Arts Desk

A Catalog of Make-’Em-Yourself Birds Adds a Dose of Dark Humor to Kid Lit

Kate Samworth

Kate Samworth’s new book was born from silence. The painter and illustrator had been listening to the radio in her Philadelphia studio in the days following Hurricane Katrina, when, on the program, a couple recounted what it was like to return to New Orleans in the wake of the storm. Silence, they said—that was what stood out. The force of the storm’s winds had swept many of the birds out of town, and in place of birdsong and chirping, an eerie quiet had settled over the city.

As she listened, Samworth began to doodle a dark response: an imaginary catalog of brightly colored birds to be bought and delivered to fill the city’s weather-torn quiet. She was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the time, but she’d spent the previous 12 years in New Orleans after growing up in Chevy Chase, Md. An avid bird watcher, she was struck by the story, and the doodles stuck with her. Nearly a decade later, those doodles became Aviary Wonders, Inc., an illustrated children’s book with a comic edge and an exhibit now on view at Artisphere.

The book’s premise, as laid out in an opening manifesto, is simple. In a letter to the reader, Alfred Wallis, the fictional heir to a logging empire, introduces himself as a late-blooming bird-lover. It’s the year 2031, birds have all but gone extinct, and our only recourse is to replace them with ones of our own making—for a nominal fee, of course. In the pages that follow, oil-painted illustrations lay out our options: Take your pick of wings, beaks, tails, and color schemes; mix and match to buy a bird all your own. Welcome, dear reader, to the “spring catalog and instruction manual” for build-it-yourself birds. And if you happen to be an amateur, never fear: “Building your own bird is as easy as building a bookcase…and twice the fun!”

At Artisphere through June 15, Samworth is offering a glimpse into the process behind the creation of Aviary Wonders, Inc. with drafts and original paintings. One of the sketches on view that didn’t make it into the final book is a mock contract (below), stating in form-letter deadpan that the owner-to-be is never to keep his bird in a cage. At the bottom is a line for signing your name; at the top is a sketch of a bird comically large for its cage, flustered and frazzled in slapstick fashion.

Caged Bird Pledge

Samworth says the idea came to her in a moment of similar absurdity. “I had been in Brazil, and there were exotic birds hanging in cages from all these trees, for sale,” she says. “It was just so funny and heartbreaking to see.” The contract never quite fit with the rest of the book, but at Artisphere, she’s had the chance to pick it up off the cutting room floor.

If an Ikea order form for living creatures sounds a bit grim, well, it is. There’s something unsettling in seeing these birds reduced to parts and put back together again, and in recalling why, exactly, you’re buying one in the first place. The book is sprinkled with notes about real extinctions, in case you happen to forget that the topic isn’t completely confined to the world of fiction. Next to one enormous “stay-at-home” model, a caption neatly sums up its fate: “The Moa was large, flightless—and tasty!”

It would be easy for a book like this to be brought low by the weight of its message, by a preachy tone or a cynical eye. But Samworth manages to make the winged inventory soar by the force of her playful imagination. The paintings are exquisitely rendered, at once fanciful and carefully detailed. You won’t see any birds like these in the wild, cobbled as they are from so many distinctive pieces. Still, Samworth’s talents with the paintbrush—and her wry sense of humor—keep the animals semibelievable yet undeniably original. Pick the “Granny Warhol,” a windswept purple mop of a crest, to make sure your bird of prey stays sheepish; go with the ornate “Geisha” tail if you’d like to keep your wader awkward in the air and close to home.

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It all amounts to a combination that’s not easy to pin down. Sardonic, beautiful, laced with a morbid streak and a sense of humor, Aviary Wonders is a children’s book that gives kids an awful lot of credit, or just aims for their parents instead. In that respect, Samworth’s book shares much in common with the works of Roald Dahl—or, if we dispense with the kids’ theme altogether, Kurt Vonnegut.

Perhaps the best way to describe this bundle of contradictions in Samworth’s work—the Artisphere exhibit, as well as the book—is to borrow a favorite phrase from the artist herself. “It’s funny,” she has a habit of saying, before launching into an anecdote that’s as likely to make you laugh as it is to make you grimace, often both at once. “Funny,” in this special sense, seems to be an understanding that the serious and the absurd are never particularly far apart.

This may be Samworth’s debut in print, but it’s clear from her works as a narrative painter that she has long had an acute sense for this special kind of “funny.” The weird, the tragic, and the wonderful share space within her frames—self-sustaining worlds that bear little resemblance to what’s seen from the window of her studio in Charlottesville, Va.

At Artisphere, some of Samworth’s unused paintings and sketches for the book ring the walls of the small, square gallery. At the room’s center rests something else you won’t find in the book: a miniature desk and four chairs, made for kids—the kind you’d find in a kindergarten classroom. And on the desk is a set of stencils, cardboard cutouts of her illustrations, complete with wings and bills and legs to be filled in with crayons and colored pencils.

Each time I visited the exhibit, I found not kids, but fully-grown adults at the table, teetering on the tiny plastic seats and furiously scribbling away with their nubby crayons. Eyes scrunched in concentration and knees tucked into their chests, they didn’t look terribly different from the frazzled bird on the wall. It seems fitting that this scene should play out at the heart of the exhibit: a bit of accidental performance art for a book made for kids, but best enjoyed by adults.

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Her audience might be young and in it only for the pictures, or old enough to get the caustic wit—or somewhere in between, scribbling at the kids’ table—but Samworth’s goal remains the same: Please, remember the birds. “In an ideal world,” she says, “I would create a few new stewards.”

The exhibit’s desk and stencils are nods to the book’s interactive implications: At stops along Samworth’s book tour, she’s seen people draw the birds, cut them out and make collages, even build life-sized models according the book’s assembly instructions. It seems tailor-made for multimedia, for a computer program to play at mixing and matching yourself.

But, though she may have a serious message in mind, the absurd is never very far behind. Samworth is quick to admit that even her own book isn’t quite free from the ironies it notes.

“It’s funny,” she says. “A lot of people have been asking for a computer app, and my hope was that people would go outside and look at birds.”

Top photo by Darrow Montgomery. Drawings and paintings by Kate Samworth.

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