Wild Things

Art galleries aren’t my usual hangout. But being an owl freak, when I noticed that an exhibit of owl sculptures was on display at the Wirtz Gallery in downtown San Francisco, I zipped across the bay on BART to check it out. The owls—pygmy, great horned, barn, burrowing, short-eared, and snowy—were set about the gallery in likely places: the great horned high on a ledge; the barn owl on a corner shelf; the snowy, burrowing, and short-eared on the ground. Made of various fabrics including old clothes, beanie babies and fake fur, string, wire, and other odds and ends, the owls were eerily authentic. They made me wonder about the artist, her subjects, and her choice of materials. I caught up with artist Kathryn Spence a week later.

Why owls?

Actually, I made a series of birds before, in 1997. The way I got into this was making pigeons. I think a lot about the environment when I see these creatures in the city. The city’s so dirty, you just don’t have access to nature. So I was happy to even see pigeons on the concrete. I started trying to figure out what to make them out of. I’d see newspapers run over by cars and think that they looked like dead pigeons. So I started gathering up the newspapers and street garbage to make the pigeons.

And that led to the owls?

That started me looking more at birds. When you see pigeons, there are always a couple of other urban birds—house sparrows and blackbirds—every kind of city bird. So through pigeons and feeling sympathetic toward them and making the pigeon pieces I really started looking at birds.

Your owls are so life-like. You seem to have captured their souls.

There’s something about owls that just fascinates me. In a way I made them because it was a way for me to have more access to them. Since they are wild birds, I wanted to leave them alone, just look at them from far away and be aware of them, but not destroy habitat or bother them. Making them is my way of reaching them—and for other people to have access to them. It’s not about having an owl; that would be awful. But it was interesting to me to think about bringing these wild things inside—through my pieces—so that people could be with them.

How did you go about making the birds?

I’ve seen all of these birds in the wild. But then I rented some taxidermied owls to have in the studio while I worked. I found that my owls were much more alive.

Your choice of materials is fascinating. It looks like you are using post-consumer materials to make them. What is your message here?

I feel strongly about the fact that most people have seen so many more stuffed animals than they have real animals. We have access to all this consumer garbage—everyone has seen owls on TV, but how many people have experienced a real one? I feel badly about that because I want there to be a closer connection. I wish I could squint my eyes and turn all the fake stuff back into the real thing.

So where do you get your materials?

All of it is from thrift stores, my own clothes. I used stuffed animals from thrift stores too—I always make all of my work from excess stuff. A lot of the clothes were my clothes—coats or pants. I liked the ones that looked sort of natural—like herringbone for the back of the great horned owls. I started ripping up some of my clothes, whatever seemed like an owl to me. There is so much stuff; there’s no reason to use new stuff. I feel like I’m helping in some kind of absurd way.

What goes through your mind when you’re making an owl?

The way I see things has to do with transforming them. When I see these birds in the wild, I think about transforming them because I make things. I was at the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory and Allen Fish was talking about the difference between a raven and a crow being a cut-off tail, and that got me thinking.

How long does it take you to make an owl?

I started working on them last fall. I made them in less than a year. Some were easier than others. I did the great-horned first. That helped me figure everything else out. I hollowed out the inside of a stuffed animal, then just started adding to it. I want them to have that feeling of aliveness and softness. They can’t be overworked.

Who positioned the owls in the gallery?

I do all of it. The short-eared owl, for example, had to be installed in a very particular way. I had seen short-eared owls at Point Reyes, and I wanted this to be appropriate to the way you see them in the wild.

What is the most gratifying part of the work you’ve done with the owls?

I’m happy that other people besides art lovers are coming to see my birds. SF MOMA bought my pigeons; they’re not on display right now, but you can see them on their web site.

It’s fascinating that you’ve recreated something so full of spirit with cast-off materials.

I’m interested in how something is just an object and then it has a soul. We occupy these bodies and then they are just matter after all.

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