Patient Observation: Birdwatching at the Cleveland Museum of Art

As a maker of ceramic vessels, I am interested in how the objects artists make reflect values, attitudes, and aspirations indicative of a particular time. Mired in the ecological anxiety of our present moment, I find myself thinking about how environmental degradation affects people and how clues about ecological history and attitudes toward the environment survive  in material culture. Being a maker allows me to insert myself into this story as well as observe it. 

In the final year of my MFA work at Utah State University, I found myself making pots in the form of birds and pots with birds perched upon them. Growing up, I was a  sensitive kid who was often more interested in watching the world than participating in it. My interest in birds and birdwatching started in middle school. I’d been digging clay out of neighborhood backyards long before then. Birds and pots gave me an opportunity to connect with something bigger than myself and the bounded world of a child’s interior life. Birds and pots are ubiquitous. Once you start looking for them, you find them everywhere. You can learn much about the quality of an environment by the number and types of birds that pass through it or call it home. Similarly, the character of a culture is revealed through the objects it produces. When pots and birds intersect, you get unique insights into how the maker sees the natural world. In the case of historical pottery, these glimpses may supplement what we know about a society, or they may be all the information we have to go on. Bird pots are charming; we can relate to the experience of makers who see birds and attempt to translate their experiences into physical form. Bird pots can also be profound. While ancient pottery may not divulge all of its secrets, many of these pots seem to be prayers for bounty or attempts at understanding. 

The following drawings and descriptions are the result of a weekend spent birdwatching in the Cleveland Museum of Art. I walked the exhibit halls looking for pots with bird images on them, in the form of birds, or inspired by birds. I photographed the vessels I found and spent several months researching historical art traditions and local avifauna to come up with convincing identifications of the birds depicted. I’ve  provided contextual information where possible. While the resulting group of bird pots is not a comprehensive overview, I hope it will give readers a sense of the rewards that reveal themselves through patient observation.

Jar with Spiral Designs and Swan Goose

Jar with Spiral Designs

3300 – 2650 BC

Northwest China, Neolithic period, Majiayao culture, Majiayao phase

(3300-2650 BC)

Earthenware with slip-painted decoration