My Justifiable Fear of Wrens and a Quick Tribute to Charles Burchfield

Every spring I lose access to the deck that juts off my painting studio. There's this wren family that takes over the birdhouse I placed there long ago. The wren parents start screaming at me if I dare invade their nesting territory. Sure they're small and not likely to cause me permanent bodily harm, but to be on the safe side, I stay out of their way. Their babies will be grown and fly from the nest soon enough.  It's a real drama playing outside my studio window that hints at something deeper.

I ran across a beautifully expressed sentiment by one of my favorite artists (and like me a Western New York resident ) Charles Burchfield on the Burchfield Penny Art Center's Facebook page.

In April of 1956 Burchfield wrote, “I would see our western N.Y. landscape, not in terms of modern life...but rather in terms of eternal verities of the primeval earth..which can never be erased if only we look beneath the surface.”

Burchfield is getting at something right at the heart of art with this comment. Why do certain images have the power to strike us, shake us up a little and stay lodged in our minds sometimes for years on end? 

If you do a google search you won't find any books written for wrens on how to be a wren. Think about it- these little guys find a safe place every year and using only their mouths construct a sturdy nest out of twigs and grass. Though I've tried many times to match their construction skills I always have to cheat and use my hands a little. And even then my bird nest looks completely amateur.

I'm kidding around of course, but these darned little birds remind me of us humans and where we came from. For most of our time on the planet we humans managed to get food, escape predators, find mates, and raise our young without being told how to do it (exactly when we developed speech remains contested, but clearly articulate and detailed language as we know it is one of the more recent acquisitions for our species). So how did we manage to do all those necessary tasks to keep us alive?

Carl Jung the psychologist wrote that there are inborn guides to behavior in animals (including humans) that guided us in our survival. In short he said that, like birds, we humans are guided by short little movies that play in our head. They're in our genes and are totally nonverbal. But they teach both those wrens and us things we need to know to survive. Over time we humans have tried hard to become more rational and  "civilized" and tended to push down those "little movies" to some shadowy and neglected parts of ourselves. But they play on in the back of our minds. Painters like Burchfield spent a lifetime painting and re-painting their composition until they captured something that felt authentic. Could it be that what the best paintings give us is a glimpse of the original imagery we carry in our genes? 

Charles Burchfield spoke above about the primeval earth carrying a special level of meaning for us. And through the best art, and I'd include most of his paintings in that category, we are given a roadmap that takes us back to those original and now largely unconscious images. Burchfield's goal with his work, like any good artist, is to re-acquaint us with parts of ourselves we've forgotten. It's not an academic exercise, it's a way to make us feel more whole. Here's a gallery of Burchfield paintings from the Burchfield Penny Art Center's website.

Right now the wrens on my deck have started screaming again. It's Bobo, the neighbor's cat. Everyday he climbs up on my deck and stands longingly beneath the birdhouse hoping one of wrens will swoop a little too low so he can grab it. The wrens keep yelling at him. And Bobo, obviously watching a very different "little movie" than the wrens, sits there patiently with his claws on the ready. 

Me, I think I'll close the sliding door to the deck so I can paint in peace.


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