Saturday Studio: Baroque Birds

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

The 1980s installment of A Century of Making Meaning comes to a close this weekend, and we can’t let it pass without taking a look at this joyful print (in the center, below) by Frank Stella, Noguchi’s Okinawa Woodpecker.

Frank Stella, American, b. 1936. Noguchi’s Okinawa Woodpecker, from the Exotic Bird series. Lithograph and screenprint on paper, 1977. Museum purchase with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alliance-Weatherhead Endowment, 1981.03.10. Photo courtesy of FMWoA.

Composed of five curvy shapes that float over a sparkling silver frame, all on a graph-paper background, can you spot the bird? Or anything like a bird? The graceful curves might resemble fancy plumage or the overall form of a bird’s body, maybe in flight, but it is quite abstracted. If you’re a draftsman or designer, these particular curves might be familiar: they’re traced French curves, stencils used to draw various smooth curves. Stella’s Exotic Bird series was one of two that focused on birds, and while both represent a major departure from his previous, more hard-edged minimal works, this use of commonplace drawing tools connects them. His older geometric works used protractors and other more mathematical templates, while the French curves signaled a larger shift towards organic forms, a style often described as baroque.

The specific bird referenced in our print is a woodpecker native to the Japanese island of Okinawa that is critically endangered. I always figured that the “Noguchi” in the title referred to sculptor Isamu Noguchi, but the bird’s scientific name is Dendrocopos noguchii, so that may not be the case! For each work in his bird series, Stella began with a sketch using his French curves on graph paper, then enlarged these into maquettes or models, before they were fully realized as large-scale, 3D paintings on aluminum. He worked on printed versions throughout the time spent on the rest of the series, not necessarily before (as preparatory sketches). If the curves represent birds, what might the gridded background represent? Stella’s explanation of the inspiration behind his Indian Bird series reveals the answer: 

“I was in India, when I began these paintings. Each background was like a cage—a birdcage. The work was more sculptural than my previous paintings, with forms sticking out from the wall, so I had to build an armature to support them. I used shapes like French curves, working on them separately, then put them together to see how they fit, which they did pretty well.”

They’re cages; but the “birds” appear to be in varying states of escape, flying in front of the grid of bars. As we prepare to create our own “exotic birds,” maybe we should turn our attention to more familiar feathered friends. What kinds of birds do you see out your window? How do they move? How could you represent this abstractly?

Gather your materials:

  • French curve templates or something else curved to trace
  • 3 pieces of graph paper (or plain paper and a ruler so you can draw the grid yourself!)
  • 1 larger piece of paper
  • Pencil
  • Colorful drawing materials of choice (I’m using oil pastels)
  • Gluestick
  • Glitter (optional)

First, create your “birds” on one sheet of graph paper using the French curve and a pencil. You’re not stuck with the shape of the entire French curve: you can trace part of it, then move it and line up the edges with another section until you have smooth curves on all the edges. Create 5 different shapes, making sure they are a variety of sizes and not too difficult to cut out!

Color them in, then cut them out. If you drew shapes inside the larger shapes, you don’t need to worry about cutting these out since they’ll match the background!

Prepare your “cage” by gluing another sheet of graph paper (or draw a grid onto plain paper using a ruler) onto a larger sheet of colored paper.

Arrange your birds! As I moved my shapes around, I found that two different pairs of shapes each became a bird, then a longer shape became the branch they were sitting on. I also found that I made my shapes too big to fit on the paper so I had to do a little trimming!

Once you’re happy with the composition, glue the shapes down. You can stop here, or, as Stella did, embellish your frame with some glitter to add texture. Invite your friends or family to make more birds to add to your menagerie!

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