Interview with Bird Land Artist Michele L’Heureux
Lamont Gallery: How did you approach your collaboration partner, Helen Popinchalk, to work with you on this project; was it by chance, carefully planned or were you brought together by a mutual appreciation of birds?
Michele L’Heureux: Helen and I met on the first day of our MFA program almost ten years ago, and we became immediate friends and collaborators. We have worked on a number of projects together, and most of them involve animals and the natural world in some way. Indeed, we also share bird- and nature-watching in common and have spent time exploring the woods and shoreline together, picking up rocks, shells, and fragments from nature along the way. Helen runs a print collective called Trifecta Editions, and she and her business partner have printed my work many times. They invited me to be Trifecta’s artist in residence over this past year, and this project and our collaboration grew out of the research I did for that residency.
LG: What benefits and challenges are there to working collaboratively with other artists?
ML: The benefits of collaboration are enormous. Not only can you capitalize on the talents and skills of other artists, but you can learn things about yourself and your work by creating in close proximity with another person, who can provide feedback and ideas along the way. For example, when we were envisioning the bird blind and how it would look on the inside, Helen had the idea to turn some of my sketchbook drawings into stencils that we could paint onto the interior walls. She blew up scans of my sketches and created the stencils, so the final outcome is a product of our combined talents.
I am a bit of a control freak, so sometimes letting go of full control to allow for other voices and skills to enter the creative process can be challenging for me. I do not collaborate regularly, except with Helen, whom I trust and with whom I’ve developed a like-minded aesthetic and process.
LG: Tell us how you came to know and love the Roseate Spoonbill?
ML: My in-laws live in Florida, and I began spending more time there around 15 years ago. When I first saw a spoonbill on the Gulf Coast of Florida, I think I gasped. The combination of its bright pink color, its size, its bulging eyes, and its spoon-shaped beak seemed so prehistoric and strange; I was immediately hooked. The places that the spoonbill frequents–the edges of mangrove forests and watery inlets–are prime locations for all kinds of other fascinating birds, as well, so if there are spoonbills, there are bound to be ibises, pelicans, storks, egrets, and more. I really love Florida birds!
LG: Some experts [and Wikipedia] call birds “Feathered Dinosaurs” and cite that crocodiles are birds closest surviving relatives. Is there a lesson to be learned by these survivors?
ML: One of the main reasons I’m drawn to birds is that they are incredibly resilient and tenacious. They have a lot to teach us about adapting to changing circumstances, adjusting to new conditions, and braving dramatic challenges. I find their story of survival inspiring, and I try to draw on their flexibility and strength in my own life, especially when facing shifts in circumstances and surroundings that make me uncomfortable.
LG: Then on the other hand, thinking about the phrase, “canary in a coal mine” and the fact that many bird species are sadly on the verge of extinction due to human activity what lessons or questions regarding extinction and habitat do you think about? Do you have any hopes that the Welcome to Bird Land exhibit prompts any questions related to this?
ML: I have read that birds are harbingers of our own futures, and the fact that so many birds have gone and will go extinct in my lifetime is disheartening. Still, the incredible strength of birds like the Emperor Penguin and the Albatross is really inspiring. My hope is that Welcome to Bird Land makes visitors think about why birds matter to us so much. Rather than offer a particular message about conservation or environmental impact, I want to prompt viewers to think about the complexity of birds and to consider why we are so fascinated with them. An appreciation of birds–and all natural things, for that matter–is a great place to start when trying to figure out how best to protect and serve them.
LG: Do you ever dream of flying like a bird? Have you ever been hang-gliding or kite sailing? Do you think you would ever try anything like this? Or do you imitate any other bird-like behaviors, like the Secretary Bird, who prefers to stomp?
ML: When I was young and through my twenties, I would often dream about being able to fly as a means of transportation–not high in the sky, but just above the heads of people walking on the street. I do not have flying dreams anymore and don’t really fantasize about being in the sky. Hang-gliding, kite sailing, or other sky sports do not appeal to me, as I’m very risk-averse. I do love to swim and hang out at the water’s edge, so perhaps I’m more akin to the Spoonbill than the seagull.
LG: In Welcome to Bird Land you share with us your sketchbooks, collages, costumes, photographs and other collections of bird items; how long have you been creating the works for this exhibition? Which parts were made most recently?
ML: I have been working on the components for this exhibition for at least a year, and a few of the works were created for another show two years ago (they have been modified for this exhibition). The Bird Salon, the Unnatural History Museum, and the Bird Blind were created on site with very little advanced planning, so they are the most current. I constructed the Secretary Bird costume just a couple months before the show and did the photo shoot with a model the week before the exhibition, so that work is very fresh, too.
LG: What is next for Welcome to Bird Land, is the exhibit “migrating” or does it all go back to the studio for “nesting”?
ML: The show is slated to migrate to the Boston Design Center sometime in the coming year or two. Helen and I will likely make more work together for that iteration, as there were many ideas that were left unrealized due to time constraints. For the time being, much of the work will nest with me, as I take a hiatus from exhibiting to go back to school.
LG: Are there other animals you think about exploring and understanding through art?
ML: I think birds will carry me for the foreseeable future, as there are so many species and aspects of avian culture to explore. I am quite drawn to large mammals, such as grizzly bears, moose, and whales, so perhaps they will find their way into my studio at some point.
LG: Do you think your background in Philosophy helps you look and see things in a different way? How does looking, sketching, creating and curating contribute to your understanding of birds?
ML: Yes, I think studying philosophy has informed almost every creative and intellectual pursuit I’ve undertaken. Mostly, that training taught me how to ask questions and how to come at ideas and subject matter from many different angles. It also reinforced my voracious curiosity about the world and how it works, especially the natural world. Studying philosophy, making art, and curating have all improved my powers of observation and critical thinking skills, which are essential tools for understanding the Nature, including my current obsession, birds.
– Interview Questions developed by gallery attendant Jennifer Benn.