Thursday, 6 August 2009

Stephens Island Wren

I just realised its only six weeks until my exhibition at Harrisons Gallery, 15th Ave Tauranga. I am part of a 4 person exhibition including myself, Richard Smith, Graham Crow& Lisa Christiansen. I have been painting hard out for this exhibition which explains my lack of blogs lately and in fact I have hardly taken any photos for weeks!!!!

Its a weird time when you are working hard towards something like this - you spend a lot of time on your own, with your own thoughts and inspirations and to be honest it f*#ks with your head a little! I swear its not healthy for you mentally so I have promised myself a holiday after the exhibition opening before I decide to cut my ear off.

BUT heres my latest painting below, put aside for the exhibition. Its titled "Ode to the Stephens Island Wren". Here's the Inspiration behind it. The painting above is an old watercolour of the actual bird which incidentally doesn't actually feature in my painting as, for me, its more about the cat than the wren.

Ode to the Stephens Island Wren.
This painting is inspired by the tale of the Lighthouse Keepers Cat. In 1894 a lighthouse was commissioned on the rat-free Stephens Island in NZs Cook Strait. Lighthouse keeper David Lyall took up residence with his cat Tibbles and before long the cat began bringing in tiny bodies of a golden brown bird. Lyall sent one to the ornithologist Walter Buller who pronounced the bird a previously unknown species of flightless wren. Tibbles subsequent victims were sold to a curio dealer by the name of Travers who recognized the economic value of the species and it is rumoured he put a price tag of fifty pounds on a single bird. In less than a year the cat ceased to bring any more wrens to the lighthouse keepers’ door and after 1895 they were never seen again. Thus the extinction of a whole species was attributed to a single cat.

In reality the birds’ demise was due to more than just Tibbles. The wrens natural habitat was ravaged as the island was cleared to support a farm and there was actually quite a population of wild cats on the Island. Ironically professional collectors also competed with the cats in their haste to procure specimens of the only known flightless passerine before they were all gone.
Interestingly enough, fossil remains of the Stephens Island Wren (named Traversia Lyalli) were later discovered on the mainland and it appears the species was once widespread until the introduction of the Kiore, the Pacific Rat which arrived with the Maori.
No matter which version is closer to the truth, the fact remains that a wonderfully unique species was both discovered and lost to the world within the space of a year. To me the Lighthouse Keepers Cat is one single animal symbolizing the destructive powers of its whole race. Then again, perhaps it is even more than that, perhaps it symbolizes all the introduced animals and havoc they have wreaked on our native wildlife.
In my painting I used a friends’ cat “Ollie” as my model. A big bruiser of a beast he had the perfect air of smugness about him. I kind of regard cats the same way I regard Humans - the individuals I know are wonderful but as a collective race they are hugely destructive and the planet would be better off without them!
I purposefully left out any of the actual wrens – after all they are extinct! Look closer at the cat and you’ll see a small brown feather on his chin.

No comments: