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CMU's Hunt Institute exhibit takes bird's eye view of art

| Saturday, April 11, 2015, 8:44 p.m.
Hunt Institute
'Memory,' watercolor on Cowley’s veiny calfskin vellum by Wendy Brockman, 2014. Nest by unknown bird species, constructed with variety of plant material and fur, in bittersweet.
Hunt Institute
'Bird Nest Series No.3,' colored pencil on paper by David Morrison, 2015. Nest by unknown bird species, constructed with variety of plant material.
Hunt Institute
'Pink Rose,' watercolor and pencil on Kelmscott vellum by Kate Nessler, 2014, Nest by Northern cardinal, constructed with variety of plant material, in rose bush
Hunt Institute
'Woven Trees,' archival ink-jet print from film negative by Sue Abramson, 2014
Hunt Institute
Pigeon nest constructed from wire, twine and sticks, collected from a construction site. Nest found on top of the Koppers Building, downtown Pittsburgh, 1962. On loan from Section of Birds, Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Bird nests. From the brick canyon of the city to the backyards of the suburbs, we all know what they look like and, in basic terms, what they are made of.

But a new exhibit on display at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, high atop Carnegie Mellon University's Hunt Library, examines these structures up close.

Featuring drawings and watercolors of bird nests by three artists from around the country, as well as photographs of transitional landscapes by a local photographer, “Elements” focuses on the natural and man-made materials incorporated into these architectural wonders.

The exhibit is the brainchild of Hunt curator Lugene Bruno.

“I'd been watching birds in my yard for a while,” she says. “Watching them collect materials and build their nests, incubate their eggs, watch them hatch and thrive.”

At the same time, Bruno was noticing a trend in the art she was seeing. Paintings and drawings of bird nests that were not only highly detailed and realistic, but touched on notions of memory, loss and the passage of time.

“Those ideas were coalescing at the same time,” she says.

A good place to start in this exhibit is with the work of photographer Sue Abramson, who, Bruno says, “takes you into the understory of where the materials are collected, and then back out where you see the actual drawings and watercolors of nests.

“Her works move you through the space, and into and out of the environment,” Bruno says.

Abramson, who lives in Squirrel Hill, has been photographing the wooded areas in nearby Frick Park for the past 30 years. Images like “Woven Trees,” which captures two intertwined trees — one dead, one alive — hearken to the intertwined twigs in the depictions of nests that surround it.

“For me, shooting in the woods has been a cyclical process, one in which I use the natural world as my photographic raw materials,” Abramson says.

Although her work on display can be categorized into at least six different projects, they all relate to form a larger “Woodland” series. In this regard, all of the images are shot in black and white with the intention of describing and abstracting the landscape.

Nearby hangs “Bird Nest Series No.3,” a highly detailed colored-pencil drawing of a bird nest by David Morrison of Plainfield, Ind.

Morrison is intent on portraying moments in nature, such as when spring buds and new leaves erupt on a tree branch, with his hyper-realistic colored-pencil drawings.

“I am interested in dissecting and examining the archeological layering of natural and man-made materials in their nests,” he says. “My drawings explore issues of existence, regeneration and obsessiveness.”

Dealing with loss, “Memory,” a watercolor on Cowley's veiny calfskin vellum by Wendy Brockman of Edina, Minn., features a nest by an unknown bird species, constructed with a variety of plant materials as well as fur.

Brockman is inspired by concepts of time, place and remembrance when referencing nests and feathers in her paintings.

“My intent is to represent both nature and the human experience and provide a new perspective and appreciation of each subject,” she says.

This delicately detailed watercolor speaks of change and transformation by capturing the nest's true complexity and fragility. And the veiny vellum it is rendered upon hearkens to nature, especially the natural environment from which it was abstracted.

Kate Nessler of Kingston, Ark., says each of her paintings on display took her on a path of discovery through the moments and the movements in the creation of each nest.

“Its form and function, within a space in which only it could exist, revealed the delicate strength, the balance of weight and counterweight and the intrinsic knowledge and creativity of its maker,” she says.

Works like “Pink Rose,” a watercolor-and-pencil work on Kelmscott vellum, capture the essence, through lightness of color and materials of the breezy springtime in which both nest and artwork were created.

The exhibit culminates with a pigeon nest constructed from wire, twine and sticks, collected from the top of the Koppers Building, Downtown, in 1962. It, as well as several other real bird nests, are on loan from the Section of Birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Bruno says if there is one thing she has learned from her backyard observations, it is that birds are resourceful in their search for appropriate materials in creating their nests, often interspersing or substituting man-made articles, such as fishing line, pieces of plastic bags, string or wire, as in this example.

“Birds are the ultimate recyclers,” Bruno says, “and this nest says that best.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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