Investigation s In Art: Alex Cohen
Essay # 26
“Through the Birds’ Window.”
Photo: “The Builders” by Stanley Spencer

Last fall a friend invited me out to Chester County to assist in a bird netting operation at Willistown Conservation Trust.  Specifically we would be netting Saw-Whet owls as they migrated through the Pennsylvania skies at night.  This was not done for sport but rather to band the birds and monitor their movements.  The Saw-Whet Owl, whose image graced some PA license plates in the 90’s, is a tiny little dude about as big as a fist and thought until recently to be quite rare.  In part, due to banding, ornithologists observed that the Saw-Whet is actually one of the most common forest raptors in the US.  The gap of knowledge between expecting obscurity and finding abundance made it apparent that little was known about the Saw-Whet Owl, especially its migration movements.  When assumptions like these are shattered it renews a sense of awe for the unknown.
Birdwatching can feel like a window into another world.  It can lead one into the landscape otherwise unventured, and direct one’s gaze in novel directions.  It’s a means to flirt with mystery and consider a narrative that has no human language.  Sometimes the excitement of birdwatching can put one on the other side of that window to find themselves looking back at the human world with curiosity.
In Stanley Spencer’s painting The Builders, five men heft about the materials for constructing a brick archway, whilst above them Nightjar birds attend their nests on an oak branch.  The viewpoint shows the worlds of nature and man simultaneously, oblivious of one another yet connected. This painting, part of the permanent collection at the Yale Center of British Art, continues a theme of Spencer’s depicting men engaged in labor.  Spencer lived in the English town of Cookham during the first half of the 20th century and his paintings exhibited his extreme affection for home.  He fetishized the comforts of familiarity and illustrated spiritual visions occurring amongst the common sights of Cookham.
Regarding this particular painting, Spencer said this,
I felt that [these birds] had their life and their own local feeling, and the branches of trees and leaves would have the same signification as furniture in a room would for us.  These were their homes and establishments and for one Nightjar to see his wife in some relationship next to an oak leaf: its head in relation to the scallops of a leaf would be the same as seeing one’s wife on a sofa with her head in relation to the crowned back.”
Spencer was a master at elevating ordinary acts into deeply emotive and even divine experiences.  By letting his compassion for ordinariness spill from masonry to the secret lives of birds he expanded the idea of home.  Illustrating the bird’s perspective alongside the builders creates a harmony that draws ones attention to unassuming detail.  One feels the labor and love behind each brick that makes a building just as each leaf on a tree is meaningful to the birds.  Spencer didn’t paint the birds with human attributes as a Disney cartoon might, but sympathized with what would feel familiar to a birds’ perspective.  Moreover, he crossed into the bird’s world and looked back at his hometown.
On that cool October night with the owl-banders I felt myself slip through that window into the birds’ world.  We sat waiting in a barn while out in a nearby field an iPod playing the Saw-Whet Owl’s call was supposedly luring real owls into barely visible mist nets.   Hourly, we’d follow the naturalists out into the moonlit fields and scan the nets carefully for any snared owls.  Finally, on the midnight reconnaissance our flash-lights illuminated the ghostly form of a tangled Saw-Whet.  Gingerly the bird was separated from the mesh like a newborn being unswaddled.  The owl didn’t protest; it just gazed at us calm and alert with its huge eyes.  It seemed like a traveler weary from a long journey welcoming this unexpected respite and indeed its migration must have been arduous.  The owl was brought back to the light of the barn where it was weighed, measured and examined.  Then a tiny numbered band was fixed around its leg that would identify it to other naturalists should it find itself bamboozled again by a mist net.
I thought of that little metal band as a stowaway; a secret ambassador that would travel back through that window into the bird’s hidden world.  Like Spencer’s painting it would bring appreciation to the bird’s sense of familiarity.  As a scientific tool it was helping to redraw our maps of a murky world, but as a poetic device it was a nod to that same uncertainty and a memento from a curious collision of worlds.
Alex Cohen is a Bucks County painter.  He exhibits at Riverbank Arts in Stockton, NJ.  To view more essays and paintings visit