Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Rely on Beauty: Rosalie Winard and the Awkward Grace of the Pelican

“. . . the wings torn with old storms remember
The cone that the oldest redwood dropped from, the tilting of continents,
The dinosaur’s day, the life of new sea-lines.”
– Robinson Jeffers

Pelicans are ancient birds. The remains of a beak found in France dating back 30 million years is little different from the ones on modern species we see sailing low across the oceanfront or perched atop a piling, guzzling down their lunch. Their throat pouch, which allows them to drain water as they scoop up fish, might have been commonplace in the Oligocene, but in our day is unique enough that a pelican is one of the most readily identified species of large birds, by both children and adults (not so the egret, heron or the crane). They are a species Rosalie Winard became fascinated with at an early age.

Author of Wild Birds of the American Wetlands, which features her graceful and enchanting black-and-white photographs of large birds of the wetlands from across the United States, Winard says she was known in college as the “Pelican Lady.” She first became enamored with the brown pelican in her native New York, and three decades later remains intrigued by what she calls the “paradox of the pelican” — their mix of elegance and awkwardness.

After Winard spent time banding pelican chicks on Gunnison Island, in Great Salt Lake, she promised herself if she were to return she would shoot a video. And return she has. Her current exhibition at Finch Lane Gallery, Birds Don’t Pay Taxes, features a six-minute montage of white pelicans on and above the remote island. The video begins with a shot of the back side of a brine shrimp trawler, establishing geographic context for the images that follow — pods of pelicans jostling each other in tightly-packaged groups, or walking water-ward, singly or in haphazard groupings, their weight shifting back and forth awkwardly as they wobble through the alkaline soil. Then, as if in a nod to Jeffers’ poem — where “A lifting gale of sea-gulls followed them” — the video jumps to a shot of scores of seagulls, squawking as they furiously flap their wings against the backdrop of an electric blue sky, before returning to the pelicans, the prose of their terrestrial movements transformed into poetry as they now glide effortlessly — black fringed Vs of white — across the azure expanse.

Winard discovered infrared photography — which captures ranges of light invisible to the naked eye — while working with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, and in her photographs she uses the process to surround her majestic subjects in an ethereal light. Halfway through her video from Gunnison Island, the film shifts from moving images to black-and-white stills of the graceful birds, flashes of light making them appear like constellations in a daytime sky in one image, while in another their unfurled flight feathers create calligraphic highlights, like letters across a blue page. Her images also capture them landward, huddled together on the island, floating on the water, or, in the last image, landing gear down, about to touch water, appearing like a gangly tween in a tutu.

Winard’s title for the exhibition, “Birds Don’t Pay Taxes,” refers to the dilemma of the earnest conservationist — the plea to save a species like the brown or white pelican — cannot be argued in strict economic or political terms.  In fact, at one time pelicans were seen (falsely) as economic adversaries for the fishing industry and were hunted.  The use of DDT, which at one point endangered many species of birds, including the brown pelican, has been outlawed, but the disappearance of wetlands still threatens migratory species like the white pelican, 20,000 of which call Great Salt Lake home for at least part of the year.

Winard’s response to this dilemma is beauty. Her video and her photographs make a simple case for the overwhelming majesty of these birds. Birds Don’t Pay Taxes also features her black-and-white photography, printed on silk, hanging as banners from the ceiling — horned owls, a snowy egret, the great blue heron. The beauty of these animals seems sufficient statement. Walk around these images, see the light pass through on the backside, and they appear as ghostly harbingers of a lost wonder that may come to haunt us.

Rosalie Winard’s Birds Don’t Pay Taxes is at Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through June 9. Wild Birds of the American Wetlands, featuring a foreword by Temple Grandin and essay by Terry Tempest Williams, is available for purchase at the gallery for $40.

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