Avian Spirits

Thrasher 1 © Julie Meridian | Image courtesy Julie Meridian
Thrasher 1 © Julie Meridian | Image courtesy Julie Meridian

Group Art Exhibition Contemplates Bird Imagery

as Metaphors for the Human Spirit


OPENING:  Sunday, July 13 from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m.

RUNS:  July 13 – August 31, 2014


Curator Franck Mercurio hanging fabulous bird portraits by artist Marlene McCauley.
Curator Franck Mercurio hanging fabulous bird portraits by artist Marlene McCauley.

To curate Brushwood Center’s latest art exhibition Avian Spirits, Franck Mercurio began with a famous Emily Dickinson quote: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.”

“I used that as a starting point, how artists have been inspired by birds,” said Mercurio. He has gathered more than 40 pieces created by 14 artists, which include paintings, sculptures and photography for the exhibition that opens July 13.

The works will not only grace the walls of Brushwood Center in Riverwoods, but the scenic forested outdoors as well. Painted directly on the front lawn with environmentally safe products will be a work reflecting bird migration by the collaborative DOEprojekts. On the back lawn, visitors can view an unusual installation by Annette Barbier of waterfowl, feeding as they do with their bottoms up.

Visitation B © Steph Roberts | Image courtesy Addington Gallery
Visitation B © Steph Roberts | Image courtesy Addington Gallery

“I wanted to create something whimsical and explore why we give human characteristics to birds,” said Mercurio. “I chose artists who use bird imagery as metaphors for the human spirit.”

The Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods creates a theme each year used to unite its programs. This year, the theme is Extinction/Survival. Mercurio curated an art exhibition at Brushwood Center in spring entitled, Facing Extinction. “It was all about artists who respond to human-caused extinction and what people are trying to do to ensure survival,” he said.

Avian Spirits is intended to be lighter, more whimsical, more hopeful,” he said. “I want to have some accessible works for the audience as well as some challenging works, and strike a balance.”

One artist he chose is Molly Cranch, who creates colorful oil paintings of birds. “The imagery is really accessible. You can tell what types of birds they are, but there’s an anthropomorphic quality to the birds. They are almost human-like in their expressions,” Mercurio said.

The outdoor lawn painting might need a bit more explanation, he said. Labels will be placed with the installation to explain the symbols that relate to bird migration.

Passenger Pigeon wearable sculpture © Julia Kemerer | Image courtesy Helen Maurene Cooper
Passenger Pigeon wearable sculpture © Julia Kemerer | Image courtesy Helen Maurene Cooper

In addition, artist and Brushwood Center staffer Julia Kemerer created a series of wearable sculptures featuring extinct and endangered species. She collaborated with photographer Helen Maurene Cooper to showcase them being worn.

What brings all these art works together is how the artists have responded to “our affinities with birds in different ways, but often with whimsy, humor, and joy,” Mercurio said. “Avian Spirits aims to celebrate our relationships with birds.”

Avian Spirits opens July 13 and runs through August 31. The show is free and open to the public during regular Brushwood Center hours. A free opening reception will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. July 13. Mercurio will present a tour of the exhibition on August 23, preceding the 2014 Film Festival in the Woods, an annual outdoor film festival hosted by Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods.

Participating artists include:

  • Annette Barbier
  • Sarah Belknap and Joseph Belknap
  • Cosmo Campoli
  • Helen Maurene Cooper
  • Molly Cranch
  • DOEprojekts (Deborah & Glenn Doering)
  • Julia Kemerer
  • Barbara Koenen
  • Marlene McCauley
  • Julie Meridian
  • Steph Roberts
  • Dan Streeting

For more information, visit www.brushwoodcenter.org.  Brushwood Center is located at: 21850 N. Riverwoods Rd., Riverwoods, IL 60015.



The exhibition is part of the extinction |survival series of public programs being offered by Brushwood Center over the course of 2014. The series seeks to promote a broader understanding of extinction and species survival.  We’re exploring why extinction happened in the past and why it continues today, as well as celebrating success stories. Programs include book talks, art exhibitions, lectures and film screenings that will run throughout 2014.


Brushwood_Logo.smallAbout Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods

Through innovative programs presented against a backdrop of stately woods where pre-settlement flora and fauna still linger, Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods seeks to build an environmental ethic in our region by offering multiple points of entry for the public to connect with nature. Brushwood Center is a nonprofit organization.



Monday to Thursday: 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.

Sunday: 1:00 – 3:00 p.m.

Or by appointment: 847.968.3308.


Avian Spirits is partially sponsored by a grant from:



Facing Extinction

"Martha" by Diana Sudyka
“Martha” by Diana Sudyka
Passenger pigeon memorial at the Cinncinati Zoo. Photo by Frank X. Mercurio.
Passenger pigeon memorial at the Cinncinati Zoo. Photo by Frank X. Mercurio.

