Part One--Not Just a 'Walk in the Park': How Christy Hengst’s Porcelain Birds Do and Do Not 'Blend In'

Today's blog post was written by Edward M. Richstone. Richstone is a retired school psychologist. He has written articles on a variety of topics for civic organizations and city newspapers.

Swami's Beach, San Diego, CA 3/16/2009
Photo courtesy Christy Hengst

Viewed at a distance, the birds blend into their surroundings. In public places like parks, the whitish forms are faintly recognizable from afar as commonly occurring pigeons or doves. On a beach, it is likely they are seagulls.

Passersby who are in a rush or in no mood to commune with nature will not think twice about this group of birds. Never mind that these particular creatures are not flitting around, not scrambling for food, and, stranger still, not taking off, startled, on whistling wings.

More attentive observers, however, might approach the birds and discover the reason for their odd stillness. They are not real birds at all, but rather porcelain figures! Each is decorated with a variety of words and pictures. Grounded birds carry custom-built designs on their backs; perched birds, on their bellies.

Like a messenger, each bird tells a story in its own way. We are drawn to a curious display of jumbled images, all in a Delft-like cobalt blue. Fragments of photos enliven content from snippets of handwritten and printed text. Images pertain either to military conflict or to civilian life during war or peacetime. War-related newspaper articles, photos of battles, and memoirs of veterans compete for space on each bird alongside love letters, recipes, and images of children. One of the sharpest of contrasts to be found is a likeness of the artist herself, holding her own toddler, juxtaposed with an image of an Iraqi mother and child caught in a bombing raid.

In the patio of the New Mexico Museum of Art 4/19/2009
Photo courtesy Christy Hengst

These lovely, yet unsettling creations of Christy Hengst were exhibited in her hometown of Santa Fe in the courtyard garden of the New Mexico Museum of Art (NMMA), as one of many “bird landings” in 2009. They were recently brought to my attention by NMMA’s Librarian/Archivist/Webmaster, Rebecca Potance, when we were exploring subjects for my upcoming blog. Like some currently showcased artists at the museum, Ms. Hengst is well known for her ability to integrate art and viewing space, casting both in a fresh new light. The term, “installation art,” is often applied to such projects in formal venues like museums and galleries. In more casual settings like parks and libraries, the label, “site-specific,” is often used.

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