Artist Valerie Hird gives creation wings in North Adams

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NORTH ADAMS >> Burlington artist Valerie Hird has made her own creation myth.

While many origin stories start at the creation of man, Hird's begins with birds. "Birds are the only species that can go to any of the elements," she said.

Birds can survive on earth (on the ground), in the air (in the sky), on the water (in lakes and oceans), and in the fire of tropical heat.

In her newest work she has drawn on hawks and herons and hoopoes from a Persian poem, "The Concourse of the Birds," and legends from the Pacific northwest, from Scandinavia and the Middle East.

Hird's myth and art surrounding it, a show and installation called "Origin of Birds," will open June 25 at Gallery 51 as a part of Downstreet Art's townwide festival. Hird has grouped watercolor paintings around a "Genesis Tree" made from bright origami shapes that flow into birds at the tree's edge.

Hird describes herself as "obsessed with visual language," the ways people in different cultures understand the same kinds of images. An image or sign that means "stop" to people in the Berkshires may mean something different somewhere else, she said, Objects — an iPhone, a hijab, a bird — may have different meanings for different people.

Hird began her career as an archaeological illustrator in the Middle East. The Nomadic peoples living in the area would often act as protectors and tour guides to the archaeologists, she said. She spent 25 years traveling with them.

"The Turkic tribes — the ones I was with were in Turkey — they lived in a woven universe," she said. "Their furniture, their walls and floors were all textile. The colors and symbols in the textiles were specific to each tribe. Most of the symbols were geometric versions of their natural environment, like flowers, or domestic items, like combs. Each family had their special symbols. Everyone could identify them by those symbols and the colors they used. ... The saddle bags and the tent parts were equally decorated and the most visible. Even the hats they wore carried the distinctive symbols and colors."

She has explored visual languages in more than one way. In "The Maiden Voyages Project," she Illustrated journals for four Middle Eastern Women and published them online.

"Think of it as graphic novels without captions," Hird said.

In her travels, she enjoyed listening to stories. Women told folk tales to their children, the way people in the U.S. tell fairy stories.

That's how she first heard "The Concourse of the birds" — an epic poem by the 12th century Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. He gives birds human characteristics, and a hoopoe or kingfisher tells a series of stories as an allegory for the Sufi quest to enlightenment.

Hird discovered the formal version of the poem, bound in a book, only when she saw illustrations by Habiballah of Sava hanging in the New York Metropolitan museum. She compared her experience to someone who had never seen nursery rhymes written down: "Suddenly you're like, oh my God, there's a book called Mother Goose?"

Tales like the "Concourse of the Birds" inspired Hird to travel along the migration route of nomadic peoples, moving further East.

"I thought I would get a purer source," Hird said.

The stories she discovered seemed simpler, less complex, she said. But she found that many of the tales she came across had similarities. The First People of the Pacific Northwest, Persian, Syrian, Turkish, and Nordic cultures use birds in their creation myths.

In mythology birds often act as intermediaries between a mystical realm and reality, she said, as beings with supernatural powers, or as metaphors for human nature.

The five cultures Hird draws from also share a "first tree" in their creation myths as the point where life begins. A tree birthed the Assyrian gods and the first Nordic humans, she said. Hird created her own first tree, the "Genesis Tree," a form that births life and tells the story of the tree's creation by making it's elemental and atomic components visible.

Julia Morgan-Leamon, Gallery 51 manager and an artist with her own ties to the Middle East, said she was "pleasantly surprised" that Hird wanted to be exhibited in the Massachusetts College of Liberal Art's small gallery.

She and Hird got their MFAs from Vermont College at about the same time, and she has followed Hird's since then. They also appeared together two years ago in a group show, "Islam Contemporary," at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts in Pittsfield.

"I have always found her artwork very striking." Morgan-Leamon said.

She hopes Hird's name will bring more people to the gallery and to North Adams' downtown area, she said.

While Hird has worked in other mediums, she primarily paints.

"In this show she's going out on a limb, no pun intended, by creating an installation," Morgan-Leamon said.

Hird has made the "Genesis Tree" entirely of origami cubes, boxes (some that bloom), and different types of birds: hawks, swallows, parrots and cranes. Flocks of smaller birds form larger ones, an imaginary species designed by her son. The tree's colors represent the elements that form double helix DNA, she said. She uses blue for water, green for earth, purple for air, and orange/red for fire.

The DNA gives the tree a basis in the world, she said, showing its natural scientific components rather than its spiritual makeup. The tree evolved from earth and elements.

Three thousand origami cubes make up the trunk and canopy alone. Birds of all kinds make up the outer ring, and four elemental birds — made up of smaller birds — mark the four compass points on the tree.

"I decided that my tree would engender the first form of life, which I decided would be birds," Hird said. "My personal origin myth."

She does not show humans anywhere in the exhibit. In the paintings around the tree, "The Fifth Day" invokes to the time in the Bible when God has created land, ocean and birds but not yet humans or animals. That's where Hird's focus is. She hopes people will understand, she said, that "any piece of life is made up of elements — pull out one part, ruin the whole."

ON THE WALLS

Art around town at galleries,

pop-up spaces, Maker's Mill, Eclipse Mill and more includes

Gallery 51 :"Origin of Birds"

Where: 51 Main St.

When: 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, June 25


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