Two exhibitions within the Bowdoin College Library revolve around the theme of species extinction and threats to our natural environment. Envisioning Extinctions: Art as Witness and Conscience tells the story of the passenger pigeon, once the most numerous land bird on the planet. A complementary exhibition, Threatened and Endangered: Flora and Fauna of Maine: Artist’s Books by Rebecca Goodale, reflects the artist’s love of the natural world in a presentation that invites the “reader” also to touch and feel.
Envisioning Extinctions: Art as Witness and Conscience
September 1, 2014, marks the centenary of the extinction of the wild North American passenger pigeon, once the most numerous land bird on earth. Estimates place its population in the early 19th century at three to five billion birds, about 40 percent of the continent’s bird life. Despite disruption of its nesting sites. Today, the passenger pigeon exists only in taxidermied mounts and artists’ works made while the birds still lived.
To commemorate this event, Associate Professor of Art History Susan Wegner has assembled an exhibition of rare books and photographs, held mainly by the Library’s George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, both to encourage viewers to reflect upon the history of this now-extinct bird and as a call to action in response to current threats to biodiversity.
The wild passenger pigeon, nicknamed the “blue meteor,” differed greatly from the present day urban pigeon or common rock dove. It is distinct also from the domesticated carrier pigeon or homing pigeon. The passenger pigeon was a svelte, swift-flying creature whose flocks of millions ranged over the woodlands of the East and Midwest, from Canada to Louisiana. The flocks moved across their range during spring and fall migrations but also covered vast distances in a year-round search for their favored foods.
Native peoples took advantage of the birds as they clustered in vast pre-colonial nesting sites. With the coming of European settlers and the eventual building of railroads and telegraph lines, which extended into formerly inaccessible regions, the birds came under fierce commercial exploitation. Professional market hunters targeted every major roost and nesting site discovered, killing or trapping — and then shipping out — hundreds of thousands of pigeons to feed the demands of urban markets. Netted pigeons kept alive could be fattened for market or sent in crates to supply pigeon-shooting tournaments.
With no federal laws to limit the unrestrained destruction of the birds, the flocks dwindled to a few individuals in the wild by the 1890s. For a while, a small number of captive flocks remained, including the birds studied by Bowdoin graduate Prof. Charles Otis Whitman (B.A. 1868) of the University of Chicago. The last survivor of her species, a female named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.
These wild birds were scarcely studied scientifically, and very few photographs were ever made even of those in captivity. Thus, images studied from life, such as Audubon’s magnificent portrait of passenger pigeons for his monumental The Birds of America, provide invaluable documentation of this vanished race. Using historic ornithological treatises, nineteenth-century magazines, and personal reminiscences, Prof. Wegner has constructed a narrative that is both captivating in the artistic power of the illustrations that she features and sobering in relating the cautionary tale that the passenger pigeon’s extinction represents.
Threatened and Endangered: Flora and Fauna of Maine: Artist’s Books by Rebecca Goodale
Complementing the exhibition Envisioning Extinctions is a display of works by Maine contemporary book artist Rebecca Goodale, who for the past 15 years has been making artist’s books (80 to date and still counting) about Maine plants and animals. Selecting flora and fauna from Maine’s “Threatened and Endangered Species” lists, her books reflect both her love of the natural world and how she transforms that deep affection into color, pattern, shape and form, poetry or narrative.
Using a variety of mark-making techniques, especially silkscreen, block print, monotype, etching, and collagraph, Goodale’s creations are art works in book form. They are meant to be handled and “read” as well as viewed, although words rarely appear to expand on her visual texts. Her ability to design a book structure that supports her “telling” a story — a flag book that simulates the undulating movement of leaves, or a magic-wallet binding that hides one species from another where they share the same habitat during different seasons — marks her work as among the best in the realm of book-artists.
In creating her books, Goodale not only melds the spheres of reading and art, she also insinuates science, environmentalism, ethics, and a sense of place into her works. Her creations are about plants and animals under duress, but they are also about Maine. “Reading” her works brings awareness and understanding, and it provokes us to question both our surroundings and ourselves.
Goodale will deliver an illustrated talk about her “Threatened and Endangered” project in Kresge Auditorium, Visual Arts Center, at 7 p.m., October 28. A reception in the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library exhibition gallery will follow at 8:30 p.m. The public is invited to both events.
Both exhibitions are located on the second floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, free and open to the public daily, September 1 through December 23, 2014.