December 30, 2006 at 3:01 pm (art, Uncategorized)

I think everyone must have at least one image that absolutely disgusts and yet fascinates them, which they cannot shake no matter how long has passed between the original sight (or thought) and the memory. Actually, if you only have one, you’re probably pretty lucky.

One of mine is just more strange than anything else; haunting, I guess. About four years ago, I was going for a run in Lincoln Park, which is across the street from our apartment in Jersey City. Nothing unusual about the day that I recall, other than the weather was nice and crisp so it was either spring or fall. As the path I was on sloped to go around a softball field, I noticed something on the ground that caught my eye and slowed down to take a look. There, among a pile of leaves, tree roots, and dirt laid a tiny sparrow with its heart perfectly cut out of its chest. I saw it and immediately looked away, totally repulsed by the sight. I continued on my path, wondering if I had indeed seen what I thought I had, and circled around to take another look. Yep, there it was – a bird with a tiny hole drilled in its chest and its heart removed.

I didn’t tell anyone about what I saw for weeks. I think it was a combination of not wanting to believe it and the whole thing just being so ridiculously, over-the-top metaphorical, like it was something that was from a David Lynch movie or a passage in the bible. What I’ve told myself over the years is that it was probably the work of some teenaged wanna-be satanists – nothing more, nothing less. Creepy and sad, but really: let’s not get too carried away. Kids shouldn’t be doing that, it’s fucked up that they did, but hopefully someone somewhere gets them some help or intervenes in some way, and soon all the birds of Jersey City are again free to fly with hearts beating in their chests. No reason to overthink this. Nope, none at all.

Except that overthinking is what I do best, and so I have stewed over this image ever since I stumbled across it. I’ve used allusions to it in several works (most recently in Phanta, which you can see images of if you click on the link on the right) but it’s always been a part of my personal iconography. Meaning, I haven’t really felt the need to tell the story up til now, nor have I felt the need to really explain it all away and make the interpretation of the symbol of the bird so personal – since it is such a loaded metaphor. It was a personal experience, it had its impact upon me, and I was curious as to how I could incorporate it into my work in a way that would be interesting to people other than myself.

But still, the picture of that poor thing just won’t go away. I go to the park several times a week, and every time I do I think of that little bird. And then of course, I think about the poor people who did this, how screwed up they must be, and so on… and then, before I really know it, I’ve drifted away to the point where I’m not really in the park anymore but purely in my own head, paying respects to the little bird and just sort of torturing myself with the memory.

So yesterday I set out to make some work specifically and explicitly about this memory to (hopefully) finally put it to rest. I meant for this to be merely a half-hour exercise at most, but it wound up eating up much of the day and then spilling over until today. Here’s what I’ve come up with (so far; I doubt this is the last of it):

First I made this small bird out of polymer clay, very similar to the one I made for Phanta. I feel like it’s still maybe a little larger than the actual bird I saw, but it’s close.

On the bottom of the bird, I drilled a hole and made a plug for it, on which I wrote “I want you to be a metaphor of love and devotion,” which is my naive wish for the bird; that, if it had to give its life in such a horrific manner, that at least it died in the spirit of being an offering to or of something wonderful.

The plug is removable…

…and when you open it up…

…inside you discover a tiny little baby bird, connected to the larger bird by a string.

And so, I’m trying to revision the wound as being something else; sort of trying to trick myself into believing that the wound wasn’t a wound at all, but rather a passage for a live birth and that birds never gave birth to eggs after all.

I made this and was happy with it for about two seconds. Ultimately what bugged me about it is that the wound is in entirely the wrong place. I don’t know why I drilled it where I did, but it was all wrong compared to my memory of the real thing.

So I constructed another bird:

This one had the correct (or at least, similar) coloring to the real thing and the wound was in the proper place. It was regrettably much larger than the first, but given what I wanted to do with it, I thought that would be necessary.

I had, during the time I was working on this, a conversation via email with a guy named Steven, who is the boyfriend of a former student of mine. He had just discovered the word atavism and was very intrigued by this idea. We tossed emails back and forth a few times about atavism, and then that was the end of it.

