Flights of Truths and Fancy
Artist Maude White embraces birds’ human qualities
These are just a few of the cut-paper creations from Brave Birds by Maude White. Each is paired with a message connected to its traits.
Despite the mind-boggling intricacies of Maude White’s papercut images, they impart a primitive simplicity. Sixty-five of her cut-paper birds paired with short meditations on how their traits could instruct and inspire our own lives will be released in her book Brave Birds.
Included are the eagles that congregate along local bodies of water, the hermit thrush whose song reverberates in our boreal forests, the kingfisher White was thrilled to see for the first time just recently. As a birder myself, I am impressed by how accurate and recognizable the bird species are.
“I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t see birds every day,” she says. “Watching them is a form of meditation.”
Her art has been exhibited nationally and featured in many print and online publications, but calling herself an “artist” wasn’t always a given. “I know I’m a craftsperson, but there’s a lot of weight and expectation with being an artist,” White tells me over tea in Hudson, where she lives. One of the first gallery owners she met asked if she ever did anything more disturbing.
“I have a hard time getting angry,” White says. Recently turned 31, wearing large glasses in a shade of soft teal, White is serene and composed. When we’re done, she insists I pick out some of the beautiful miniature envelopes she makes, with inserts to write on and give to people, so I have no problem believing this.
She often felt pressured to have a narrative thread; an exciting, boundary-breaking message. “But maybe my message is to not do those things. Let’s be comfortable and let’s be safe. It took me a while to realize my message can be whatever I want it to be.”
White reveres “the shape and approachability and softness of both the Berkshire and Catskill Mountain ranges,” and the art at the Clark because it brings her joy, as do Naumkeag’s gardens. Her art reflects this joy, but that doesn’t seem to render it simplistic. Her website shows women and birds and other animals—whimsical and beautiful, yes—but sometimes portrayed in jarring juxtapositions.
And reading the preface to Brave Birds, I was struck by a philosophy I’ve encountered from only a few environmental writers, one that recast anthropomorphism—usually seen by scientifically-minded people as naïve or even dangerous. “Sometimes,” she writes, “I gained strength and encouragement from a specific bird, finding it out…in my own body, as I recognized those same instincts and skills that I so admired…within the bird.” One could mistake the later writing for anthropomorphizing, as she translates the birds’ instincts to lessons that sometimes seem very human. After the swift, which may spend “the most time on the wing of any bird,” White cautions, “Have you forgotten how to be comfortable in stillness?”
“I’m not trying to project my ideas onto them, but to have people look at them and think a little differently about themselves,” she explains to me. “There’s a big difference between sentimentality and compassion, realizing that creature has to survive in its environment.”
Not knowing what a bird is thinking when it looks at her only enhances her wonder. “Writing this made me think about being connected to the earth. It’s okay to a certain extent to anthropomorphize in that we’re all part of the same thing. The only way to sustainably interact with the environment is to stop expecting nature to give so much to us, to see what have we gained already.”
White struggles with how to make an impact and hopes that people will find Brave Birds encouraging. “My point isn’t to make a wave or upset people, but to see, is there another way to move forward without being divisive.”
Perhaps this is a boundary-breaking message in itself.
On Saturday, April 21, 2018 at 12:30 p.m., Berkshire Magazine is co-sponsoring a talk and book signing with Maude White at Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox, followed by a bird walk with Mass Audubon naturalists. Come from 9-noon, for Volunteer Day—care for the gardens, trails, boardwalks, and education spaces. Gloves, tools, refreshments provided by Guardian Life. massaudubon.org