Short-eared owl, block print by Molly Hashimoto
“….there’s nothing quite as inspiring as a bird in its habitat – the ecosystem and the bird belong together in a coherent and necessary way.” Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide, by Molly Hashimoto
This summer I was thrilled to find on my doorstep the exquisite Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide by Molly Hashimoto, sent to me by her publisher Skipstone, the sustainable lifestyle imprint of Mountaineers Books.
American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) block print . “…I attempted to express how moving it was to see the vivid colors of the male goldfinches visiting at the height of color in the garden, in May, with blooming poppies and clematis…In winter, the males are drab brown with a few yellow streaks on the wings – you may not even know you’re looking at the same bird.”
I became a fan of Molly’s when I discovered her Colors of the West: An Artist’s Guide to Nature’s Palette in one of the national park bookstores my husband and I visited on our trip West two years ago. Molly is accomplished in watercolor, block printing, etching and egg tempera – the media she features in Birds of the West – informed by decades spent exploring the landscapes, flora, and fauna of the West. Her art combines a naturalist’s expertise with a deep love of nature.
Molly is a dedicated art teacher as well, based in Seattle. I’m sorry I missed her last year at Roundabout Books in Bend when she spoke and demonstrated techniques from Colors of the West. She teaches regularly in her local community and at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, the North Cascades Institute, the Wenatchee River Institute, and the Yellowstone Forever Institute.
Her love of teaching and her passion for birds shine through in this luminous new collection of nearly 100 bird species and more than 130 sketches, aimed for seasoned artists, beginner artists, and non-artists alike.
Birds of the West is organized by habitat: Backyard and City; Wetland and Pond; Shoreline and Beach; Meadow and Grassland; Desert and Sagebrush Steppe (that’s us!); Forest and Woodland; and Alpine and Tundra. Each chapter includes an inspiring, even poetic, list of nature terms.
Exploring Molly’s new book was a bittersweet delight because, as I did so, the journal Science published a study revealing that one third of the birds in North America have died since I was in high school in the 1970s. A “staggering decline,” the authors of this study wrote.
Perhaps this sad development only affirms that the good work of Molly Hashimoto and other fine artists, writers, and humanists is more necessary than ever. We can hope that their love of art and nature will continue to be contagious – and more of us will be moved to observe birds and other wildlife with love and attention and become activists for and caretakers of the earth.
Stellar’s jay and ruby-crowned kinglet, forest and woodland habitat, block prints (I took this photo underneath our ponderosa pine, which is why it is mottled with shadows. I love the dramatic PNW setting of the stellar’s jay habitat, on the left.)
Molly writes eloquently, honestly, and tenderly – her background as an English literature major shows – in Birds of the West about the ethic of stewardship she seeks to inspire in the world:
“I don’t belong to the art for art’s sake camp. I want to make art about birds that is accurate about the ecosystem and true to the bird’s anatomy, characteristic gestures, and plumage colors. … I want my art to be in the service of the living, existing bird. That’s not to say that mere representation is all I aim for – photorealism can drain the life out of a subject. There’s a place somewhere between the representational and the conceptual that expresses all the meaning that I’ve found in watching birds. I also make art for the sake of connection and to inspire an ethic of stewardship.”
Lewis’s woodpecker, block print, and acorn woodpecker, watercolor, meadow and grassland habitat.
You don’t have to be an artist (I’m not) or a birder (I’m not) to fall in love with this fine collection. Molly shares inspiring nature poetry, quotes that capture the wisdom of famous artists and nature writers, and her own thoughts about great artists who have influenced her work. Here is one example:
“Georgia O’Keeffe believed that we want to make art of things that have moved us deeply, even if we don’t know exactly why or understand the meaning of what we feel. It is only by recording it, writing about it, or making art about it that it becomes clearer to us what it all means and why it is so important to us. I have found this many times, with every medium.”
Nest in an oak sapling in winter. “On that gray, drizzly day, the nest was a poignant memory as well as a sweet anticipation of the life-bringing season of spring.”
In fact, you don’t even have to live in the West to benefit from Birds of the West. I can imagine artists and nature lovers and birders in other parts of the country using this as a model for exploring and rendering birds in their own regions.
Since I’m a writer, not an artist, I found myself looking at Birds of the West through my own idiosyncratic lens. Molly’s beautiful text taught me specific ways to observe birds in my own wanderings, and modeled how I might capture what I see on the page, via the written word. I don’t know if this was Molly’s intention, but like all good works of art, I think that her book is larger and more resonant than its creator originally intended.
Song sparrow on tall grasses, Union Bay Natural Area, Washington
I love Molly’s thoughts about how she chooses particular media to depict particular birds; I imagine that working artists especially will appreciate her insights:
“Every medium has a way of revealing distinct aspects of the birds. Etching utilizes fine lines that can precisely describe the elegant contours and feather groups of birds; watercolor, with its wide-ranging hues and many technical options of indicating trees, shrubs, grasses, rocks and all the components of an ecosystem, displays the manner in which they live and make use of their habitats. Sketches in pencil or pen, with and without added watercolor, convey, through their gestural quality, the attitude, demeanor, and movement of birds. Egg tempera, a centuries-old medium used in icons and altarpieces, can express the reverence I feel for birds and other animals. Relief or block prints, with their dramatic values, contrasts, and bright colors, help me share the surprise – sometimes even the shock – of encountering a new species. As composers work with many different types of instrumentation, with widely varying timbres and colors, such as full orchestras, smaller string groups, or choral ensembles, I use different media to express a range of moods and ideas.”
Red-breasted sapsucker. There were so many gorgeous bird scenes in Birds of the West it was hard to choose which ones to show you!
Molly includes a For Further Reading section that is especially rich, with field guides and books about natural history, ornithology, birds in art, and art techniques.
She has a helpful resources list too, with stores, supplies, and Pacific Northwest printmaking co-ops and studios that offer classes, workshops and press time.
Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus Buccinators) Skagit Valley, etching. I love the simplicity.
I hope someday I have the opportunity to attend one of Molly Hashimoto’s art workshops or book signings. I’d love to meet her, wouldn’t you? The next best thing would be to get your hands on the lovingly created Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide.
Western sandpiper, egg tempera. “I set up a still life with a piece of driftwood and some weather-beaten beach pebbles and added the sandpiper by looking at one of my photos from the Oregon coast. The arched enclosure evokes the framing devices used in late medieval and Early Renaissance altarpieces, as well as the small diptychs and triptychs used for private devotions.”
Hairy woodpecker, sketch with marker and watercolor, and carved block
Red-naped sapsucker, block print. “I used my imagination to situate the sapsucker on an aspen trunk, since I actually saw it in a birch tree near my home in Seattle. This bird is quite rare west of the Cascades….”
Calififornia quail, block print, desert and sagebrush steppe habitat. “…I thought it would be perfect to combine the quail with the California poppies that put on such a show in springtime on the dry hillsides of Northern California. I felt I could take these liberties because of the bird’s very wide range. The combination of the paisley-shaped markings on the breast with the bright colors of the poppies made for a dramatic print.”
“The silence of the desert, the sound of wind through the high branches in a coniferous forest, the complex patterns of reflected color in ripples on a pond, the crashing surf, the austere beauty of alpine heights – all of these contribute to the great pleasure that comes with watching birds. In these locales and moments, we are sharing an environment with the birds, which gives us, earthbound as we are, a deeper connection with our fellow creatures.” – Molly Hashimoto
Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide, by Molly Hashimoto