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Letter from Wausau: Close encounter with intelligence of the avian kind

Karen Bondarchuk insists we encounter crows and ravens as sentient creatures that deserve our respect but too often receive our scorn.

Courtesy of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum
Boreal Oratorio, a 2016 work in charcoal on
paper, is 30 inches by 22.

You need not be crazy about corvids, or in love with the fine arts, to be riveted by Karen Bondarchuk’s monumental renderings of crows and ravens.

I happen to be both, but as I watched others view her work the other day at a much-loved little museum in Wausau, Wisconsin, I saw this impact again and again: Young and old, male and female, serious scrutinizers and casual strollers all coming to a long, flat-footed stop before a depiction of piercing intelligence, in a bird of the most common kind.

Visually conveying this consciousness — and suggesting the relationship it might inform between  humans and some of our nearest rivals in brain-size-to-body ratio — is more or less Bondarchuk’s mission in these pieces, whether a sculpture fashioned from tire scraps (like the example below) or a gigantic drawing in charcoal.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
This sculpture of a dead raven is the last in a series of five constructed from tire scraps Bondarchuk collected along Michigan freeways.

Of one such drawing called Portent, which devotes about 12 square feet to a portion of a raven’s head, she has said:

I used layering to suggest complexity: the universe that exists behind the viewer but is within the raven’s sight, visible in the corneal reflection. … The complexity ultimately connotes animal — and particularly corvid — intelligence, which current scientific research is proving to be far more intricate than previously assumed or imagined.

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I saw Portent three years ago in the same venue, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, during its annual Birds in Art exhibition. This show, which despite its innocuous name has nothing to do with the safe material of duck stamps or amateur daubs, may well be the world’s leading showcase of the best in avian fine art.

It owes that stature in large part to creators like Bondarchuk, who is at the center of this year’s 41st edition of the show as the Woodson’s 2016 Master Artist. Indeed, Director Kathy Kelsey Foley has said, “Launching the fifth decade of Birds in Art by honoring and featuring Karen’s astounding work, we raise the bar” for artists who hope to be represented in years to come.

Bondarchuk certainly raised the show’s already considerable appeal to me in 2008 with her sculpture “Corvus deflatus,” a 6-foot-long dead raven constructed from tire scraps she gathered from highways on her travels to and from Kalamazoo, where she lives, works and teaches at Western Michigan University.

I had already seen a few years’ worth of beautiful, sophisticated, innovative art across a wide range of styles, themes and media, from pastel and watercolor to batik and woodburning. But in almost all cases these were works that appreciated birds as objects, and usually for their beauty.

“Corvus deflatus” was about the bird as environmental actor and victim; also, the economic havoc spreading across Michigan from its then-faltering automotive sector. It was Bondarchuk’s first appearance in Birds in Art, and she has been back every year since but one. And it was her spot at center stage this year that led Sallie and me to drop everything on our do-list last weekend and head east.

(I wish we had noticed this sooner, because now I must say with regret that if you want to see this show, you’ll need to hurry because it closes Sunday. The Woodson is a pleasant three-hour drive from, say, the Walker.)


Bondarchuk insists that we encounter her subjects as sentient creatures that deserve our respect but too often receive our scorn. She makes them larger than life size, sometimes larger than our size, and their beauty in her reading is often of an unsettling sort.

I love living and walking among crows, ravens, magpies, jays and other corvids, and I do find them gorgeous in real life, but I cannot say I “like” Bondarchuk’s images or find them exactly “beautiful.” What they are is awesome in the original, unmodern sense of that throwaway word.

Though Bondarchuk’s drawings rarely use color, she manipulates the density of the blacks she lays down with charcoal to reveal intricacy in the surfaces of birds we tend to see as fleeting, three-dimensional silhouettes in  glossy, uniform black.

Many have the sense of a portrait, though less in the sense of a literal likeness than in a sharply focused rendering of physical essence. Across a spectrum of grays, the structure of feathers emerges in a magnified, crystalline complexity that suddenly begins to resemble mammalian fur or even human hair.

Courtesy of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum
Utopia, charcoal on paper, 30 inches by 22.

This year there is one portrait, “Utopia,” which borrows 16th-century drapery from a Hans Holbein portrait of Sir Thomas More, a humorous move but not exactly a joke. “Bird Out of Hand,” fully 6 feet high, shows a raven in a posture the catalog likens to an image of Henry VIII, against a backdrop of ascribed offenses:

Tore screens from doors and windows… Ate fermented cherries, got drunk and flew around… Pecked holes in airplanes in Alaska… Took sandwiches from golf carts… Chased a squirrel into traffic and ate it… Distracted a dog and ate its dinner… Took beer, pierced the can, and drank some.

It is one of many pieces this year to include human language, or merely scattered letters, that reference a key boundary between people and corvids while suggesting that it need not necessarily be a barrier, and in any case isn’t necessary on the crow’s side of the exchange.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Bird Out of Hand is one of the images that make the
raven larger than life, very nearly larger than people.

To Tony Angell, a sculptor who was the Woodson’s master artist in 2001 (and who has a gorgeous bronze raven in this year’s show), “the way her subjects are presented gives me reason for a double-take to begin to explore ideas, to go beyond the initial impression.”

The corvid is obviously engaged with or by something, and I try to imagine what it is. There is an invitation to get in a conversation with the art, and conversation with the bird, and the birds are telling us about ourselves. Her work causes us to think about other [animal] lives, in an approach that avoids beating a drum, it is spontaneous and free.

After reading Angell’s catalog comment I revisited “Bird Out of Hand” and found nothing in the raven’s posture or demeanor to suggest anything but a certain wary curiosity about the viewer reading this bill of particulars. To me, the bird seems to be saying something like, What of it? I’m a raven. If you had my wings, my talons, my talents, wouldn’t you do these things, or worse?

Also on display at the Woodson is a Bondarchuk project called “Ergo Sum: A Crow a Day,” a response to her mother’s falling into the timelessness of dementia. On gesso-coated plywood rectangles, a bit smaller than 8 inches by 6, she laid down 365 quick sketches between Aug. 1, 2014, and July 31, 2015.

A fascinating counterpoint to the large works, these are by turns playful, grim, obscure and weird, each “an attempt to signal visually the preciousness and individuality of each day.”

* * *

The “Ergo Sum” series and many more Bondarchuk works can be viewed online at her website. And you can avoid our last-minute rush to Wausau in the years to come by marking your calendar now: Birds in Art begins the weekend after Labor Day, and runs through the weekend after Thanksgiving.

But if you happen to be in that area in another part of the calendar, the Woodson has other exhibitions and a fine permanent collection. Also, a remarkable and impermanent piece, a pair of giant cranes constructed from lashed saplings and discarded plastic bags, that will be around for the next few years:

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
The Dance, a pair of sandhill cranes made chiefly from saplings and plastic bags, is the work of Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein of Boston.