The North American Bird Project
(2015-present) In the Fall of 2015, I moved to South Bend from central Illinois, started a new job at Indiana University South Bend, successfully defended a doctoral dissertation and thus completed my PhD from the University of Illinois, finished a draft of a wordless black and white surrealist novella (see There is No (W)hole) I had been slowly working on for over six years, and was planning a spring wedding. By mid-October, I was creatively burned-out. The intellectual labor, theoretical meanderings, and emotional distress of the past four years of grad school and starting a career as college professor left me mentally and intellectually exhausted. Outside of my work as a professor, I did not want to do anything—especially activities related to writing or art making. Despite my condition, there was a part of me that was itching to start a new project, there was an unavoidable desire to continue to make art. Drawing had always been an emotional release for me; it was something I relied on to sustain a sense of selfhood while teaching—something that connected me to some semblance of an artist identity I maintained. However, every time I would sit down to draw or paint, my critical inner voice would critique and judge every mark I would make on paper. I would quickly talk myself out of producing anything. I could not casually draw in my sketchbook without experiencing a cacophony of discouragement. Upon further reflection, I realized that I had become very afraid of my art practice: I was both afraid that whatever I created next would not be my best and that whatever I shared might not garner the same approval from others as previous art had (Bayles & Orland, 1993). My mind was loud and oppressive yet my hands were idle and eager.
To fight through creative fatigue, silence my critical inner voice, and satiate a desire to make art, I gave myself a simple challenge: find something fun, small, and theoretically meaningless to paint to reconnect and enjoy the process of making again. I decided I was going to paint small stylized pictures of birds. I don’t know why I chose birds, it just seemed fun and completely different from anything I had done before. To prepare for this project, I bought a copy of Complete Birds of North American (Alderfer, 2014)--a beautifully illustrated encyclopedia with Audubon-eques images. I then set some parameters for the project. First, to select the bird I was going to randomly flip through the book with my eyes closed and paint whatever bird I looked at when first scanning the page. I would then flag the page with a post-it so I could keep track of the birds selected. The only exception to this rule was when I selected the red-footed booby and felt the need to paint the blue-footed booby as a complimentary pair. Second, the paintings would be small enough to be completed during the weekend. Third, I would only paint one painting per week. Fourth, regardless of how bad the painting was turning out, I would finish the it. I did not set any big goals for the project other than to enjoy painting birds. I would continue to work this way until I either illustrated all 727 birds in the book or decided to move to a different art project. Over the next several months, I painted fifteen paintings before being inspired by another idea. Reflecting on the series of paintings, I realized it is important to give myself permission to make art that does not take itself too seriously, to do things out of the simple joy of doing them, and not to give into apathy when struggling creatively. I feel confident that if I ever lose focus and fall into a rut, I have 712 more birds to paint until I find my next project. All is well.
Alderfer, J. (2014). Complete birds of North America (2nd Ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.
Bayles, D., & Orland, T. (1993). Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking. Santa Cruz, CA: The Image Continuum.