Like every school kid who grew up in Cincinnati, I learned the story of “Martha” at an early age. Martha was the last know passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). She died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The zoo’s memorial to Martha is a “must see” on school field trips. Housed in a converted Victorian-era aviary, the memorial commemorates Martha’s passing and the extinction of her entire species.

The passenger pigeon was a wonder of its time. Great flocks passed over the cities, towns, and farms of eastern North America “darkening the skies for days.”  Millions roosted in forest, tree limbs crashing from the weight of so many birds. Nesting grounds reportedly covered hundreds of square miles of territory.

"Camouflage XII (Disguise for Endangered Parrot)" by Jenny Kendler.
“Camouflage XII (Disguise for Endangered Parrot)” by Jenny Kendler.

In the mid-1800s these wild pigeons were seen as an unlimited resource. Hunters captured them by the thousands, packed them in barrels, and sent them to markets across the United States and Canada by train. The birds proved to be nutritious and delicious—but not as unlimited as first imagined. By 1914, abundance yielded to extinction.

Today, few people know about Martha and the demise of her kind. Mention “passenger pigeon” at a dinner party, and people will likely confuse this once prolific bird with “carrier pigeon” or “messenger pigeon.” It’s amazing to think that a bird that once numbered in the billions—and was a ubiquitous part of America’s culinary culture—has been so completely forgotten.

Then again, how can you miss something that you never knew?

This notion is part of the impetus behind the new exhibition “Facing Extinction” at Brushwood Center (opening on Sunday, March 9 from 1:00 to 3:00 pm). The show aims to raise awareness of the world’s endangered species before they slip into oblivion. Using the cautionary tale of the passenger pigeon as a starting point, “Facing Extinction” presents 12 artists whose work addresses the environmental, cultural, and moral issues surrounding human-caused extinctions.

Photographs of endangered species by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, part of his PhotoArk project.
Photographs of endangered species by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, part of his PhotoArk project.

Featured works include photos from Joel Sartore’s “Photo Ark” project. Joel traveled to different zoos around the country taking portraits of endangered animals, some of whom can no longer be found in the wild.

Closer to home, photographer Carol Freeman documents the local endangered flora and fauna of Illinois. Currently, she has photographed 140 of the nearly 500 species that are in danger of disappearing from our region.

"To sleep" study of a passenger pigeon by Kristina Knowski.
“To sleep” study of a passenger pigeon by Kristina Knowski.

The artists of the Endangered Species Print Project—founded by Jenny Kendler and Molly Schafer—seek to raise awareness of the world’s dwindling biodiversity. An international cadre of artists have created prints of disappearing species, including the Javan rhinoceros, the Sumatran tiger, and the Philippine crocodile.  Proceeds from sales are donated to conservation efforts.

The works of Diana Sudyka and Kristina Knowski are more poetic. Diana’s lyrical watercolors acknowledge the relationships between humans and other species. As a book illustrator, text often features prominently in her paintings. Kristina often works from museum specimens to create poignant images of already-extinct birds, including passenger pigeons, the New Zealand huia, and the Wake Island Rail.

"Lost" by Annette Barbier.
“Lost” by Annette Barbier.

Other works in the show are more conceptual, especially those by Annette Barbier and Jenny Kendler (from her solo practice). Annette’s Lost features a large nest containing broken eggs marked with the names of extinct birds. The work suggests the destruction of species at human hands. Composed of vintage bird figurines, Jenny’s Camouflage series strives to bring awareness to still-living species that need our protection.

The subtext that runs through the entire show is that there is still hope and opportunity; that we, as humans, can act to save species from extinction, not just for the sake of bolstering the world’s biodiversity, but for ensuring our own survival. I hope that you will be able to attend “Facing Extinction” and support the work of these artists who blend creativity with activism.

Franck Mercurio installing photographs by Carol Freeman.
Franck Mercurio installing photographs by Carol Freeman.

—Franck Mercurio, Curator

Franck Mercurio is an independent arts consultant, curator, and writer based in Chicago.  Before starting his own consultancy business, Franck served for eight years as an exhibition developer for the Field Museum.  He has curated other exhibitions at Ryerson Woods for Brushwood Center including, Genius Loci: Listening to Nature’s Muse (JulyAugust 2013) and Art of Green (July–August 2011).  Learn more about Franck’s work at: www.mercurio-exhibits.com.

Genius Loci: Learning from Nature’s Muse

Genius Loci opening, Friends of Ryerson Woods

The art and design exhibition Genius Loci: Learning from Nature’s Muse opened Sunday, July 8 at Brushwood, the historic home at Ryerson Woods.  We had a great turn-out: over 130 people viewed works by 12 artists, designers, and architects.

Each work selected for the show captures the spirit of a particular natural environment.  The concept was to find artists and designers whose work is not only inspired by these places—prairie, woods, and lakefront—but seems to be born of these landscapes.

