If you have come in or out through Crystal Bridges’ south lobby in the past couple of weeks, you have surely noticed the diverse images of birds that have congregated on the windows. This is Impact Proof, a work of art by Kansas City, Missouri-based artist Calder Kamin, for the upcoming exhibition State of the Art. Kamin’s work arises out of the artist’s love of the natural world and its animals, specifically “synanthropes”—animals that have managed to adapt to live successfully side-by-side with human civilization. She is also interested in raising awareness about the consequences human behaviors and practices have for the natural world. Kamin hopes her art will cause us to rethink our relationship with animals, and hopefully change our practices to better accommodate the animals with which we share the planet. Impact Proof is a good example. Window impacts are one of the main causes of death among migratory birds. When affixed to large windows, Kamin’s colorful decals serve to alert birds to the presence of an obstruction in their path, so they don’t view the window as empty space and fly into it. I talked with Calder about her work and her ideas for bringing art, education, and nature together. –LD
Why did you choose to focus your work on synanthropes?
I think it acknowledges the global effects we have created in nature. The fact that there are animals that are adapting to a human environment kind of brings some hope. It also shows people that nature is not something you have to go far away to see. It’s right in your backyard.
You have said that you think we need to rethink our relationship to nature, can you explain that a bit?
It seems the better off that we are, the less better off are many other creatures. Tigers and pandas, and elephants: those are called “charismatic megafauna.” They’re the big lovable animals that we all admire. But the fact remains that if we want the rest of the world—these countries that are impoverished—to come up, there’s obviously going to be less room for these creatures. Our first priority as humans is our own species. But certainly as we continue to prosper there need to be roads for these other animals because it’s the health of the environment. There needs to be space for these animals if we want to see a diverse planet. If we want to continue to be human-focused, then we’re only going to see synanthropes, and they’re not necessarily the lovable charismatic megafauna. They’re the cockroaches, the pigeons, the starlings. They’re the animals that benefit off of us, they may not be our favorite animals. So that’s why I’m rebranding synanthropes—we should also accept these animals because they may be the ones that remain.
The animals have been adapting to us, we just haven’t been adapting to them, is that what you’re saying?
We haven’t been sharing spaces very well. When we think of community we usually think of ourselves, and then maybe our immediate community and maybe the people that live on the other side of the tracks. We’re so disconnected as human beings, and we’re even further disconnected as Earthlings. We’re all in this together.
Nature can be horrible! It can be cold and wet and it can bite you. I understand why we want to be comforted and remain unaware, but what kind of world do you want to leave if you have even slightest interest in the natural world or planet Earth?
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the human species and the planet?
I have a very optimistic view of human beings. We are very special creatures. We should be capable of doing amazing things. It’s just right now our focus is somewhere else. Why aren’t politics and media cognizant of this crisis that’s happening? There needs to be a shift in perspective. If we’re invested in money and celebrities and all that in the media, we’re not thinking about the next generation and what we’re going to leave for them. So I’m trying to inspire the next generation. I’m trying to widen the net of my audience to include children and families so they can have conversations about why is this happening and what can we do to help.
How did you get started doing this work?
About three years ago my practice took on a shift. I went to school for ceramics, and it was replicating animals in clay. My practice has always been research based. I love to study and learn about the environment. But looking at my sculpture, nobody would know the kind of research that was going into it—I was just sculpting the animal. But I was walking to my studio and I came across a female kestrel that ran into a Plexiglass bus station. I tried to rescue it with the help of a nature center. It didn’t survive, [but I thought] what can I do? Could I help the nature center with their education efforts by being a creative person, and teach people about what is happening? Most of the time people just don’t know how we affect nature: we mow our grass, which affects the lightning bug population, and it’s depleting the milkweed so there might be no more Monarch butterflies. Or glass—not a lot of people know that birds don’t understand glass, they see it as a fly-through space.
So part of your work includes educating people about the interactions of humans and animals?
I feel like when people speak to me about my work, they learn something. So why couldn’t there be a way to see the art, you could learn something, and then you could take action?
An avid bird-watcher, Kamin encourages all visitors to Crystal Bridges to take part in the Audubon Society’s bird count by logging in to ebird and documenting the birds you spot on the Museum grounds. It’s easy to set up an account and start tracking your bird sightings! –LD