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Feathers, Stones, and Wings: The Art of Cindy Kane

by Sam Moore, Martha's Vineyard Arts & Ideas

If an entomologist left the window open and her butterfly collection was carried out by the breeze, I can imagine stray bits of it drifting down to settle on one of Cindy Kane’s paintings. Fritillary, swallowtail, checkerspot, blue beauty — a wing, a bright pane of color, alighting on a canvas already laden with other such objects, with feathers and stones.

“It’s not an academic research project for me, it’s a genuine, long, sort of love affair with the looks, the physicality of the natural world,” the painter told me from her studio in Vineyard Haven in May. “Not in a sciency way, but just an aesthetic, sensuous way. What could be more amazing than a butterfly wing? Or, you know, the feathers? And the patterns that stacks of feathers bring. To me, they’re just so pleasing.”

Kane is a self-taught artist, and in each painting she returns to treasured forms and patterns, transfiguring them in fresh compositions that are both solid and light. Her newest series, showing at the Granary Gallery in July, brings some ideas home to roost, and leaves others buried, as hidden brushstrokes beneath the surface.

“Clusters,” 48 x 36 in., acrylic on luan panel, by Cindy Kane

“I’m trying to understand what the painting wants to be about,” Kane said. “I have this kind of iconography that I work with again and again and again, and I like to work on texture, so I have in my studio my set of ingredients that I work with. The themes evolve, but every painting comes from a place of just wanting to have a conversation with that actual canvas.”

“There’s almost an evolutionary sequence to her work that finds its own way,” said Chris Morse, owner of the Granary, which has represented Kane for the last several years. “She’s done such wonderful pieces with feathers, leading to birds, leading to flight patterns, leading to territories, flocks. She doesn’t know where the next painting will come from, but it’s usually connected to the last one.”

Kane draws on natural history books and reference guides, and seems to share a collector’s attachment to artifacts. But her paintings are not transcriptions of biology; they are startling agglomerations of shape and color. Forms and phenotypes enter her mind, and might swirl around for years, returning in dreamlike patterns arranged almost magnetically on the canvas.

On the artist’s bookshelf are titles like Birds of the WorldWoodpeckers of North America, and Return of the Whooping Crane, next to wildlife photographs like Art Wolfe’s Penguins, Puffins and Auks, books of paintings by Peter Doig and Chris Ofili, and the illustrated expedition journals of Lewis and Clark, which Kane got from her father.

One volume, The Frog Book, by Mary C. Dickerson, seems especially notable — Dickerson was an ambitious naturalist of the late 19th century, whose work was once lauded as “free from everything like pedantry and professionalism.”

This might sum up Kane’s trajectory. When she was 18, she left her hometown in Virginia and took a bus across the country, winding up at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on a backcountry trail crew. Over the next several years, she worked at the park’s Phantom Ranch on the banks of the Colorado River, and in Yosemite.

“It was a wonderful phase of life,” she said. Later, before moving to the Vineyard in 1996, she lived on a houseboat in the Hudson River.

Once, when Kane and her husband were in Israel, she happened to witness an enormous seasonal migration of Eurasian cranes. “It was just one of the most profound moments of my life,” she told me. “I could never touch that, in a work of art.”

And yet, her humility must be true of all figurative art — the overwhelming sensory soup of the world can’t all be spooned up at once. Certainly not the ancient, wild migration of a bird with an eight foot wingspan, whose patterns in flight are so striking they are said to have inspired letters in the Greek alphabet.

“But,” Kane said, “the drama of that moment is something that I like to experience when I’m making a painting. Just some little, exciting moment where you have that sense of connecting to something that’s bigger than yourself.”

“Gathering Detritus,” 40 x 40 in., acrylic on luan panel, by Cindy Kane

Speaking of bigger things, another creature living in Kane’s pantheon is the whale, which appears on large panels, leaping and hanging in gestures that offer a moment’s glimpse of aquatic vitality. In those paintings, “It was really about drama, more than whales,” she said. Nevertheless, “I really had to be anatomically very correct, because whales are so blubbery, so bulbous-y,” she said. “They’re so elegant in their enormous capacity to jump out of the water … but they’re really just blobs.”

This is a typical balance for Kane — between the fluid informality of a self-taught painter and a careful eye for the telltale details of animal physiology. It informs her many depictions of birds. “My bird people, serious bird people, would say ‘it’s all about the beak. Just make sure you get the beak right.’”

Sometimes, as in the painting Sky Drama, she finds moments in animal behavior that are real but appear like abstract formalism. In it, a tree swallow feeding a chick is melded into a shape that takes a moment for the eye to render.

