JUNE 2019

All Issues
JUNE 2019 Issue
Critics Page

Martha

Alice Momm, A Bird in the Hand: Hawaiian Crow, 1992. Sepia-toned photograph. © Alice Momm.

It began with a pigeon. Glimpsed from the side—frozen mid-flight in a dusty display case in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

Well, in fact, there were several pigeons. Pivoting right, I leaned in to focus. I was outside an auditorium waiting in line. Inside sat Leo Castelli waiting to be interviewed. It was 1990.

Passenger pigeons. From billions to just one. From skies blackened by soaring flocks to piles counted by the thousands in shooting contests. To just one. In one hundred years. To Martha—the very last one who lived in the Cincinnati Zoo and died alone on September 1, 1914.

What did Leo Castelli say? I was there but didn’t hear. I searched for Martha—still isolated—in another case nearby. And stared into her little glass eye.

Later, on the other side of the country, I sat in the dirt and dug a hole. Added water. And with muddied hands, bits of cloth and glue, coaxed into being a small pile of birds. I laid them to rest in an open wooden box and with this act, began my search to unearth the memories I never knew.

This was in graduate school, next to another natural history museum, where the ornithologist kindly opened the doors to a labyrinth of storage cabinets for me to enter. Inside steel cases in silent order, lay a multitude of taut and tagged birds: Passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, seaside sparrow, Kauaʻi ʻōʻō.

My hands held these birds with such care. Weighted. Waited. Still, feather to flesh could not bridge the chasm between extant and nevermore.

It began with the end. In a museum. In the periphery. Which led to the almost-gones, the rippling effects of invasive species, the untidy consequences of progress. And got me to thinking while I stepped on an ant nest, and threw away my plastic fork, and climbed aboard two airplanes, a bus, and a ferry to Northern Norway, above the Arctic Circle, to weave ephemeral sculptures from dried stalks of grass.

Oh, did I say I am sorry yet? Yes.

From these endings, began a meandering path that I have followed since. One foot touches down gingerly upon science and histories, the other lingers comfortably on metaphor and fairytale. A lumbering gait (an improbable balance).

Along the path, my scope has broadened as my materials have shifted to the gleaned and my words laid down with greater care and my sense of hopelessness has duked it out with my constant need to make things right until I relegate them both to the sidelines and fling my arms around love and paradox. And then try to let it all go.

To the dead bee I pass on the sidewalk outside my beloved community garden, I acknowledge the staggering loss of insect life. To the littered streets of NYC, I will design a processional to clean you up and IT-WILL-BE-FUN. To my daily walks through Central Park and the wonders I find there, thank you.

To the cruel and destructive policies of this sham administration, I fight though not a fighter. And wring my hands. And escape to my cluttered studio where I vow no more purchasing of art materials. And really mean it. Then go back outside to continue the journey.

I am focusing in really small now. To find beauty—a fern unfurling from the crack in a stone wall—the spiraling swirl of leaves above a subway grate—the strutting puffed-up mating dance of a sidewalk pigeon. To Martha: I remember now.

Contributor

Alice Momm

Alice Momm is a NYC based artist whose ephemeral and sculptural works have been inspired both by her immersion in and longing for the natural world.

close

JUNE 2019

All Issues