But the word stuck in my head and kept swirling around. In the midst of this yesterday evening, I heard the news that the execution of Sadaam Hussein was imminent – something that I truly never thought would come to pass. I absolutely thought that his sentence would be in appeals forever or maybe it would at least be held off until right before the next election (there’s the conspiracy theorist in me talking). I couldn’t believe that the day of his execution was suddenly here or even, that I still live in a world that condones the execution of human beings. (My husband – who is brilliant and wonderful – upon being told that Hussein had been visited by his family who had come to say goodbye, responded, “Family? Oh I’d forgotten he had one of those.” This is what war does: It makes you forget that the other side is human too; that they have family and loved ones and so on. Of course Hussein was horrible. And of course the US never should have aided him so that he grew to such great heights and got away with murder and tyranny for so long. But he was – until about 10:15 last night – a human being, until he wasn’t anymore. And I have a hard time dealing with this.)

And so. This was all circling as I was working on this second bird last night and this morning, in between nervously checking headlines and feeling quite sick to my stomach about what was percolating up through the newswires.

Within the bird’s wound, I placed a representation of a sort of atavism…

… a silly cut-paper pterodactyl, a visual reminder to me that while we might seem really evolved, we’re mostly just living in the stone age and haven’t gone far at all. We still have these remnants alive in all of us; throw-backs to an earlier, grosser, less-evolved time. It never really dies off.

I’m still not 100% satisfied with this interpretation of the image, but it’s something I’ll be thinking about. For now, I’m off to go draw forests for a little while, and take a walk in the park.



  1. bryan said,

    Have you ever read Brothers Karamazov? It keeps reminding me of Dostoevsky. I have had one similar experience and heard of course many. Anyway, will email later this week or something. Phenomenal piece.

  2. Mary said,

    This is such heartbreakingly beautiful work–visual poetry. Since hearing your tale of the broken sparrow I have been obsessed with the word “heartless,” because that is how I categorized the bird in my own mind. And I started to think about the multiple meanings of the word, (all the more interesting in light of your Saddam observations.) We use the term “heartless” to describe unthinkably inhumane behavior, because that’s the only possible explanation–one must be without a heart to willingly embrace atrocity. We process these things by telling ourselves that the perpetrators are somehow less than human. (I do remember having a tiny twinge of sorrow for Saddam, the parent, on the loss of his sons, as monstrous as they might have been themselves…)

    The bird was rendered literally heartless, presumably by humans who could themselves be labeled heartless. I find this irony sad. The label I choose to describe the victimhood of the bird is a word whose literal meaning has been co-opted by a much darker interpretation. A part of me is fascinated with the question of who took the heart and why? What became of it, how long did it beat, and for what purpose was it sacrificed? But somehow it’s easier to stay with the image of the bird. Maybe that’s why I like both of your versions. They are both full of immortality. In one the bird procreates in a way, referencing the continuity of generations, and in the other we are reminded that birds are most likely the sole surviving remnants of the otherwise doomed dinosaurs.

  3. Andrew said,

    The white version is simply haunting. Beautiful, but haunting.

    It reminds me of the time when years ago, I was dating this girl (yes, it was that long ago) and I went over to her house to surprise her with flowers. She was happy to see me and invited me in. We went into her room and on her altar was a skinned cat. I can still see every detail in my mind. I dropped the flowers and ran. I knew she was pagan, heck… I was pagan too, but I didn’t know that she was into animal sacrifice. Needless to say, that quenched that teenage love.

    Years later, I visited a psychic. One of the first things she did was started to brush my back. I looked at her a bit strangely, thinking that I had a bad dandruff day. And she said, “Oh dear, you’ve got a dead cat on your back and it won’t stop looking at me.”

    It is odd how some things surface and resurface because they are burnt in our psyche.

  4. brian boucher said,

    hi amy,

    as always, your observations are astute and enjoyable to read.

    re: tyrants, terrorists, and family ties, keeping things on a lighter note, the onion weighs in:
    Bin Laden’s Mother Worried Sick

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