Seven Starlings

Seven Starlings

On a cloudy late March afternoon, they landed on my deck’s railing, seven of them to be exact. (Yes, I counted). I had never seen anything so striking, so stunning, birds bejeweled, fitting for an Egyptian pharaoh’s throne.

What I had seen was the European Starling, introduced to America in 1890 when 60 birds were released into New York’s Central Park. A group of romantics wanted America to have every bird mentioned by Shakespeare exist in the country. Since then, starlings have become one of North America’s most disdained invasive bird species. Called the destroyer of bird feeders, a bane to agriculture, the noise they make, and all that “guano” is the short list of grievances against them. The starlings visiting my deck that afternoon were perfect guests and did not overstay their welcome. So much for a bad reputation.

sixty starlings were released in New York’s Central Park in 1890. They had no say in the matter. Now the most despised bird species in all of North America

Because of my reaction to seeing starlings for the first time up close, I wanted to incorporate them into my work but was not sure how to approach the subject. Digging a bit deeper into all things starlings, I came across “a story about Mozart’s starling.” Yes, that Mozart. Thanks to author Lyanda Lynn Haupt and her following the story all the way to Salzburg, she writes about Mozart and his muse in her book Mozart’s Starling.

On May 27, 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart adopted a coy little starling he found in the market. To Mozart’s surprise, the starling sang to him the theme from his Piano Concerto Number 17 in G from the shop window. After paying a few kreuzers for it, Mozart brought the bird home.

On my Want-to-Read List!

Starlings are excellent mimics and quite vocal but they can also add their own adaptations and alternatives as Mozart discovered when he would play for the bird. He kept notes on the bird’s iterations while working on his compositions. Indeed, Mozart loved his starling, so much so, that there was a formal funeral held for the bird at its passing.

While conservationists, naturalists, and the average birder regard the starling as a bona fide pest, starlings give us murmurations, the most mesmerizing flight display known in birds. They form impossible complex shapes as thousands of starlings fly together in perfect harmony and unison. How can so many starlings fly together without crashing into one another? This is a question that has puzzled researchers until recently.

As it happened researchers in Italy worked out the math, which has to do with chaos theory and advanced mathematics (I’m thinking algorithms). They concluded that each starling is paying attention to only the seven starlings next to it and no more but as a movement, this scales rapidly through the flock.

It’s a bit like a metaphor for our lives. Each of us has some version of “seven starlings,” the closest people around us we tend to on a daily basis — our family, co-workers, and neighbors. It’s challenging to fit more people into this circle and give them our full attention.

Seven Starlings © Kristin Maija Peterson 2022
SEVEN STARLINGS © 2022 Kristin Maija Peterson. Archival Ink on Mulberry Paper. 30” high x 25.25” wide. Unframed. Est. $2000 USD.

I had a few large sheets of Mulberry paper stored away that I had been wanting to find a suitable subject using pen and ink. (Mulberry paper is notoriously delicate, like tissue. It does not take erasers well but takes well to archival ink pens). Starlings with their feather patterns would make an interesting subject now that I learned these things about them. (I do love birds, by the way). I drew the starlings first, seven of them, creating a pattern with each bird’s placement and orientation. Knowing the piece wasn’t finished, I set it aside until I could figure out what should come next.

Yeah, not dandelions. Actually, this is Meadow Hawkweed, a cousin. It grows near my mailbox and I think it is lovely.

I began to think about a botanical counterpart to the European Starling, an immigrant we disdain as much, the dandelion. The story of the dandelion’s arrival to North America is founded on immigration or you could say it’s one of the many effects of colonization has on a place. People brought the plant with them for both nutrition and medical purposes and during the 17th century, dandelions were heavily used for both food and to treat ailments.

More than that, the dandelion brought a familiarity to the early colonists’ new home, this strange new land so far from where they came. Since its introduction to North America, the dandelion has “colonized” the rest of the world. A good friend of mine told me about a conversation she had with a young Afghani woman who immigrated to Minnesota. She said they have the dandelion growing in her home country, too. Children take its characteristic seed puff ball, then blow, making a wish as the seeds float into the wind just as children do here in America.

I kept thinking about patterns found in nature, birds, flowers, leaves, and then, boom! I landed on William Morris or his art form, that is. Channeling the master artisan of wallpaper design and many other things that brings beauty into domestic life, I drew a winding curved branch around the starlings to represent their murmurations. From there, I worked on a pattern of dandelion flowers, their leaves, spent blooms, and flowers ready to bud open.

A little video overview of Seven Starlings.

Seven Starlings is by far the most conceptual piece I have made to date. I believe in the strength of a series (or a collection) of pieces that all work together and would like to do more like this piece. I have Mulberry paper ready to go and I know where to buy more. But I might have to wait until nature takes my breath away as she did that cloudy late March afternoon.


POST SCRIPT: Many of the species of plants and animals we have in North America have arrived through the process of colonization. No non-native bird, animal, or plant came to invade of their own volition. I keep this in mind. How can I pass judgment when they have committed no crime?

Paper That Draws Me

Paper That Draws Me

In a digital world, paper is close to obsolete. We are all pushing towards a paperless existence — a good thing for the environment and the space in our filing cabinets (which may also become obsolete). Paper for me, however, is for drawing my heart out.

