By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHORTLY AFTER THE TURN OF THE 21st CENTURY, SCULPTOR TODD McGRAIN completed a series of wondrous statues dedicated to the memory of five different birds rendered extinct not in antiquity, like the prehistoric dodo, but by the encroachment of human excesses of the fairly recent world. In all five cases, the subjects of what would become known as The Lost Bird Project were hounded into oblivion by over-hunting, loss of habitat, and other charming habits of the planet’s dominant and negligent stewards. This quintet of quietly minimal monuments, as magnificent as they are as art, were fated to become even more important as carefully placed reminders of what we have done, and what we must not fail, going forward, to do.
The Heath Hen, one of five Todd McGrain sculptures memorializing recently extinct species of birds.
Not content to merely let the statues remain in some permanent gallery setting, McGrain set about on a nationwide odyssey to identify the locales where the birds* were last seen before vanishing, and to convince the current controllers of those lands to accept the statues as living history lessons, by permitting their permanent installation at, if you like, the scene of the environmental crime. He soon learned how hard it is to give someone a gift they never thought to ask for, navigating the ebb and swell of the tides of diplomacy, federal red tape and even active opposition to the bequests. Finally, he was able to find homes for all five statues, visually recording the quest and eventually becoming a documentary film maker in his own right.
The Lost Bird Project is still an active endeavor, continuing to fund conservation education through sale of that resulting film. Even at that, McGrain had to admit that the statues’ impact was limited to whomever might visit the installations in person, and so, to keep the works from being caged off, away from the general public, he also cast a duplicate set of the figures, and has sent them continually around the country on loan to a variety of venues, such as the Phoenix Zoo, which is where I made the above image.
I feel that photography can serve as the third leg of the visual testimony that McGrain has now carried on for nearly a quarter of a century. The reasoning goes that, if the copies are less limited in their ability to teach and influence than the originals, then it is through photographs by thousands of us, in dozens of locales, that the word can be spread exponentially. The camera helps us bear witness, teaching history by lighting, annihilating both time and distance to extend the wingspan of these essential messengers, canaries in a the coal mine of our collective neglect.
*the birds and their last known whereabouts: the Great Auk (Fogo Island, Newfoundland), the Labrador Duck (Elmira, New York), the Passenger Pigeon (Columbus, Ohio), the Carolina Parakeet (Okeechobee, Florida), and the Heath Hen (Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts).