birds think of these attempts if they understood? This question occurred to her and led to research into birds’ nests in museums as artworks in their own right.

Some may ask, what makes a work of art and how is it defined? Is it only a piece created by humans or can we look at anything created by a living creature and see it as beautiful and artistic?

Janine explained that the process of building nests has evolved over the years as humans have impacted birds all over the world. Birds are using man made material in their nests, and often for purely aesthetic reasons. The interesting part for those watching and studying bird behaviour and studying birds for art, is seeing which bird created which nest and what they have chosen to use.

Colours in the past have been for camouflage or to attract mates but some have speculated that bower birds for example, have artistic leanings beyond this and carefully decorate their bowers, placing items in particular spots with the decor in mind! Some female birds actually redecorate the males’ attempt at decorating a nest because they don’t like where he has placed things.

The main goal of bringing such a diversity of nests into one place is to allow the public to see what amazing creations have been made by a variety of birds in our local habitat in Australia. Ornithology is a fairly recent science, only coming to the fore in the past 200 years or so, so the collection and study of birds and their nesting habits has not been widely studied by too many people. Maybe with more exposure, there will be more people with scientific backgrounds who choose to take on this study.

As Janine talked about the various nests around the room it became more and more clear, the range of stunning ability our little feathered friends have. One pair of birds take the time to poke little holes in leaves then pass spider web through, stitching the leaves to cover their nest, carefully passing the thread through the holes into the bird on the inside of the nest who stitches it back out to the one on the outside. Bower birds select complementary colours for their bowers and are very picky about where they are placed. Fairy wrens take petals the same colour as their plumage as gifts to their females to entice them as mates. Some of the mud based nests are so perfectly rounded you can not find fault in them visually. Weaving on others is so precise you can not tell where the bird started working on the nest and there are few gaps in the weaves. Such attention to detail would be good to see in human artists, and is amazing to see in our bird life. Especially when some nests can last for seasons, and when conserved well, over a hundred years.

Janine is interested in following up her research with wider studies into how animals construct things in the wild. “Animal Architecture” as she calls it, would be a great book to read, especially if it granted us an opportunity to see photos of what was made.

I really enjoyed the chat this morning. Not only did I meet some very nice fellow bird lovers, but I also gained some insight into the exhibition, why it was created and why it is important that we continually think about the natural world around us and the impact we are having on it. How many species survive, or hopefully thrive in the future is up to us in a lot of cases so the more informed we are, hopefully the more considerate we will be as well.

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