When I was a little girl, I drew on every sheet of paper that was not in an adult’s hand and that I could get my hands on. Later I would make paper from various pulp mixtures in college and then at the Minneapolis Center for Book Arts. I would spend hours with a dear friend helping her select sheets for a self-promotion project at the Paper Depot (now sadly closed for good). As a graphic designer, I poured over paper swatch books and would order samples to try. When I was freelancing, my clients were either small businesses or nonprofits with tiny budgets. It made the paper selection narrower, none of the fancy high-end sheets I dreamed of using for print projects.

At my studio, I have dozens of large sheets of artisan and handmade papers waiting for me to put marks on them. Some are so beautiful that I am waiting for the right subject to strike me though I know I should just start. There are the even larger sheets of Mulberry paper in warm pale colors I purchased at Wet Paint in St. Paul the year before the pandemic hit. I have several artist drawing journals, little pocket sketchbooks, accordion-style books for drawing panoramic, and tablets for drawing using ink, color pencil, or graphite pencils No. 2 through the lights and darkest of leads.

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My humble ink and color pencil drawing on the waxy paper that once wrapped shrimp.

Since I transitioned from my professional life as a graphic designer to my vocation as a visual artist, I’m examining all kinds of surfaces to lay down marks such as wood and canvas. Paper that typically is not seen as paper for making art is not off-limits. After unwrapping the shrimp that was to be our dinner, I took a second look at the white saw-toothed edged paper covering it within the store-branded butcher paper. The white paper was sturdy enough for washing (till it no longer smelled of shrimp), and then I flattened it out to dry.

It proved to be a challenging surface – the sturdiness comes from the wax coating that wasn’t obvious at first. It made my Micron ink pen nearly give up. Color pencils didn’t give the same fuss when adding hues to my experimental drawing. I’m saving sheets of Kraft brown butcher paper to work on, making marks on the non-waxy side, of course.

It makes me think the little girl who drew on any sheet of paper she could get her hands on has not left me. Even though I have beautiful sheets at my disposal, it’s still freeing to try out ideas on the scrappiest of scrap paper just to see if a spark takes hold. Perhaps that’s why some of the world’s greatest inventions started on a paper napkin.

Mobile Home

Mobile Home

This is the latest in my Non-Human Architects series, that of a common yet, invasive Chinese but possibly a Japanese Mystery snail. As a common food source in Asian countries, the snail made its way to North America via California. With any living thing transported from another land, a few are bound to be let loose into the wild and the rest is history. The “mystery” part of their name is because females give birth to young, fully developed snails that suddenly and “mysteriously” appear.

art-drawing-japanese-mystery-snail-shell-decorated
MOBILE HOME © Kristin Maija Peterson 2020
Graphite pencil on 300 lb. Farbiano watercolor paper
29” high x 26” wide. Framed.

I have a hard time demonizing another creature because its numbers grow unchecked or transmit disease. Due to globalization, trade, and human misjudgment of the larger ecological picture, species end up in places they don’t belong at no fault of their own. Such is the fate of my small brown snail.

I began thinking about the research and findings regarding the emotional lives of animals written about lately. Even species deemed simple can display what we would call an emotional response. What if this small brown snail had an inner life of feeling and aesthetics? What if she wanted more than a plain brown utilitarian shell?

The man of many interests and endeavors William Morris wrote, “have nothing in your in your houses which you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful.” Indeed, when people live in beautiful spaces, they are elevated and have more joy in their lives, especially when they are capable of designing and crafting these space through their own skill and artistry.

And so it was for my small brown snail. Inspired by William Morris’ botanical patterns, she adorned her mobile home.

Be Kind Rewind

Be Kind Rewind

I originally did this illustration of a sleeping fox cuddled up with a young bunny. What are the odds of that happening in real life? Understanding the nature of foxes and those of rabbits, it seemed unlikely. Still, there is a story there. The illustration turned into a holiday card that year (2018) along with a story about the Tale of Bunny and Fox. It was my Beatrix Potter moment. The story was well-received (as was the illustration) by all those who received it in the mail that year. Given our current climate in which we find ourselves, the Tale of Bunny and Fox deserves a replay. Its message is more timely than ever. Enjoy. And if you enjoyed it, please share.


The Tale of Bunny and Fox

drawing of a sleeping fox curled up with a bunny rabbit by Kristin Maija Peterson

We don’t know how these two unlikely companions came together. Perhaps Fox was abandoned or lost his way. Now he was alone and missing the play and romp of his littermates. As for Bunny, any number of things could have happened for as we all know rabbits lead a somewhat precarious life.

But what we do know is that both Bunny and Fox had an empty spot in their hearts they yearned to fill. After a sudden and surprise introduction, Bunny and Fox didn’t have preconceived notions on how the other would or should be as they had never been taught.

Instead, Fox learned to see through Bunny’s eyes and Bunny learned to see through Fox’s. They began to understand how they each perceived the world and in turn deepened their perspective of the world.

We don’t know what will happen as Bunny and Fox grow older. For now, all Bunny knows is he always has a big red blanket to protect him and Fox knows he will always be comforted by the sound of Bunny’s little heart gently beating against his own.

When the day comes that something stirs deep inside, Bunny and Fox will know it’s time to part and have families of their own. And this is how it should be even though they had never been taught. They will go their own way, not with sadness as Bunny and Fox have seen life bring change. Yet they know one thing will never change. The gift of kindness Bunny and Fox have given each other will remain constant all the remains of their days.

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