As Christina Baal made her way from her home in the Hudson Valley in New York to Ucross this week, she kept a list beside her in the car. On it were 26 bird species she’s never seen and hopes to spot while at the Ucross Foundation’s ranch, where she was headed for the opening of her art exhibition, “The Universal Language of Birds”.
Baal, a former fellow at the Ucross Foundation, which brings artists from around the country to the 20,000-acre ranch near the town of Ucross, is showing work inspired by her time on the ranch. The show is part of her effort to see and document the world’s 10,000 bird species. The foundation is combining the opening of her show with public events to celebrate birds that live on the ranch.
The show is personal for the foundation. Artists who stay at Ucross always comment on the impact the landscape has on their work, but Baal’s work was directly influenced, said Sharon Dynak, president of the Ucross Foundation.
A new world at the Ranch at Ucross
Baal first arrived at Ucross in March 2015. She shrieked when she saw a black-billed magpie, which she’d never seen, fly by the car when she arrived at the ranch. As she settled into her studio she heard a distinctive hoot and found a great horned owl looking at her from the trees.
“Nothing could have prepared me for it,” she said. “I spent the first few days with my mouth on the floor.”
It wasn’t a great time for birding in the migration cycle, but she still crossed off nine birds from her list during her stay, including a western meadowlark and a northern shrike. She returned in 2016 and saw 14 species she’d never seen.
Baal will show about 30 pieces in watercolor and ink, gouache, acrylic, mixed media, plus sculptures. She’ll also display almost 90 prints from the journal she created in the field while at Ucross.
Baal’s paintings are a reminder of how extraordinary a place it is — especially when it comes to birds, Dynak said.
In 2015, the foundation’s ranch was named an Audubon Important Bird Area. The designation is given to areas for the bird species that live there, as well as landscape features like riparian wetlands, said Jackie Canterbury, an ornithologist and president of the Bighorn Audubon Society. Audubon also recognized the foundation’s dedication to land stewardship, she said.
“When you put all of that together, plus the number of birds that live there, it becomes a significant place,” Canterbury said. “It has a lot of meaning to be an (Important Bird Area).”
Canterbury will lead birding expeditions the morning of June 10. She plans to teach bird song identification, which she learned to employ while working in Alaska, where dense woods blocked her view.
The foundation likes to meld art and science, Dynak said. Several years ago an exhibit of grassland photos coincided with talks on the landscape. One year the foundation paired artists with scientists to create projects.
For this show, the foundation wanted to explore the science of birds and also engage the community, Dynak said. In addition to Baal’s work and the talks, people are invited to submit their own work for the exhibit. People from around Wyoming have already sent in poetry, photographs, watercolors and oil paintings. An elementary school in Story produced more than 20 works on paper. Those viewing the art will hear a recording of birds found on the ranch.
In the afternoon on June 10, Baal will speak about her life’s work of seeing and painting every bird on Earth.
Baal’s obsession with birds formed while at Bard College, when she discovered a wetland on campus and met a professor who taught her how to bird.
“Watching them makes me look at them as individual creatures, not just a static scientific thing,” she said. “It brings them to life.”
Soon Baal found herself biking 50 miles to search for one little bird. Birding made her feel part of a community and made her think harder about conservation issues. She combined natural science classes with her art degree and soon birds were dominating her work.
The idea of seeing 10,000 birds formed in college. She figured that in the way some people say you need 10,000 hours to master a skill, seeing 10,000 birds would help Baal better understand them.
“As cliché as it sounds, it was a way of finding myself by finding birds,” she said.
She’s currently only up to 449. She hopes to see at least another 20 before she heads home and at the top of the list is the greater sage grouse. “I am almost willing to say I won’t leave until I see one,” she said.
Baal’s work hangs at the Ucross Foundation art gallery until December. People can submit work for the exhibit up until the morning of June 10.