Here in Ireland we feed the birds. We have been doing this since day one when we moved here, it’s a habit we have, a tradition we never gave up on. Back in Maine we had a very large bird feeder in our backyard. We kept it filled with sunflower seeds and peanuts. As the years went by more and more birds appeared, but then things began to change, roads got wider, houses were built where the woods once stood, lights got put up and the night sky was no longer as dark. The whippoorwill and the crossbill, along with a few others, found new grounds elsewhere; we kept a log of their disappearance. Things are slowly changing here as well, it’s inevitable, so I keep a wary eye out for my good friend the blackbird. I need to know he will thrive and continue to bring his progeny into this world.

The blackbird has become a symbol of sorts for me. In the spring, when our hawthorn trees are in full bloom, the male blackbird perches high up in its branches and sings. Going about any tasks in the garden, I stop and listen to him, we have had many conversations. I try to mimic him with my whistle. He listens and calls back. Sometimes I change the cadence and tone of the whistle and he pauses, thinking about how to answer, he then improvises a melody that I cannot possibly try to mirror, it’s his way of saying, keep it simple! Looking at him, jet black feathers, bright orange beak, and a haunting gold rim around his eye, he has become a symbol of something pure, something simple and less complicated.

Artists inhabit a world of symbols, they create their own, or use that which they see in the everyday. Symbols express to us what we need not say. Symbols can convey what words cannot. They are found everywhere. Our minds recognize them for the meanings embedded in them; they can exert a powerful force on our unconscious and we need not even be aware of their existence.

When I see someone with a crucifix dangling from a chain around their neck, do I view them as Christian, or are they simply making a fashion statement? The tattoo has become a cornucopia of symbols. They are personal statements meant to say to others, look . . . this is who I am. Yet we all know those Maori symbols you had tattooed on your leg in Chicago, are a long way from home.

So, I have been looking and thinking about what constitutes a symbol and how I might interpret them. In what I call the UMVA archives (very large disorganized file folder) I began to notice just how many artists, who over the years contributed to the newsletters with drawings, drawings that for the most part were symbolic of their work, or the times they were living through. I say symbolic because there were no words attached to the images, no explanation as to what the drawing represented, no real clues, just in most cases, simple raw energy. It was then I decided I would not try to figure these images out, I would let them speak for themselves, and I would take them at face value in the hope that they might speak to me.

Years ago, I made a rule which went like this: Don’t ask an artist what their work is about, because if you do, you won’t get the answer you were hoping for, or for that matter, you’re going to put the artist on the spot, and they are going to make something up, and that something, that explanation, will surely change tomorrow, because nothing is writ in stone, nothing is final.

This is from a UMVA newsletter dated June 1992. Here is what artist Abby Shahn wrote regarding final solutions: “Things don’t have single causes. People don’t do things for only one reason. Everything resists being neatened up, and that’s good. I find it much easier to express all those internal contradictions visually than verbally.Along with the essay Shahn submitted, were images of her recent work. (see figures below) I see them as symbolic of her thought process. It is impossible for me to fully understand their meaning, yet they resonate as something hidden within us. If I were to try to place a definitive label on them, they would ultimately lose all meaning. To me the images are symbols of something I understand, yet need no explanation.

umva archives Abby shahn symbol 1 copy

Abby Shahn, drawing.

umva archives Abby shahn 2 copy

Abby Shahn, drawing.

As I write these words, I’m looking out our window and I see the blackbird having a splash in the birdbath. He’s going at it, water everywhere! He pauses for a moment when he notices me in the window. We contemplate one another. Nothing is said, yet volumes are silently spoken. He takes one more dip and flies to a branch in the hawthorn tree. We understand one another perfectly.


Image at top: Blackbird (photo: Pat and Tony Owen).