Todd McGrain memorializes 'lost birds' with sculptures

In October 1866, billions of passenger pigeons in a single flock were observed in Ontario, blackening the sky for days in a swath about a mile wide and 300 miles long. Ruthlessly hunted for food and sport, the pigeon was extinct within 50 years; the last one seen in the wild was shot in 1900 in Ohio.

Todd McGrain, Cornell professor of art, is immortalizing the passenger pigeon and four other North American bird species driven to extinction: the Carolina parakeet, the great auk, the Labrador duck and the heath hen.

"As a sculptor, there was an opportunity to help maintain the memory of these species," McGrain said. "On a more personal level and an artistic level, I've always been interested in memory, and I work from an emotional point of view. I was really driven to do something."

McGrain will show his "Lost Bird Project" at an exhibition in his hometown at the Third Rochester Biennial, July 13 to Sept. 14 at the University of Rochester's Memorial Art Gallery (MAG). McGrain is one of six invited artists in the biennial; he will give a talk at the gallery July 17 at 11 a.m. The MAG acquired a passenger pigeon sculpture by McGrain and installed it on its front lawn in November 2007.

The project includes five large, smooth-surfaced bronze sculptures, each over six feet tall and weighing up to 700 pounds, and a corresponding series of somber ink-and-pencil drawings of the birds.

"These birds are just so beautiful in their form," he said. "I was brought to the project by their stories, but I'm stuck on the project because of the beauty of these creatures."

With the drawings, he said, "I'm working hard to make them suited to something that's lost. They're austere and quiet and a little hard to get a handle on -- they're out of focus, in a haze of white."

The project has occupied McGrain for more than five years, including research at Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology and the Rome Zoological Museum, where he was an artist-in-residence while teaching in the Cornell in Rome program this spring. The museum plans to install a great auk sculpture by McGrain near its entrance gate."It's quite difficult to get a sense of these birds," he said. "At the ornithology lab, the specimens are usually just skins. In Rome, every bird is a mount. The Rome Zoological Museum has the most beautiful great auk specimen in the world."

The Rochester exhibition will lead up to "what the project is really about," he said -- installing the sculptures as memorials to the birds, at sites related to their demise. Quoting author Chris Cokinos ("Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds"), McGrain said he wants "to prevent a second extinction -- the extinction of memory."

"We've lost these species, and there are virtually no memorials to them," he said. "My initial inspiration was to correct that. The passenger pigeon is reasonably well known, but the other four birds are mostly forgotten."

The heath hen was last seen on Martha's Vineyard in 1932; the last pair of great auks was killed on an island near Iceland in 1844. McGrain is considering an urban site to honor the Carolina parakeet, which lost its hardwood forest habitat as cities grew. He also hopes to install a Labrador duck memorial in Elmira, N.Y., where the presumed last of its kind was shot in 1878, far from its native habitat.

"I'm a private person who works quietly, but this is dragging me out into a public space," he said. "That's one thing about art -- the more you get involved in it, the more it asks of you.

"It's quite wonderful as a sculptor to work on something that has such a purpose as a tribute to a tragic loss. I've done a few memorials, and it is something that you have to do your best to get right. Without the memory of the birds, no one will continue to be touched by their loss."

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