Review: 'The Art of Migration' by Peggy Macnamara

Few sights are as mesmerizing as a flock of starlings in fall — those great clouds of birds that rise up into the sky, swarming and shifting as if they're tangled up in gusty winds. Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence for the Field Museum, captures that stunning phenomena — a behavior known as murmuration — in her new collection of watercolor paintings, "The Art of Migration: Birds, Insects, and the Changing Seasons in Chicagoland."

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.

Macnamara's paintings blend scenes of birds and insects in flight with more representational images. The transparent nature of watercolors allows her to offer context for bird migration; a map of South America or the Chicago skyline may appear layered in the background. This is not a field guide but a conversational collection of impressions. It's annotated with details about the birds, but it also includes notes from the artist on her methods for using layers of colored paint to create black feathers. It includes asides about volunteers who comb the lakefront after storms to collect dead birds that wash up on the shore — birds that are tagged and stored by the museum and then used by Macnamara as models.

The book's diminutive size invites the reader to lean in and look closer at the details.

As John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, writes in the foreword:

Her paintings — even her most perfectly classical ones — strike me more as expressions of wonder than as illustrations of nature. She has an amazing ability to dissolve scientific realism and honest draftsmanship into layers of dreamlike fantasy and colorful hallucination, yet every painting clearly expresses appreciation and abiding love for the intricate shapes, structures, and motions of the living world.

Jennifer Day is editor of Printers Row Journal.

"The Art of Migration"

Paintings by Peggy Macnamara, text by John Bates and James H. Boone, University of Chicago, 203 pages, $25

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