Topo House by the Milwaukee architecture firm Johnsen Schmaling is a great example.  This private residence blurs the line between what is landscape and what is architecture.  Located in the “driftless region” of Wisconsin, it’s green roofs seem to spring up from the earth’s natural topography. The building is represented in the exhibition through scale models, architectural renderings, and photographs of the (nearly) completed structure.

Another architect, Jessica Calek, presented designs for a Studio in the Woods.  The branch-like framework of the building’s structural system pays homage to its wooded surroundings, but also recalls the “primitive hut” of Vitruvius and Laugier, a metaphor for architecture’s roots in the natural world.

Cynthia Winter (also an architect) displayed a series of watercolors titled Roadtrip: The Seasons at Ryerson Woods. Seen together, these near-abstract, small-scale images—painted on postcard-sized paper—read as stills from a film, capturing a sense of movement through time and through the landscape.

Jennifer Hines displayed a very different series of works.  The simplicity of her individual ink drawings, Untitled Abstractions, is deceptive.  But viewed collectively, her images capture an entire ecosystem: seemingly separate organisms which together create a holistic environment.  Another series, displayed with the mini-dioramas in the Library, takes a more psychological approach. Forest Photos are imaginary arboreal landscapes where trees serve as metaphors for human existence. Here, Hines’ depicts states of being, rather than actual physical places.

Also in the Library is a conceptual work by artist Rachel Kauff.  Her series Field Books documents three distinct ecosystems: prairie, woods, and wetlands.  By leaving the hand-bound wordless books for 20 days in each landscape—open to the elements—Kauff allowed Nature to record her own stories in her own language.

Also charting conceptual territory is Doug DeWitt.  The long horizontal lines of his constructions, made from found materials, recall the flat Illinois prairie.  These psychological landscapes capture the essence of the rural Rustbelt: its faded wooden architecture, rusted steel equipment, and overgrown vegetation—nature reclaiming the land.

Also working in a hoGenius Loci opening, Friends of Ryerson Woodsrizontal format is photographer Michael McGuire. His images reflect a kind of surreal or dreamlike remembrance of Lake Michigan. By reproducing one section of the lakefront over and over, he captures an illusion of the lake’s vastness. The particular location represented in each photo might remain ambiguous, but the subject matter—and spirit of the place—is unmistakable.

Another photographer, Barry Phipps, photographs trees in different seasons while subtlely addressing the relationships between humans and nature.  In his photo Cahokia (Winter) the long shadows of giant trees reach toward earthen mounds made by humans nearly 1,000 years ago.  The scene captures the mystery and monumentality of this ancient site, as well as the quality of light on a typical Midwestern winter’s day.

Anne Kauff (Rachel Kauff’s mother) captures light and color in her masterful oil paintings of northern Illinois prairies and woods. She paints outdoors which brings an immediacy to the images—a freshness and vitality that is difficult to achieve within the confines of the artist’s studio. Her approach is perhaps the most traditional of the group, but allows her to effectively capture the spirit of prairie, woods, and sky.

Meaghan Burritt, Genius Loci opening, Friends of Ryerson WoodsLooking to the Des Plaines River for inspiration, conceptual artist Meaghan Burritt created a site specific installation for the show.  Project In Situ: Des Plaines River Specimen 1 (PI:DPS1) reconstructs a fragment of the landscape inside of Brushwood, shifting its context and challenging us to reconsider an overlooked part of the natural environment: a “debris pocket” on the river.  The installation—including found objects collected from the river banks—is a meditation on time, movement, and the interconnectedness between humans and nature.

Finally, furniture designer Jacob Wener of Modern Industry displays three of his designs in the Great Room: a coffee table, a console, and several benches.  Horizontal lines reflect the city’s flat terrain. Reclaimed wood recalls Chicago’s motto Urbs in Horto—a city of parks and tree-lined boulevards. The recycled steel framework references Chicago’s legacy of architectural innovation and structural engineering feats.  The final synthesis of form and materials captures the spirit of the City of Broad Shoulders.

When organizing the show, I purposely chose this diversity of artists and range of approaches to the shows themes.  Each individual artist, in his or her own way, is listening to the genius loci and creating pieces that are in harmony with the natural environments that inspired them.

—Franck Mercurio, Curator

Franck Mercurio is an independent arts consultant, curator, and writer based in Chicago.  Before starting his own consultancy business, Franck served for eight years as an exhibition developer for the Field Museum.  Last year he curated the Art of Green (10 July 2011 – 31 August 2011) for Friends of Ryerson Woods, an exhibition that featured the work of twelve regional artists and designers who are creating art and designing objects in sustainable ways. 


Genius Loci: Listening to Nature’s Muse is on exhibition in the Brushwood Gallery at Ryerson Woods in Deerfield, Illinois until August 31, 2012.  Brushwood is open to the public:  Tuesday – Friday, 10am-2pm; Sunday 1-3pm;  or by appointment. For more information, contact Friends of Ryerson Woods at 847.968.3343 or visit www.ryersonwoods.org/Programs/Art/ArtExhibitions.html.