In Latin, memento mori translates roughly to “remember you will die” and has been used as a visual trope employed in art for centuries, often in the form of a skull. In 17th-century Vanitas still-life paintings, other symbols like hour glasses, clocks, extinguished candles, fruit, flowers, or game animals were added as a constant reminder of the fleetingness of life. For artist Sarah Conti, the nature of existence is as much a subject as the avians she sculpts. Existing in delicate balance within their increasingly imperiled habitats, she says, “[Birds] can’t evolve at the rate we are changing the world.”
Surrounded by family members who were avid birders, the artist traces her interest in the feathered creatures to childhood. The more she learned, the more she admired how birds have captured humankind’s imagination. Later on while enrolled at the University of Montana in Missoula, the onset of the pandemic made the school’s studio spaces inaccessible, prompting her to be outdoors more often. She says, “All the time I used to spend in the studio transitioned into time spent in wetlands and woods looking for birds. I had the time and access to see many new species, and it ignited so much interest and wonder in me.”
In 2020, Conti began to think about more about the human impact on the environment, as well as political and social issues, finding that the ubiquity of birds—and our endless fascination with the avian world—presented an apt way to express critical concerns. She hones in on the relationship between beauty and discomfort, highlighting dualities of presence and absence or the seen and unseen. For example, “Lost History of Women” illustrates how ornithological study has generally focused on males, paralleling the way women have been omitted from human record.
Conti shapes distinctive birds from clay, often making dozens at a time for large-scale installations. For “(Im)Migration,” she made 75 pieces in about 75 days, which were then given a surface treatment before being fired in the kiln. While each individual component can stand on its own as an independent work, Conti says, “I am very interested in making installation sculpture as a way to tell a larger story, to talk about the massiveness of these issues, and to make the viewer feel enveloped in the work. I want viewers to think about how it relates to their presence and their role in these issues.”
Audubon recently commissioned a piece that will be featured soon in the quarterly’s ongoing series called The Aviary, and next March, Conti will be a part of Radius Gallery’s 9th Annual Ceramics Invitational. Find more on her website and Instagram.
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