Tuesday 25 June 2013

The urban bird

A while ago, I completed this coloured pencil drawing:

Song of the Tropics: Mockingbird
It has received a lot of attention. There's something about the colours, the corporate logo, and the simplicity of the bird, not to mention my approach to technique and textures, that people seem to like. Therefore I thought I'd write a little bit about it and what inspired me to create it.

As my blog followers know, last winter I spent some time in Trinidad. It's not your idyllic Caribbean island - it's a bustling place of cars and noise and people and industry. There are some quiet, wild spaces but it's a relatively small island and no place is very far from an urbanized area. Despite this challenging habitat, there are birds in abundance - hundreds and hundreds of all shapes, sizes and varieties. They're essentially everywhere!

While birds come in gorgeous - at times unbelievable - colours, sometimes it's the more nondescript ones that capture my attention. The tropical mockingbird is one such bird with its melodious, warbling song that's a delight to the ears (if you'd like to hear it, click here). In the urban neighbourhood in Trinidad where I was living, they were commonly perched on fences, powerlines and trees, and above the sound of barking dogs, and cars, and radios, and loudspeakers, and the other noises of humanity, their lovely song could frequently be distinguished, providing a bit of natural relief for the ears. They are just an ordinary kind of bird whose versatility and adaptability has allowed them to adjust well to life among humans, much as jays and crows in North America.

A trio of mockingbirds perched on powerlines

When planning the drawing, my choice to situate the bird in front of a rusted sign was inspired by one such sign just a couple of doors down - a beautifully weathered old thing. Apart from being aesthetically pleasing and an appropriate backdrop for a city-dwelling bird, the sign also offered me the opportunity to engage in a bit of social commentary.

The title of the drawing, "Song of the Tropics", has a double meaning. Yes it refers to the mockingbird's beautiful song, but there's more to it than that. Some of you might know of a famous song about Trinidad called "Rum and Coca-Cola" that was widely popularized during World War II by the Andrews Sisters (the song was actually pilfered from its Trinidadian authors and became the focus of a copyright dispute, but that's another story). The colonization of Trinidad is historically rooted in the sugar industry, one major product of which is rum, and another, more recently, is Coca-cola. Before Europeans settled the island and developed agricultural lands, the place was basically a jungle where jaguars, anacondas, monkeys and other creatures roamed, where macaws flew in abundance above towering trees, and where manatees swam in vast coastal swamps. Now the island, with its population of about 1.5 million people, is a far cry from that equatorial wilderness and the wildlife that hasn't been eradicated has been driven to the fringes of remaining wild spaces or forced to adapt to urban life.

So this intrepid little mockingbird perched in front of an iconic sign tells a bigger story - one which has played out all over the globe: the story of habitats altered or destroyed by humans. Some species adapt and maybe even thrive in the face of these changes while others slip into oblivion.

The tropical mockingbird is a true survivor, entertaining me with its song while I experienced life in a concrete tropical jungle, and inspiring me to create a drawing that celebrates the resiliance of such wild urban birds.

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