6 September 2023
Hopeful Things in Dark Places
Heather Lee Birdsong juxtaposes memory and
architecture in surreal landscapes
by Kate Mothes
Portand, Oregon-based artist Heather Lee Birdsong called the desert home until she was 20 years old, at which point she made a decision to move to the temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest for a change of scenery. “The contrast in these environments was deliberate. That, rather than any practical life stuff, was the major impetus for where I moved,” she says. “Watching the effects of climate change in these places—one up close, one from afar but with affection—is sometimes devastating.”
In a series of gouache paintings made over the course of the past eight years, Birdsong explores the relationship between the human-built environment and natural landscapes that are evolving quickly due to the climate crisis. Many of these works comprise her current exhibition Imaginary Shelter at Carnation Contemporary in Portland. She depicts an array of plants that possess symbolic meaning, from native to invasive to poisonous varieties, interspersed around abstract, mysterious architecture.
Birdsong is keenly aware of her presence as a white person participating in the living history of American landscape imagery. Much imagery centers around spaces where Indigenous communities have been displaced, often brutally, by European settlers throughout the last few hundred years, especially in the American West. “I’m profoundly aware of American landscape painting’s history as propaganda for Manifest Destiny and other violent, colonialist histories,” she says. “I deliberately interrupt illusionistic space with flatness. Flat paint, interrupting shapes, unusual or destitute colors. I don’t want anyone to forget that these images are just that, and that they are imaginary and idiosyncratic, though based in reality.”
You might also like this interview with Katie Hargrave and Meredith Laura Lynn, discussing related themes around landscape imagery and Manifest Destiny.
© Heather Lee Birdsong, courtesy of the artist
Header image: Detail of Imaginary Shelter No. 1