Birds Flyin’ High
Sep 01, 2020 11:54AM
By Karey Solomon
“Birds are really magical to me for many different reasons,” says Jennifer Miller. “Seeing one out in the wild in its habitat, to even catch a glimpse of one is pretty special.” Some species are more shy than others, which makes it particularly rewarding when this happens. “But seeing them in a bird sanctuary or aviary is also amazing,” she adds. “They’re no longer stressed around people, so you see them differently.”
The wider world will have an opportunity to see them through Jennifer’s eyes in an exhibit of her work at the West End Gallery, 12 West Market Street in Corning, from September 4 to October 8, 2020. (In these special circumstances, people will also be able to enjoy her paintings online at westendgallery.net.)
Jennifer is a full-time, mostly self-taught artist who lives and works just outside Olean. In 2014, one of her paintings of a ruddy duck was chosen as the winner of the annual Federal Duck Stamp Competition. “It was a tremendous surprise and honor,” she says. “The year I won, I selected the ruddy duck out of the list—artists are given a choice of five different species of waterfowl to paint—as I have a soft spot for this cute and strange little stiff-tailed duck.” She observed them in the wilds of western New York, and was able to take a closer look at them in the aviaries of a private waterfowl enthusiast, as well as at the National Aviary of Pittsburgh.
Her painting was reproduced on U.S. postage stamps and posters available in the 2015-2016 year. “Winning also means after you win you represent the program to an extent,” she explains. “In the year your stamp is the winning stamp, they’ll have you go around the country to a few places, and you’ll meet all these people who are important in the conservation movement. It’s been a concern to me even since I was a little kid. It led me to research more deeply into conservation issues and the complexity of what’s going on in the world.”
And it is indeed complicated, made more so by recent changes in the Migratory Bird Act and the Endangered Species Act, as conservation has become more political. She worries about the future of some of the ducks who’ve been pictured on stamps over the years as conservation rules have eroded.
But for Jennifer, it’s not about politics, it’s about the birds. “I have loved birds since I was a young child. Some of my very earliest memories are of being fascinated with them. I cannot quite tell you why, they’ve always just been a love of mine.” She studied them independently from the time she was very young, augmenting her observation with library books and then internet resources, as well as the mentorship of other artists.
Many of her paintings show you the world from a bird’s perspective. Look closely and you’ll see the ruffling of feathers, the particular posture and demeanor of individual birds leading the eye into their habitat, personality, the sense of each in its own universe. You can almost reach out and touch feathers whose texture teases the eye. Feathered beings populate her fantasy work as well, in her paintings of dragons, gryphons, and other creatures at home in the air.
She also creates realistic masks in a size larger than the heads of actual birds to fit over the heads and rest on the shoulders of full-sized humans. With articulated beaks able to move with the wearer’s jaw, she sees creations like “Wendy,” a pileated woodpecker, and “Metis” a northern spotted owl, as an educational outreach tool, especially useful for teaching children about birds. No description in words can do justice to these. The amazement of seeing them, even with the limitations of a computer screen, will remain with you.
And her own nest is feathered with birds, so to speak. “I’ve had the good fortune of having pet birds my whole life, and currently live with several rescued parrots as well as a flock of chickens,” she says. “People give up their parrots. They don’t have time for them. Parrots can be difficult to live with if you’re not prepared for them. They get surrendered quite often and need someone experienced to take them in and home them. Or sometimes the parrot will outlive the owner. One, unfortunately, came to me because a friend passed away.”
Her second-floor deck is home to several bird feeders, occasionally visited by unusual species. In addition to the feeders, she tries to plant enticing flowers for the birds to enjoy feeding on, like coneflower and coreopsis. A few years ago, Jennifer was thrilled to be able to see several evening grosbeaks at her feeder.
“Their population has really plummeted, so that was really exciting,” she says. The bird feeders are both a joy to her and a source of inspiration. But asked whether she has a favorite bird, she responds as one might expect from an artist.
“It’s like asking whether I have a favorite color,” she objects.
Jesse Gardner, owner of the West End Gallery in Corning, notes the gallery has represented Jennifer’s work for about five years. They receive hundreds of applications from artists who want to show with them, but, she says, “When we first received Jennifer’s application...wow! As soon as we looked at her portfolio it was apparent her skill was phenomenal. Her paintings are so unique, it just hit us the moment we saw the first image.
“In part, what’s consistent in Jennifer’s artwork is her artistic voice and her ability to artistically capture a peaceful moment in time in a beautiful way. Those moments of beauty many of us forget or don’t truly see or stop and appreciate. She brings that to the viewer. Her work reminds us there’s beauty all around us. And that provides respite and offers hope, something I believe many of us need right now. Certainly, her work is stunning. I think I have three myself, in my personal collection.”
For Jennifer, one of the best artistic rewards is sharing the bond she feels with wild creatures with a broader audience. “I think it’s exciting anytime someone has an interest in wildlife and birds to make that connection,” she says. “It’s one of those things I think is lacking in our human experience in this modern era.”
If people who see her work become motivated to experience the wild world first-hand, she’s connected with the viewer as well as the subjects of her art.
“To get people to take that first step, as long as people are respectful in giving animals their space, seems to [lead to] more love and respect for our natural world,” Jennifer says.