Ingrid Erickson wanted to be an ornithologist when she was little.
She became an artist instead.
But thanks in part to a 2015 grant from the Arts & Science Council (ASC), she got to indulge her interest in studying birds … and make art as a result.
Erickson, 35, is a teaching artist – she’s the education coordinator at Waterworks Visual Arts Center in Salisbury.
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But the Middlebury College graduate became a student again during her yearlong study of eagles, hawks and owls at the Carolina Raptor Center. She sketched and photographed birds at rest and birds in flight, studied X-rays and pored over veterinary and ornithology textbooks. She also photographed and sketched raptor skeletons at the N.C. State Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
All that research was for “Mandalas,” her cut-paper project, some of which is now on exhibition at the Carolina Raptor Center. But Executive Director Jim Warren said, “Rachel’s work went beyond our expectations in so many ways. We realized it needs to be seen in a gallery setting in a real, curated show.”
So Warren, Erickson and Ryan Deal, ASC vice president of community and cultural investment, arranged a solo show for her at the Cornelius Arts Center from mid-April to mid-June.
“My work spans the intersection of art and science,” Erickson said. And she comes at the research as the scientist she longed to be. “I want to capture the essence of my subjects, and research is important to that,” she said. “It’s easier to convey the life – and not just the idea – of something if you’ve observed it.”
Warren said Erickson was on site a lot. “Ingrid really studied the avian anatomy. Our hospital staff even got out cadavers for her to examine.”
It may seem at first like more work than was necessary. That is, until you see the intricacy of her paper cutouts. Each of the 25 works in the series was hand cut using an X-acto knife and scissors. (Erickson used 108 X-acto blades on the project.) She added layers of color with acrylic spray paint. The works, some as large as 7 feet high and 4 feet wide, have “several thousand tiny cuts,” Erickson estimates.
And she created these works on 300 feet of paper. Her main obstacle in bringing the project to life wasn’t the painstaking research. It was the cost of the archival paper. The regional artist grant allowed her to purchase $1,164 worth of paper.
A panel of professional artists evaluated the grant requests in the highly competitive program, the ASC’s Deal said. “Ingrid’s request received the highest score by the panel of any other visual artist from the 11-county region who applied.”
Not just copies
All her research doesn’t result, as you might expect, in James Audubonesque renderings. “These aren’t just copies,” she said. “They’re transformations.”
Each piece is a minimalist tribute to the birds she studied. They’re sort of paper versions of Constantin Brancusi’s 1923 “Bird in Space,” a series of sculptures depicting a bird in the most scaled-back rendering imaginable – the mere suggestion of flight.
For Warren, it’s the kind of cross-discipline collaboration the Raptor Center seeks. “We’ve taken our birds to the Children’s Theatre, to an opera, to a David Sedaris book reading. We’re proud to be part of the Arts & Science Council. We’ve got the science covered.”
But the birds themselves, he said, are “art in flight.”
Erickson’s name is likely to continue popping up. She was selected as one of nine ASC Community-Supported Art (CSA) artists for 2016. The innovative program allows area residents to buy a “share” of art for a year. One $500 share nets participants nine original works of art by vetted local artists. All 50 shares sold out within 24 hours.
After giving a full year over to birds, Erickson is ready to move on to something new – snakes. This month, she had a short stint as an artist in residence at the prestigious Penland School of Craft in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Snakes may not be as readily lovable as injured birds, but Erickson may be just the artist/ambassador (and latent scientist) those reptiles need.