When you walk into the second-floor gallery space of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum you might be surprised to see Art Fox’s photographs of birds literally hovering off the wall. For the exhibition “Broken Journey,” instead of being displayed in a standard gallery presentation—where the artworks are positioned flush against the wall—15 of Fox’s images are hung with wire to appear as if they are floating. The birds, all dead, are photographed against blurry backgrounds—the wings of some are bent; others are extended, as if in motion. Even though the show is meant to convey flight, the paradox is that the subjects are incapable of ever flying again.
Fox’s aim, however, is to bring the power of flight back to creatures that are long gone. He started to photograph dead birds in the spring of 2014, when a summer tanager expired on his balcony in the West Loop. He admired the animal’s beauty, regardless of the fact that it was deceased. “I had never seen anything like it,” Fox said. “I knew that it was the tip of an iceberg in terms of my curiosity. It was a wake-up call by Mother Nature.”
A retired physician, Fox doesn’t attribute his background in medicine to his interest in birds. “I would say this project is an aesthetic adventure rather than a science adventure,” he said. “I’ve learned some technical things about the subjects in the process, but I am first and foremost struck by the beauty and pathos of their situation.”
Initially, Fox photographed birds mostly from his home—in his bathroom or on his balcony. Recently he has worked in more professional environments, such as the Field Museum and the lab of Dr. Reuben Keller at Loyola University, institutions that collect birds that expire in Chicago for study, education, and display.
Often, the birds’ deaths are due to indirect human intervention, whether it’s smacking into the windows of a house or skyscraper, or even being attacked by a house cat. Steven Sullivan, senior curator of urban ecology at the Nature Museum, estimated that up to 1 billion birds die each year from flying into buildings, and an additional 100 million or so perish due to colliding with communication towers, power distribution lines, and other seemingly innocuous structures. “Cities are intrinsic death traps for birds, and wildlife in general,” Sullivan said. “But we as Chicagoans want to mitigate that problem.”
Advocation groups like Chicago Bird Collision Monitors are doing just that. The team of all-volunteer workers advocate for safer lighting practices in buildings downtown by encouraging building-management groups and the general public to reduce lighting during spring and fall migration (birds are drawn to, and confused by, the light emitted by large signs, towers, and other sources). The group also collects injured and dead birds from Chicago’s streets, bringing nearly 3,000 injured specimens to wildlife rehabilitation centers each year.
According to Sullivan 300 species pass through Chicago throughout the year, with migration typically peaking between March and June and from August to October. Birds are attracted to Chicago for its location and resources: the city is in the middle of one of the most efficient migratory routes, from South America and Central America to Canada, and is in close proximity to a coastline. Fox explains that people came to Chicago for similar reasons, noting that the city’s citizens are helping to destroy creatures that are here due to comparable primal instincts.
Sullivan and Fox hope the exhibition produces both an empathetic reaction and an aesthetic one. The lifelike appearance of the birds in the photographs was one of the factors for putting on this exhibit, which partially serves as an educational tool. “The Nature Museum strives to be everybody’s gateway to nature and science,” said Sullivan. “We want people to understand the nature that is in their very own backyard.”
“Broken Journey,” Through 2/12/2017, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon, 773-755-5100, naturemuseum.org, $9, $7 students and seniors, $6 kids 3-12, Thursdays free.