Migrating birds return to Santa Fe

Christy Hengst’s birds have come home to roost. Nearly 100 white porcelain birds, each with a different text or image in cobalt blue on its back, have been flying around the world for the past two years. On September 24 and 25 they made their final public appearance in their home town, Santa Fe.
“I started working on the birds after the United States invaded Iraq,” said Hengst, 43, as she put the final touches on her installation. On the backs of the earliest of the birds are newspaper clippings about the invasion: Her original intention was to raise the issue of the war in Iraq. But as the project evolved, she added other elements to later birds, such as poetry, a favorite recipe that was her grandmother’s and pictures of her children. The project became an investigation.
“The questions posed by the birds are about the humanness of us all, how we are connected, and also the unthinkable ways in which that bond is disregarded,” she explained on her Web site.
Hengst created silk screens from photographs and documents and used them to apply the image onto the wet porcelain; she formed the birds while the clay was still flexible and then fired them at a very high temperature. She titled the installation Birds in the Park. And each time the birds alighted on their long journey, she grouped them in varying combinations.
They appeared in New York’s Central Park; in Chartres, France, where they roosted in front of the cathedral; and in Peenemünde, Germany, where the V-1 and V-2 missiles were produced and tested during World War II.
The choice of Peenemünde was hardly accidental: Hengst’s grandfather was a rocket scientist who worked on developing the deadly missiles there, and her father was a child during the British air raids on the town in 1943 that tried to halt production of the missiles.
The farthest Hengst’s birds flew was to the Galapagos Islands. In each location a film crew followed their flight, and Hengst turned still photographs of the birds into postcards.
Back in their home town, the birds roosted in a park that is part of the Santa Fe Railyard—a new development that includes excellent art galleries, restaurants and a colorful farmers market. The park itself is a gem that preserves the memory of the railroad, once one of the longest rail systems in the world. The tracks remain, the ties have been turned into benches and two sets of wheels can be seen amid local flowers and grasses.
As Hengst watched over her brood in the park, she offered postcards to passersby who stopped to look at the birds. And she explained why, on this, their last public appearance together: “I want them to keep on flying.”
Photo and text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. Neither the photo nor the text may be used by anyone without the express permission of Esther Hecht.
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