Birds on Film 

Vanessa Renwick's Good Year

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IT'S SHAPING UP to be a good year for artist Vanessa Renwick: She won the coveted Bonnie Bronson Fellowship, an annual award for artists in the Pacific Northwest, and she has a dizzying number of exhibits this spring alone (at the Art Gym—which is preparing a catalog of her work to be released this May—and at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum in Eugene, as well as films screening at the Portland Museum of Modern Art, the Hollywood Theatre, and the Hellenic-American Cultural Center and Museum).

In March, I visited Renwick's home in Northeast Portland, where she's lived and worked for the past 20-odd years. We toured its creative corridors, her dog Fox always at our heels. We visited her homemade sauna (it's shaped like a raven's head), and in her kitchen we climbed a ladder to get to her attic-vaulted bedroom. The veteran Portland artist was busy preparing for her show layover at the Art Gym, which features a window installation of giant birds cut from window film, as well as a video installation. It's a piece that is indicative of her work as a whole—an inclusive, collaborative, and reverent look at the idiosyncrasies of nature.


MERCURY: Where did you get the footage?

VANESSA RENWICK: We shot at Chapman Elementary School in Northwest Portland. Every fall, like, 40,000 swifts come there for three weeks and funnel into this chimney. It's definitely the most abstract thing I've ever made. I'm making four big white pillows. There's going to be a screen suspended above. Sam [Coomes, of the band Quasi] is working on the score. There's all these people working with me on the birds [in the window installation], and it's more like a collaboration with them. Have you gone to any of the winter solstice puppet shows? They've been going on for like 15 years. They're free; they do them every year. A lot of those people are helping me with making the birds. I have a little factory of friends working with me until 2 in the morning.

When you're watching in real life, do the birds make a lot of sound?

Nowadays it's hard to tell, because there's like 1,000 people everywhere. It's super loud from humans, tons of people. It's such a fascinating thing to see. The school actually decommissioned the chimney so that the birds can use the chimney. But the birds do make this really high-pitched beep; the hawk goes and tries to eat them all, and actually the hawk this year flew full speed into the chimney, missed his mark, and then died. He twirled down. I wasn't shooting. We went back the next two nights to shoot, the hawks weren't there. The birds were more boring without them, because the hawk will go after them.

How long have you known you were going to do this show?

It was supposed to be last April, but I had a car accident, and my mother was really sick, so I postponed it a year; things were bad last spring. But things are much better this spring, man.

It seems like you have a lot going on this spring. Is this unusual?

There's no usual. But I'm always busy. I'm always showing all over the world. I travel a lot, but this seems really focused, like getting that award. I got a phone message a few months ago, it said, "Hi, I'm blahblahblah, I'm an artist in Portland, I don't know if you know me, but I wanted to talk to you about a project." I called them back, and she was like, "Actually, I don't want to talk to you about a project. You're the winner of the Bonnie Bronson Award!" I just started crying and turning bright red and swearing, 'cause they give you $10,000 and just buy one of your pieces of art. You don't apply for it—it's secret. It was pretty phenomenal.

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