There has been a lot of ongoing buzz about my painting The Wisdom of Birds since it has been on the television show "The Big Bang Theory". I haven't seen the show, and work of mine has been in other television show (like ER) and movies, but this piece has seemed to cause a stir. I would consider making limited reproductions available since there has been so much interest. Contact me if you are interested.
I had been having many "encounters" with hawks and owls for awhile, probably very average kinds of contact, but these seemed of special import to me. While I was walking or running in the hills or elsewhere, I would sense something, look up and find an owl hovering just above me (at least once then to witness the owl alight next to me on a ledge and copulate with its mate).
In the mid 1980's I was at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming on a residency, and these encounters were continuing there. One night after dinner as I was in my studio painting, a violent thunderstorm swept in off the slope of the nearby mountains. Lightening was striking everywhere, traveling horizontally inches above the ground. The power in the studio, which was in a converted barn, had been knocked out, so after several hours of sitting in the dark I decided I would try to return to the converted school house that was our residence (not a wise decision had I great concern for my own well being). The schoolhouse was a quarter-mile distant across pasture, rough ground, with livestock grazing, including several large bulls (separated from each other by fence line). Crossing this pasture in the dark night with the violent storm raging was out of the question, so I resolved to run the long driveway and county road instead-- a mile long journey, but I had been running a lot, and knew I could cover the ground quickly. Perhaps unwisely, but perhaps also with a fatalism that was not unknown to me, I took off.
The corn in the fields all around had been recently harvested; so surrounding me was only the remaining stubble. I was the tallest thing about, less than ideal conditions for a mad dash through a lightening storm. As I ran I stopped at each cattle guard and waited for a lightening strike so I could see the bars and pick my way across.
Soon I rounded the corner of the schoolhouse, which stood in a grove of cottonwood trees. As I did I sensed a presence nearby. I looked slightly up to my left, and when lightening next struck I saw a great horned owl gliding along next to me just above my shoulder. This bird flew with me until I neared the door of the house. Probably affected by the storm it was simply checking me out, but to me this bird had seen me safely home.
I resolved then somehow to get involved more with these birds. Upon returning to the Bay Area I began working with the study of the hawk migration in California.
Dan Gottsegen has been influenced by a series of writers who trace their lineage to Thoreau, including Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold and most notably the work of Gary Synder who has had a profound effect on this artist. Thoreau's commitment to walking as a articulated in the essay "Walking" connects to the artist's own lifelong practice. An avid hiker and naturalist his paintings weave together images from still photography and video. The images in the larger painting link his experiences exploring the landscapes of Northern California and New England. A Winter Walk slips together views that recall Thoreau's descriptions of his winter explorations. Gottsegen develops a composition that allows for combining and compressing different moments, in the way that the mind wanders when walking in the woods.
Dan Gottsegen focuses on landscape and nature based on his own experience of diverse landscapes. For instance his expertise handling raptors led to a series of paintings about hawk migration while he was affiliated with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in California's Marin Headlands. Recent solo exhibitions have been presented at The Feick Art Center, Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT; Karpeles Museum, Santa Barbara, CA; Sylvia Perkins Gallery, Striar Jewish Community Center, Stoughton, MA; and the Parker Gallery, Whistler House Museum of Art, Lowell, MA. He has recently commissioned for the South Burlington, VT Art in City Center's Gateway Public Art Project. He is a recipient of a University Teaching Excellence Award, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, MA; and a Faculty Development Grant from the California College of Arts and Crafts. Gottsegen earned his BA from Brown University, Providence, RI and his MFA from California College of Arts, Oakland & San Francisco, CA.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
— Wendell Berry
What is it about hawks that stirs us? Every hawk watcher has an answer: freedom, power, the grace of their flight. But one suspects that there is a deeper meaning, something that reaches back to the tradition that hawks have access to the heavens. It is, says Fish. "the big view, the broad view. I think people climb mountains because they get a broad view of their lives. I'm sure everybody on Hawk Hill who looks up at a raptor is doing a reflective exchange, thinking what it would be like to be up there looking down."
What the hawk would be seeing down below is the clash between nature and urbanity—between belonging and alienation. At least some hawk watchers see it this way. For eight years, Dan Gottsegen, an artist, has been a GGRO volunteer bander. He had been painting hawks in some pictures, but those pictures didn't seem right and never left his studio. Then he began to think more about what drew him to the birds.
"I've been thinking about diaspora and migration," he says. Each generation in Gottsegen’s family has moved to a new place. It's a very California experience, for most Californians have come from somewhere else. "California and the West are particularly rootless," says Gottsegen. "My generation in this country has been trying to find a sense of place.”
He thinks hawks have that sense of place. "Even though hawks move and migrate and they are above a place, at the same time, they are so much of a place. When you've banded a hawk and are holding it, you're aware that they have a pure intention, unencumbered by doubt." He believes that purity of intention is what a human would have if he or she felt a real connection to place.
In many of Gottsegen's paintings, hawks have become emblems of human migration, but in at least one, he has managed to paint this hawkish purity of intention, this sense of belonging. He had a series of dreams that recalled the story of Jacob in the Bible. The story tells how God commanded Isaac to move into a new land, and how, years later, his sons Jacob and Esau contended for his favor. Jacob was sent by his father to Pandamarin to find a wife, and on the way, lie slept on the ground, with stones for a pillow. He dreamt of a ladder with angels ascending: to heaven and descending again, "and Behold, the Lord stood above it and said I am the Lord God.... The land whereon thou liest, to thee I will give it and thy seed. And behold I am with thee and will keep thee in all places their thou goest and will bring thee again into this land."
The way Gottsegen dreamt and painted it he slept on a pillow of hawk feather. and those were hawks soaring into the heavens and diving earthward. And he awoke to hear the voice say, "This will be your place."
Peter Steinhart is the author of The Company of Wolves, Dos Aguilas; The Natural World of the U.S.-Mexico Border, California’s Wild Heritage, and The Undressed Art: Why We Draw.