Like every school kid who grew up in Cincinnati, I learned the story of “Martha” at an early age. Martha was the last know passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). She died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The zoo’s memorial to Martha is a “must see” on school field trips. Housed in a converted Victorian-era aviary, the memorial commemorates Martha’s passing and the extinction of her entire species.
The passenger pigeon was a wonder of its time. Great flocks passed over the cities, towns, and farms of eastern North America “darkening the skies for days.” Millions roosted in forest, tree limbs crashing from the weight of so many birds. Nesting grounds reportedly covered hundreds of square miles of territory.
In the mid-1800s these wild pigeons were seen as an unlimited resource. Hunters captured them by the thousands, packed them in barrels, and sent them to markets across the United States and Canada by train. The birds proved to be nutritious and delicious—but not as unlimited as first imagined. By 1914, abundance yielded to extinction.
Today, few people know about Martha and the demise of her kind. Mention “passenger pigeon” at a dinner party, and people will likely confuse this once prolific bird with “carrier pigeon” or “messenger pigeon.” It’s amazing to think that a bird that once numbered in the billions—and was a ubiquitous part of America’s culinary culture—has been so completely forgotten.
Then again, how can you miss something that you never knew?
This notion is part of the impetus behind the new exhibition “Facing Extinction” at Brushwood Center (opening on Sunday, March 9 from 1:00 to 3:00 pm). The show aims to raise awareness of the world’s endangered species before they slip into oblivion. Using the cautionary tale of the passenger pigeon as a starting point, “Facing Extinction” presents 12 artists whose work addresses the environmental, cultural, and moral issues surrounding human-caused extinctions.
Featured works include photos from Joel Sartore’s “Photo Ark” project. Joel traveled to different zoos around the country taking portraits of endangered animals, some of whom can no longer be found in the wild.
Closer to home, photographer Carol Freeman documents the local endangered flora and fauna of Illinois. Currently, she has photographed 140 of the nearly 500 species that are in danger of disappearing from our region.
The artists of the Endangered Species Print Project—founded by Jenny Kendler and Molly Schafer—seek to raise awareness of the world’s dwindling biodiversity. An international cadre of artists have created prints of disappearing species, including the Javan rhinoceros, the Sumatran tiger, and the Philippine crocodile. Proceeds from sales are donated to conservation efforts.
The works of Diana Sudyka and Kristina Knowski are more poetic. Diana’s lyrical watercolors acknowledge the relationships between humans and other species. As a book illustrator, text often features prominently in her paintings. Kristina often works from museum specimens to create poignant images of already-extinct birds, including passenger pigeons, the New Zealand huia, and the Wake Island Rail.
Other works in the show are more conceptual, especially those by Annette Barbier and Jenny Kendler (from her solo practice). Annette’s Lost features a large nest containing broken eggs marked with the names of extinct birds. The work suggests the destruction of species at human hands. Composed of vintage bird figurines, Jenny’s Camouflage series strives to bring awareness to still-living species that need our protection.
The subtext that runs through the entire show is that there is still hope and opportunity; that we, as humans, can act to save species from extinction, not just for the sake of bolstering the world’s biodiversity, but for ensuring our own survival. I hope that you will be able to attend “Facing Extinction” and support the work of these artists who blend creativity with activism.
—Franck Mercurio, Curator
Franck Mercurio is an independent arts consultant, curator, and writer based in Chicago. Before starting his own consultancy business, Franck served for eight years as an exhibition developer for the Field Museum. He has curated other exhibitions at Ryerson Woods for Brushwood Center including, Genius Loci: Listening to Nature’s Muse (July–August 2013) and Art of Green (July–August 2011). Learn more about Franck’s work at: www.mercurio-exhibits.com.