It's for the Birds
by Jessica Koslow
Nestled in an upscale residential community in Montecito, Lotusland is a 37-acre nonprofit botanical nirvana filled with over 950 species of exotic plants arranged in nearly 20 gardens. It’s also the historic estate of the late Polish opera singer and socialite Madame Ganna Walska, who purchased the Southern California property in 1941 and gifted it to the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation when she died in 1984.
Bronze crane statues and a small Shinto shrine surrounded by a wisteria arbor sit in the Japanese garden. Three tiers of benches made of sandstone circle the theater garden, which is dotted with Madame Walska’s French collection of antique stone figures, called “grotesques.” Lotusland is a natural treasure and also a resource to educate about a subject that’s core to the garden’s mission: plant conservation.
Open to the public since 1993, the Lotusland staff has gardened sustainably and organically for the past 20 years, which might make it the only such garden in the country that can boast such a claim. Because of its green practices, 85 species of birds take refuge either year-round or for extended visits in the gardens—which planted the seed for Lotusland’s current art exhibit, “FLOCK: Birds on the Brink” running through May 23.
This is Lotusland’s third exhibit dedicated to the environment, specifically to the topic of conservation. The first, in 2011, was titled “Gone” and featured Santa Barbara-based artist Penelope Gottlieb’s works: Each painting was a eulogy to an extinct plant. In 2013, “SWARM: A Collaboration with Bees” made a buzz about the insect’s plight and colony collapse disorder. Birds are in just as much trouble as bees, according to Nancy Gifford, “FLOCK’s” curator, who lives just down the street from Lotusland.
“Birds are an excellent biological indicator of the health of the planet,” says Lotusland executive director Gwen Stauffer. “They can tell us how the rest of the environment is doing. Sadly, the news is bad. At the current rate of loss, one in every five bird species in the world could be extinct in the next 50 to 80 years.” Gifford has curated all three shows at Lotusland. For “FLOCK,” she selected 35 international artists to show their bird-themed art. The challenge was to woo artists who only showed in museums to try a nontraditional venue. Some were even flown in and given a tour, which seemed to work wonders.
Macedonian artist Robert Gligorov will debut his video, Bobe’s Legend, in which a little bird appears to be popping out of a man’s mouth. Flying in from the East Coast, New York-based Gary Smith will spend a week onsite creating large walk-in nests from materials he collects outside, and they’ll be placed throughout the gardens. Within the pavilion, 700 black birds are flying across the ceiling in New York artist David Hochbaum’s Murmuration.
“FLOCK” will be the first exhibit to feature art in the gardens: seven installations. Stauffer and Gifford both agree that art belongs in the garden.
“It’s controversial,” says Stauffer. “The garden is historic, personal and already artful. But we’re trying to provoke and complement, and I think we do a good job.”
Huge 72-inch paintings by artist, poet and educator Fatemeh Burnes, the gallery director and exhibition curator at Mt. San Antonio College, line the walls of the main gallery, which also houses an aviary full of finches playing live music on instruments. The “Nest” room features Liza Myers’ large paintings of the tangled architecture of nests, and the paintings of Robyn Geddes (moody color field birds), Maria Rendon’s acrylic portrait of a crow and Keith Puccinelli’s hyperreal Burning Crow ink drawing hang in the “Crow” room.
For Burnes, who was born in Iran, birds have certain significance in her culture and paying attention to them was part of her upbringing. She might have even envied them a bit. “I’ve always wanted to be able to look down on the earth,” she says. “I had an experience as a kid when I was about 8-years-old with my cousin. We believed we could fly. So we jumped out of a two-story building pretending we could fly. I think I did,” she says with a half-laugh. The outcome: a bunch of broken ribs.
Stauffer adds another reason for choosing birds: Madame Ganna Walska loved birds. She had cockatiels, parakeets, doves and black swans. Decades after her death, the birds continue to flock, love and live at Lotusland. Because it’s an organic garden, it’s a heavenly habitat for them.