I was raised in rural northwestern Connecticut and have lived most of my life here. The world outside my doors is rich with plants, animals, birds and insects and my life has been a luxury of engagement with these things. They feed my spirit and inform much of my work as an artist.
Spring and summer when life and color return, are a joyful time! Everything is fresh and new. Miracles are everywhere and the days are full of observation. The darker, colder months of fall and winter provide a time to use the sketches and photos from summer to create new work.
Nests, eggs and birds are an important part of your work but also your life.
How did you becom a bird rehabilitator ? Songbirds have always delighted me. They are small and fragile but also remarkably strong and resilient. When my sister called one day about an unfeathered baby bird she found on the the side of the road I told her I would take it and try to save it. I soon discovered a small network of local bird lovers all generous with any information they could share. It was hit or miss at times but the catbird, Peep, grew strong and created a permanent place in my heart. Peep opened my eyes to the fragile interface of trust that can exist between humans and birds. The experience was so intensely fulfilling I longed to learn more and do it again. Through a local nature center I learned that birds are protected by state and federal laws and I eventually qualified for the necessary permits from the CT DEP and the Federal Migratory Bird Permit Office.
Most rehab takes place during the breeding season which is roughly May to August in Connecticut . For 20 years my spring and summer wake-up call arrived at first light with small peeping sounds from the covered basket near my bed and the day began with the first of many feedings. Baby birds are fed constantly throughout the day. It is intense and demanding but with care these miraculous creatures will leap confidently into the air and fly three weeks after emerging from their eggs! I am writing a book, Feathered Guests, about my experiences rehabilitating wild birds.
What is the best part of being an artist? The best part of being an artist is the excuse to spend a long time looking at something I really love while I paint it.
What is the worst? The worst part is the longing to depict how I feel about these things I paint. I don’t need my pictures to be worth a thousand words, I just want them to be worth a single beautifully turned phrase.
What inspires you? Inspiration can come from something in a dream, some visual juxtaposition of objects in nature or in my studio or even a written phrase that conjures an image. It is unpredictable but when it comes it brings an excitement that makes me start working it out in pencil in a sketchbook before it can slip away.
Do you usually stay with your original idea when working on a new piece or do you let the process guide you? Because I work in egg tempera and silverpoint I have to work out the composition and transfer it to the ground before I begin painting. For this reason I stick very close to the original idea. Neither medium allows for much in the way of spontaneous changes.
Do you work on one piece at a time or several? I am happiest when I have three pieces going at once. It is easy to become myopically focused on a single piece so putting one aside to work on another allows me to see more clearly.
I find nests and eggs inherently beautiful as well as meaningful symbolically. A nest is a marvel of architecture and the use of specific materials by each bird species is fascinating. Last summer I tried to build a nest using grasses, roots and other materials but even with fingers and tweezers I was unable to come close to what a pair of songbirds can do with beaks and feet.
How have your close experiences caring for birds affected your artwork? Until very recently every bird I painted is one I knew personally and, in most cases, raised and released. Juvenile birds are my favorite to paint. Their plumage is almost adult but they often have endearing bits of goofy fluff on top of their heads and they have an unguarded look in their eyes they lose quickly in the wild. When first released they continue to return to the rehabber for food throughout the day but as they adapt to the wild they become more guarded and finally wean themselves from their human ‘parents’.
Its interesting to me one of your favorite mediums to paint in is egg tempera. How did you get started using it and what do you like about it? I may have been programmed since birth with the initials EGG! Eggs symbolize potential to me and also, of course, new life. An egg is like an unwrapped gift. It could contain a life that will endure epic migration or it could simply be food. Eggs are fragile but also quite durable. I love the shape of eggs and the colors, patterns and textures. Certain tinamou eggs are so beautiful they almost defy belief. They look like glazed porcelain in shades of green, blue and a brownish purple.
Something I read about icon painting led me to exploring egg tempera as a painting medium and I was hooked from the beginning. It suits my love of detail perfectly. There is a ceremonial aspect to the process of separating the yolk from the white then mixing the yolk with dry pigments and water to make my paint. I also love how little the process and materials have changed since medieval times.
Tell me about working in silverpoint , how you became interested in it and why you like. Silverpoint and egg tempera go hand in hand with many artists. Both mediums require patience, precision and slow building of values by layering and both date back to medieval times. (For those who may not know, silverpoint is drawing on a slightly rough surface with a thin silver wire held in a stylus like a pencil.)
The two things I like best about silverpoint are the reflective shine of the silver when the drawing is turned toward the light and the way the drawing tarnishes over time. Tarnishing depends on the environment and is unpredictable but eventually the drawing takes on a warm patina which is a lovely enhancement. I do silverpoint and egg tempera on panels with a traditional gesso ground (rabbitskin glue and marble dust) but have written a how-to book titled Silver Linings for beginners using paper which the more common ground.
Silverpoint requires a certain amount of ‘tooth’ to remove silver from the tip of the stylus. Because traditional grounds commonly use calcium in varying forms it occurred to me that a clamshell might be a natural palette for silverpoint. Much to my surprise it is perfect although the concave shape can be challenging.
What pets do you have? Parrots are my only pets these days. They are a lifetime commitment but offer a lot in terms of interaction. I kind of miss having cats and a dog but birds touch my heart in a unique way.
What are some of the wild animals you have seen from your studio window?
Bluebird, fox and bear photos taken by Banjie
TEMPORAL AND TERRESTRIAL
Egg Tempera & Drawing
featuring Banjie Nicholas, Diane Savino, Carol O’Neill, and Leslie Anderson
March 6- May 3 ~ Reception Thursday March 6 ~ 5:30-8:00 pm
Westfield State University Downtown Art Gallery
105 Elm Street, Westfield, Massachusettes
Banjie’s website: http://www.banjiesart.com
Banjie’s book: Silver Linings
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