One of the earliest stories in my strata of memory is “Peter and the Wolf,” a tale I knew not from the written word but from the Prokofiev symphony and the images it conjured in my imagination. That story, along with other fairy tales, embedded the wolf in my mind as a talisman; it would appear regularly in my work, with references to Norse mythology, Celtic folklore, and Greek allegories.
The universal nature of animal symbolism appeals to me: snakes as symbols of evil, storks or cranes as signs of good fortune, ravens and crows as portents of doom. I’m fascinated by parallel mythologies existing across cultures, such as the story of a great flood, common to civilizations from Mesopotamian to Aztec, from Norse to Aboriginal. I am intrigued that societies from so many different times and places share related traditions and cultural memories.
My studio shelves are filled with art and mythology texts, poetry collections and natural history chronicles, antique volumes of Aesop’s fables and reproductions of medieval bestiaries. Creation stories, tales of journeys and quests, parables of good and evil, prophecies of transformation—these are the stories that have found their way into my work, not as specific narratives, but as references to the connections between people across continents and centuries, and to the natural worlds they inhabit.
As I grow increasingly worried about humankind’s disregard for the earth and the intricate web of all living things, my work has become somewhat darker, with ancient myths giving way to influences from 17th century paintings of dead game, 18th century cabinets of curiosity, and 19th century natural history museums—humans’ early reverence for nature replaced by an assumption of dominion over the earth that has implications for our current time. I also find myself immersed in the contradictory stories of early naturalists, whose fascination with nature led them to kill and collect specimens across the globe, while they simultaneously laid the foundations of modern ecology.
Fascinated by the thousands of bird skins collected in natural history museums, I began a series of works based on specimen drawers. “The Last Parrots” refers to thick-billed parrots that once flourished in Arizona. Sacred among the ancient peoples of the southwest, the birds disappeared in the 1900s and now exist only in the Sierra Madre of Mexico, where they continue to be threatened by climate change. The northern side of the border is no longer a welcoming environment for the parrots, or for many others who enriched the region for centuries.
“Still Life with Yellow Bird” and “Still Life with Heron” are references to historical Flemish paintings of hunting trophies, scenes heaped with dead creatures—herons, swans, and cranes piled upon one another as emblems of wealth and status, the subjugation of nature seen as a worthy purpose.
In early 2019, I began “Memento Mori: 100 Dead Birds Project,” chronicling humans’ impact on birds. In the early stages of creating the piece, I posted on Instagram requesting images of dead birds, with a plan to create a floor sculpture of 100 individual birds, each coiled from cotton and linen. The first image to appear on my phone was a common koel that collided with a window in Far North Queensland. Over the following months I added an Arizona owl electrocuted by a high-tension wire, a flicker found on a New York City street, and a hummingbird spotted on the roof of San Francisco’s de Young Museum, among many others. Though my original goal was 100 birds, the sculpture will continue to grow indefinitely as images arrive from across the world.
The process I use to construct my works is based on an ancient basketry technique. The relationship of humans to basketry is entwined with the relationship of humans to the natural world. Basketry was the earliest technology, and the coiling process is so deeply embedded in history that no one is certain when it first began. While early coiled baskets were created with gathered natural materials, I work with manufactured threads and fibers. Fabricating each piece is a time-intensive, meditative process, with forms built up slowly, stitch by stitch and row by row. The pieces are complex, but the technique is simple, requiring only a threaded needle.
ARTerrain Gallery by Carol Eckert Nature Morte | Birdworks
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About the Artist
Beginning at an early age, Carol Eckert experimented with many textile processes, including embroidery, quilting, sewing, dying, and knotting. Though her university training was in painting and drawing, she found herself gradually drawn back to fiber after graduating, eventually discovering the simple basketry technique of coiling. Originally focused on vessel forms, she began to invent adaptations of this ancient process to produce complex compositions, creating staffs, books, shrines, and wall pieces.
Among Eckert’s exhibitions are Rooted, Revived, Reinvented: Basketry in America, a three-year traveling exhibition; Game Changers: Fiber Masters and Innovators, Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton, Massachusetts; and 14th International Triennial of Tapestry, Lodz, Poland. Her work can be found in a number of permanent collections, including Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, Arizona; Denver Art Museum, Colorado; de Young/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California; Erie Art Museum, Pennsylvania; Fuller Craft Museum; Mint Museum of Craft + Design, Charlotte, North Carolina; Museum of Arts and Design, New York City; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania; Racine Art Museum, Wisconsin; and Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.