By Katherine Duke '05
If you happened to pass near the statue of Robert Frost on the First-Year Quad March 26, you may have noticed some unusual avian visitors to the Amherst campus: a flock of 30 white porcelain bird sculptures arranged on the ground. Artist Christy Hengst ’89—who made a guest appearance March 25 in the Theater and Dance course “Scripts and Scores” and delivered a public lecture in Paino Lecture Room—brought her traveling installation Birds in the Park to campus for a one-day showing; the flock appeared in the morning and “flew away” by early evening.
Birds in the Park, by Christy Hengst '89, near Chartres Cathedral in France
The birds began appearing last spring around parks, libraries and cafes in Santa Fe, N.M., where Hengst lives. People would “see them pop up in one place on one day and disappear,” she says, “and then some days later, show up in another place.” Soon, they ventured farther: New Orleans, the beaches of California, New York’s Central Park and Metropolitan Museum of Art and, most recently, Washington, D.C. They’ve even flown to France, Germany and the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador, sparking the curiosity of passersby. “One of the great things about this project has been just meeting so many different people,” notes Hengst, “people who wouldn’t necessarily go to a gallery or a museum.”
The sculptures’ shapes gradually grew out of the artist’s experiments with silk-screening onto clay tiles. “I discovered I could silk-screen onto the clay when it was still wet,” Hengst says. “That really opened up this world of being able to then form it into a three-dimensional object. I was working with a seedpod shape, actually, and then—they looked like birds!”
Texts and images are printed and fired onto each figure in cobalt blue. This idea originated in the weeks leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when Hengst found herself “obsessively saving” and making silk screens of newspaper articles about the war; then she began layering these with poetry, love letters and pictures of her two children. The birds “are, in a sense, carrier pigeons,” she explains. “The message they bear is an exploration of the beautiful and the horrible side by side… The questions posed by the birds are about the humanness of us all. How we are connected, and also the unthinkable ways in which that bond is disregarded.”
Before their visit to Amherst, Hengst's flock "landed" in Washington, D.C. On many of the porcelain birds, you can see images and text from news articles about the Iraq War.
Birds in the Park comprises an ever-growing flock, now numbering about 100 unique pieces. In addition to using public texts and her own photography, Hengst has been collaborating with writer and Vietnam War veteran Tim Origer, English poet Henry Shukman, Venezuelan photographer Maria de Las Casas and her father, Werner Hengst, to create some of the material that appears on the birds. One of their landing sites in the coming months will be in Peenemünde, Germany, where V-1 and V-2 rockets were developed during World War II and where the artist’s grandfather worked as a scientist.
At Amherst, Hengst majored in fine arts and even created a public project—on a series of 4-foot-by-8-foot panels—that was on display for many years on the second floor of the Merrill Science Center. After graduating, she moved to Santa Fe and completed an individualized master of arts program through AntiochUniversity. After years of doing large, collaborative projects at bus stops and plazas, she switched her focus to smaller work for galleries and museums. She considers Birds in the Park to be her re-entry into public art. “I was thinking that it would be shown in a gallery, but then I started to realize that I’d really love to see these pieces outside,” she says. “And what’s more, once I’d tried out one place, then I realized that there was a lot of places I’d like to try out.”
So, after they took off from Amherst, Hengst and her birds continued their international migrations, until the fall of 2010.
Photos courtesy of Christy Hengst '89