As an artist, Alberto Rey starts locally, works globally. His 2014 project on the plight of the Scajaquada River, for instance, was exhibited a few hundred feet away from his subject waterway at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Yet the exhibition, on the history, politics, and layers of failed planning that put this Niagara tributary on life support, rings familiar to polluted rivers and creeks all over the world. His work on the Scajaquada opened the door for a years-long, similarly framed project on the sacred Bagmati River in Nepal, resulting in a wide-ranging work that included Nepalese student art, a documentary video, and a book and gallery exhibition that used Rey’s artistic talents to make the scientific data and policy accessible to anyone.
Rey’s latest and stunning comprehensive artistic project, the Extinct Birds Project, employed a familiar local entry into a universal topic. Wearing his other hats as fly-fishing guide and educator, Rey found himself in Jamestown’s Roger Tory Peterson Institute in 2015 to give a workshop on how to incorporate fly-fishing into education. During a tour of the collection, the RTPI’s Jane Johnson began pulling drawers out of a cabinet in a climate-controlled room. “On the clean white paper that covers the drawer were the bodies of seven extinct birds and around a dozen other threatened species,” Rey recounts in a project description on his website. “I was transfixed by the skins. A tremendous veil of sadness laced every one of the specimens and countless questions immediately ran through my mind: How did these get here? How did they get the birds?”
In September, Smithsonian reported that 187 species of birds have gone extinct in the past 500 years, with 90 percent of those species coming from islands. Rey’s Extinct Birds Project, which features paintings drawn to scale of a burnt match and extensive research into the natural histories of the birds as well as the specific history of his subject specimens, is on display at the RTPI until January 12, 2019 and available as a solemn coffee table book as well.
Talk a little bit about the genesis of the project. How did you get interested in bird extinction?
I knew very little about birds aside from the passenger pigeon, I’m not a birdwatcher or any of that. As I learned more and more about these birds and what happened to them and to the collectors that collected them, it was really fascinating. I remember every morning when I woke up I couldn’t wait to go downstairs and start researching the birds for the book. I had spent eight to 10 hours every day writing and researching, and I couldn’t wait, it was just so fascinating to see what happened to them. And for most of them, for most of the birds that went extinct, it was three things that affected them and are continuing to affect the birds now, so it’s not like we’ve learned a great deal from our history. And the three things are habitat destruction; invasive species, which are usually the rat, the cat, or cattle who destroy the ground and nest sites; or over-collecting by either private collectors or collectors for museums and hunters and that type of thing.
The attention to the collectors in your project really stuck out to me. Why were you drawn to the collectors themselves even as, for some of these birds, they’re part of the reason why these birds aren’t around anymore?
So I had a lot of questions, and I started thinking about what kind of person collects these birds, especially when they’re going extinct or they’re rare or whatever the case may be. The goal of the book was to personalize not only the specimens but also the process that the bird went through to get to its final state. I didn’t want to just talk about species in general; I wanted to follow that specific bird that I painted. What happened to that bird? How did that specific bird end up in front of my camera, in front of my painting? And I think the collectors themselves are an important part of that process. I could have talked more about them but I wanted it to be about the birds. The collectors are part of itm but I don’t want too much emphasis to be on the collector.
Right, and reading the book, I had no idea how many collectors there were. It’s fascinating to imagine this age lived through recently in human history where we had these people in swamps and rainforests and deserts of the world collecting animal species that were new to science. It’s hard in 2018 to even imagine that. We talk now about how the depths of the oceans are relatively unexplored, but it wasn’t that long ago that the world was teeming with ubknown species, and the book really brings that out the human story.
It connects the birds to us. It connects the birds to humans, more clearly to institutions, that we would think would be respectful their welfare, and so it seems like no one was looking out for them. Which is kind of unfortunate.
And at the same time are you grateful that such a collection exists like the one at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute so that so that natural history can be explored that way, tangibly.
Absolutely. There’s an argument that you needed a lot of them, of the same species, to tell that there were such species. I think that’s one part of it. The other part is the over-collecting of it. There’s an argument sometimes used that says that by collecting these birds from the past, they were able to tell what they ate, this, that, and the other thing. The collectors, they just skinned the birds and just threw away the guts the brains and everything. So what the museums got, it was just the plumage and what was left on the outside. Everything else was inside.
The paintings themselves of the birds: Are they any different then projects you’ve undertaken before? Was there a different process involved?
Well, first of all, I’ve never painted birds or even draw them before, so this is my first venture into birds. My other work mostly involves bodies of water and indigenous fish species in those waters, or fish species in general that are found in those waters around the world. So it’s always been about conservation and what makes these bodies of water important. This was different in a lot of ways. Certainly the animals were different that were being investigated. But the subject matter—the conservation, the environmental impact of investigating that,—is very similar. This whole process of what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years is more or less how to use art to make complicated scientific data issues related to urban migration and other issues that affect our environment in a way that is accurate but clear to the average person.
Anything else you want to tell us about this project before we let you go?
Somebody asked me at the first lecture I did about the paintings if I was emotionally connected to the birds, and I almost had to stop, because it became a bit emotional. With each bird, this really became a devotional process, a devotional exercise for me. It was important to me that they were accurate; it was important to me that they were this kind of solemn depiction of an animal that there is no more of. And I didn’t realize how much that was until at the end, when each painting was finished and I felt right, but they are for me almost religious artifacts.