MV Times correspondent Valerie Sonnenthal caught up with artist Cindy Kane to discuss “Empty Skies,” her one-day exhibit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s Marine Hospital, which commemorates extinct bird species, painted on pillows which rest on hospital cots.
What inspired the idea for this installation?
That’s very hard to discern. Was it inspired by an article I read by Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker a few years ago, called “Emptying the Skies”? It’s all about songbird extinction. I did an extinct-bird cemetery many many years ago when we first moved here and I was pregnant with my second daughter, Nellie. That was set up at Featherstone, on pieces of slate. I got permission to use their field. They [Featherstone] were in their infancy too. It was outside in the shape of an arc.
Was that your first installation?
Yes, it was my first installation in a sculptural sense. It was there for a year, and faded with the seasons. Birds have been a longtime theme for me.
Can you pinpoint when birds became a subject of interest for you?
[Pulling a selection from a stack of paintings] This is a really old piece from 1988, when I used to do these narrative, almost mythic, large-scale paintings where I would carve into black paint and there was always a bird. You can see a diving bird up here in the far left corner. It was part of my psyche, part of the psyche of my narrative visual imagery. At that point, I didn’t have that instinct for bird watching or being conscious of bird extinction.
Was there any incident in childhood, or a recurring dream involving birds in your past?
I did have an owl dream, an event. I used to work at Yosemite National Park, and I was driving home very late at night — I just remembered this — during my formative years, when I would have been in college, I worked in Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks. So I was driving very late at night to one of the outlying areas to visit someone; it was a windy road and I was coming around a curve, and there was an owl in the middle of the road. I wouldn’t have known how to identify it in those days; it was an enormous owl, a night creature, and it was white, stark, in the middle of the road. I remember I stopped suddenly, screamed, then it flew off with its magnificent wingspan. Perhaps that fed into this longtime fascination. As I am getting older, it’s becoming more informed in that bird-watching kind of way. I have lots of books about birds, bird behavior. I’ll become obsessed with one bird. A few years ago it was the snowy owl, which inundated the Island for an entire season. Then I did a series of snowy owls.
I remember those.
They’ve evolved from kind of archetype etching into the background of someone else’s narrative to being the focal point.
What about the decision to use beds and pillowcases?
Originally I was visualizing an installation with pillows hanging on the wall, nothing about birds. I was picturing something kind of chubby and white and soft and sensuous, a soft wall installation with each pillowcase having a picture on it. Nothing I had in my head was really working, the wall installation was problematic. Then I had an image from the Civil War of the cots: rows and rows of cots that you could walk through. I revisited “Gone With the Wind” last summer — the scene with the nurses walking through the cots was amazing. Then I saw it in my mind: It’s going to be birds, and it’s going to look like this.
Because you have chosen a hard flat surface, you create the tension between the feel of a grave versus a bed. And it is reminiscent of a cameo head, or memory, with the softness giving it a dimension of life.
Also the pillow is where the human head lies.
Giving it a juxtaposition.
Right, and it’s where our dreams take place and where the psyche rests itself, and the birds now only exist in our psyche, our memories and dreams. So to me it was an appropriate, symbolic place to make a tribute to the birds. It’s an honor to use the original hospital building on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s just what I imagined, a dilapidated space. Because I have walked down to the hospital for years, that may have been what fed into my visualization of the project.
Cindy Kane’s “Empty Skies” installation: Friday, July 15, Martha’s Vineyard Museum Marine Hospital, Vineyard Haven. Exhibit open 12 to 8 pm, opening reception 5 to 8 pm. For more information, call 508-560-3901.
Cindy Kane’s artwork can be seen at A Gallery in Oak Bluffs and the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury, or at her website, cindykane.com.