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Column: With Wire, Paper, Paste and a Dash of Despair, Artist Creates an ‘Ark’ of Extinction

  • The extinct Jerdon’s courser, a papier-mache sculpture by Strafford artist Gail Boyajian.

  • Eight extinct birds, as represented by in papier-mache sculpture by Boyajian, from left: New Zealand bush wren, Stephen Island wren, four colored flowerpecker, white winged sandpiper, Laysan rail, mamo, greater ʻamakihi and Aldabra brush-warbler.



For the Valley News
Saturday, September 15, 2018

My Saturday began with a bad omen: withered leaves on the ash tree that anchors our clothesline.

I have always had mixed feelings about ash trees. I love their grandness, the expressive grooves of their bark, and the bold silhouette they cast against a winter sky. But for me, there is a whiff of betrayal about them. They are first to shed their leaves at summer’s end, always without the colorful fanfare of maples or birches, and they are the last to leaf out in spring, so late that every year I wonder if the one closest to our house has not survived the winter.

But now the arrival of the emerald ash borer in Orange County has put me firmly in the ash camp in a hopeless war. Experts say that they all will perish by mid-century, probably before. One consolation for me is that I’m not likely to live long enough to see the last of them go.

So, it was with doom in mind that afternoon that I drove, with my wife as a cheerful passenger, the back roads to Towle Hill Studio in Corinth for the opening of “Looking for the Ark,” a two-day show of sculptures, paintings and drawings by the artist Gail Boyajian. If you know her paintings, you have learned to expect gorgeous color, soaring birds and some unexpected imagery in Bruegelian detail. Today as I write these words, my mind is on her sculptures, a unique and recent turn in her career as an artist.

Trained as an architect, Boyajian worked “in an office” until she could no longer stand it. She grew up in an artistic family and majored in art and philosophy in college, but it was only after she left the architecture world at age 40 that she began painting seriously enough to call herself a painter.

“Enough to make a living?” I asked.

“No one makes a living as an artist,” she answered. “I painted tiles and sold them, and for a while I did pretty well. But it was messy and hot and …”

At this point I should confess that Gail (I will now call her by her first name) and I have been friends for many years, and for nine of them we were colleagues, teachers who shared a few students in common. She is also a Strafford resident and over the last year I have been talking with her about her work, and particularly about her bird sculptures.

So now to the birds. Since 2016, Gail has been making life-size papier-mache sculptures of extinct birds. Her show at Towle Hill featured 21 of them, and she has others in progress in her own studio; no two are of the same bird, and a sad thought is that if she did nothing but make these sculptures for the rest of her life, she would never run out of subjects.

“Is it true,” I asked, “that after the 2016 election, you couldn’t paint?”

She took a deep breath.

“Well ... the truth is I had finished everything I was working on and had run out of fuel. It would have been a pause anyway if the election turned out differently … but it was earthshaking.”

Two months after the election she was in her studio, looking at all the stuff she had accumulated in corners, scraps of this and that, and she wondered if anything could be made of them. To honor her friend Margot Livesey at a book-launch party for her novel Mercury (the name of a horse within the book), Gail made a horse’s head of papier-mache. Needless to say, the challenge excited Gail, and soon she moved on to making birds. But why extinct birds?

“Well, I’m bitten by this conscience,” she said.

Most of her paintings are set in the natural world, and some of them explore the theme of apocalypse. Her paintings are popular and they sell. The sculptures, with their somber message, arise from the same muse. For impact they need to be shown together, so, of course, they are not for sale. “My paintings are relatively easy to digest,” she explained to me, “but now … the birds are a thrill. It’s exciting … (to make) a bird no living person has seen!”

We all know a little about the dodo, and about the great auk and the passenger pigeon, but we need to know about the laughing owl, the Cuban red macaw, and the four colored flowerpecker, about the Laysan rail, the white winged sandpiper, and the Jerdon’s courser. To re-create these creatures, Gail has turned to reference books, and one book leads to another. She has become an expert on extinct birds, although she will be the first to deny it. What she will admit is that she is excited about this strange work that is so hard to describe. Lately she has been reading David George Haskell’s The Song of Trees.

“I’m in thrall,” she confessed.

She told me that this work is not exactly an art project, and not science, either; seeing it, we are witness to an uncomfortable truth about our history and our future. The work is beautiful to see because she has brought the birds back to life by covering wire frames with paper and paste, and for color she searches newsprint for the hues she needs. She uses no paints, and when a bird is done, she attaches a toe tag as if it were a corpse in a morgue.

Like most people, I love the arts for the way they take me on a trip. Gail’s birds stun me with their beauty and clobber me with their message. Some of these birds died off without human help, some with, but all of them are gone for good, and our lives are diminished by their loss. What also interests me about these birds is the personal story and what it says about the artistic process: that despair after an election and a pile of scraps can be transformed into something so moving.

On the way home from the show, the afternoon sun slung low in the sky and my wife nudged the heat on in the car. Here and there we saw flares of color in the trees, and when we reached home, the ash tree with our clothesline looked pretty good.

Editor’s note: Gail Boyajian will open a joint show with her husband, Gerry Bernstein, at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury on Sept. 22. A case of her papier-mache birds will also be at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford. He can be reached at jon.stableford@gmail.com.