Kane’s work, and her artistic philosophy, are by no means exclusively focused on the animal world — she brings the same motion and energy to bear on other subjects, like geography, as in her series Maps, and in other media, like her installation The Helmet Project.

In a recent essay, Kane wrote, “My primary concern now as an artist and as a person living in the digital age is how we balance our needs for a quiet mind, with what I view as our obligation to bear witness to the suffering of others around the globe.” In The Helmet Project, she collected handwritten notes made by war correspondents and collaged them onto steel helmets.

Other work extends her mandate of bearing witness into the realm of wild animals and environmental catastrophe. This is the case in her installation Empty Skies: a hospital ward of beds, each bearing the likeness and name of an extinct bird. As is increasingly evident, the politics of suffering have a neglected constituency in the animal kingdom.

Although she doesn’t categorize her newest paintings as forms of witness, Kane doesn’t seem quieted by them either. “There are a lot of breakups,” she told me. “When I say breakups, I mean that very sincerely — that it is painful to break up with a painting, and it’s a process, and it happens all the time. You start with something, and you are so committed to it, and you realize you have to let it go, and it’s just so sad.”

With some projects, clarity has come “right from the outset” for her. “There’s no magic in it — in a good way,” she said. “It’s solid work, it’s like, ‘I know what I’m going to do for the next year. This is it. Wow!’” Her installations, conceived in moments of certainty and methodically executed, fall into this group.

With her newest work, she said, “You get attached to this beautiful aspect of canvas that’s just so stunning, you can’t believe you painted it so well, and you have to break up with it because it’s just not working with the rest of the painting as a whole.” In this workflow, past forms accumulate beneath the surface, like fossils in sediment — and their presence textures the work above it.

A much stupider way to put this, as I did at first on the phone with Kane, is to ask: “Are there birds under your birds?” After a moment, she replied, “Yes. Yes, most likely. I really like to work over old stories, and so a pentimento has always been important to me. I like texture, and I like knowing that there’s a history under what I’m working on. It frees me up somehow.”

This freedom leads to the morphology of her new paintings, which transforms avian silhouettes, by stacking them, into new, wilder shapes. “I do think of these as puzzles, almost,” she said. “Fitting together these wings and shapes. I’ve been working with these shapes for a long time now. I have my visual vocabulary and I’m just trying to, kind of, make a mess, and then find order in that mess.”

“I always start with these black silhouettes of birds, that are abstracted if you superimpose them over each other,” she said. “And then I’m using the butterfly wings to enhance their shapes.”

The shapes she uses are “from looking at books, from looking at my nature books. Science magazines, and books about wings, and right now, it’s all about this yellow feather that’s really creating the whole momentum in this new body of work. I’ve never really worked with yellow before.”

“Self-Contained,” 60 x 42 in., acrylic on luan panel, by Cindy Kane

As an autodidact, and one who draws so heavily from instinct, Kane doesn’t trace the content of her work to any particular artistic influence. Rather, she looks to the work of other artists for sustenance and motivation. “When I go to see an artist whose work I love, at a museum or in a gallery, it’s like I’m just fattening up with those intellectual calories, it’s like food for me,” she said. “I just can’t wait to get to work because now I have all of that energy from what I just saw.”

Shortly after we spoke, Kane emailed me to mourn the loss of Susan Rothenberg, a legendary painter whose pared down brushwork of horses, in the 1970s, signaled a turn back toward figurative art. “I truly loved her work,” Kane wrote. “It was always an emotional experience seeing her paintings. Sometimes art can feel so impactful that you feel like it is a recognizable language that lives inside of you. Like you identify with it so deeply you just get it immediately. That’s how it was with Rothenberg.”

It’s easy to see her affinity. The particularities of Kane’s work, though, are more likely to come from a word or phrase in a book that sticks in her mind. “I’ll just obsess on those phrases,” she said, “and then a painting can really be born out of that place.” One phrase that came to mind lately was “center intensity,” which worked its way out in the shape of her new painting, Stack.

In Stack, you can feel Kane’s obsessions bubbling up in a collection of wings and silhouettes and raw patterns. A pile of decorated stones holds the painting’s center of gravity, as butterfly parts and shadows swirl in an updraft toward a feathered explosion of solid color. “It’s very textured, and there is an older painting underneath it,” she said, “and it’s just intricate in a way that I find interesting.”

“I really think that every painting has an intention to it,” Kane told me, “and it’s our responsibility to harness it, or understand what the painting wants to be about. I feel like the paintings that I’m doing now are somehow connected to a burst of energy and growth.”

“But,” Kane told me gently after one of my questions, “I don’t think of paintings in this literal way. You guys can do that, but I’m working and really don’t.”

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