Birds in art

Much of my art is inspired by wildlife. Two birds – the magpie and the jay – are the theme for my brand and one of my first sets of designs. Birds are such fascinating creatures. They have been evolving since the time of the dinosaurs and have perfected a way of life from which we can learn much. Through their flight and their virtuosic song, they focus on the moment and infuse sheer joy into it. The poet Shelley was so right to call the skylark a ‘blithe spirit’.

Can there be another class of creatures (Class: Aves) that displays such wonderful colours, such iridescent textures? This is of course why the tribes of Papua New Guinea hunted the birds of paradise almost to extinction.

We have such an odd relationship with nature. Birds inspire our artistic endeavours, yet when we want something we are quick to prey upon them.

A few years ago, there was a fashion for gorgeous textile patterns featuring songbirds. They were achingly lovely, but somehow I did not want to buy these clothes. Behind the prettiness, I suspected,  were industrial processes that probably did grave harm to the environment – and the birds that inhabit it. Surely, if you are going to feature birds in commercial products, there is a moral imperative to protect them; otherwise it’s hypoocrisy.

Yet as an artist I am inspired by birds and want to depict them. When I started Magpie & Jay, and developed my designs of the eponymous birds, I promised myself that this inspiration would be partnered with a commitment to sustainable production. I also decided to make the back of each card work hard: to promote the appreciation and protection of the birds depicted, giving information about charities that also have that aim.

Meanwhile, selling my cards through a local online shop, Stroudco, I found there was a demand for bird seed to put in people’s garden bird feeders. So I began to sell that too. Now I even offer a gift hamper for bird lovers through Stroudco, including treats for both the person and the birds! If our love for birds is serious, then we need to show it with our actions.

Penrose kite and dart

My Penrose Mandala greetings cards are designed using tilings discovered by Sir Roger Penrose (recent Nobel prizewinner for physics). The ‘kite’ and ‘dart’ he discovered are based around pentagonal symmetry and the golden rato. All angles are multiples of 36 degrees, and the tiles can be assembled in an infinite number of ways, most of them lacking rotational symmetry (unlike my designs) and none of them periodic (repeating).

Mandala composed of decorative Penrose tiles
Mandala composed of decorative Penrose tiles

I love the underlying mathematics in nature, but I also love the forms, shapes, colours and randomness of nature itself. So my kites and darts (three pairs, each in three colourways) are designed to create lattices of fronds and plant forms strewn across the structure of the tessellation, creating a more complex overlaid network. Within my design you can spot a cabbage-white butterfly, a greenbottle, a star fish, elder leaves, bramble leaves, sea wrack, germander speedwell and scarlet pimpernel.

Circular economics

Many well-intentioned discussions about being ‘green’ are circular – just tail-chasing. What’s needed are a better kind of circles: supply chains that bring waste goods back into use.

For years I neglected my passion for art because I was too busy worrying about the environment. Nothing could be more important than nature – not only because we rely on it totally, but also because of its intrinstic value. For many artists like me it is also our main inspiration. But I concluded that as we need an economy, it is good to participate in it. Furthermore, I, as an individual, need art for my fulfilment, mindfulness and identity. So I went ahead with my range of cards, promising myself to pursue and promote environmental best practice.

I felt that cards illustrating natural plants and animals might be rather meaningless if I did not ‘stand up for’ these creatures in practical ways. Hence I started adding ideas on the backs of the cards about actions to protect nature and charities that are doing so.

I also began to think about sustainability in my supply chain. I asked my printers to use cardboard from well managed forests. (Note to self for phase 2: do due diligence to check how they actually delivered on this requirement.) Finding envelopes known to be sustainable, let alone recyclable, was a bit of a fruitless enterprise. True, many paper mills use pulp from well managed forests as a matter of course, but finding a supplier with the selection I needed who also informs you about sustainability seemed to be a big ask. I believe it may be a case of finding a supplier you like and then asking for the environmental information once you are a customer, persuading them to pursue best practice in future. One big achievement was finding sleeves made of plant-based biodegradable cellophane, which I’ll be introducing for my Christmas card range this year.

The final issue is to reduce waste and close the loop by trying to re-use some of it. I thought my cards could be re-used by writing in them in a certain way – top left; also that I could offer to take back the cards and cellophane and try to reuse them. I have added information on the backs of the cards about how this can be done.

Needless to say, not only are the fronts of my cards working hard to please the recipients, but the backs are now working pretty hard too. I am definitely getting my money’s worth out of every square inch of that sustainable cardboard!