The Extinct Birds Project

Oil painting of a bird.

Bachman’s Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii), Oils on Wooden Panel, 23.75" x 7"

Essay by Alberto Rey, MFA ’87.

Seven extinct bird specimens led Alberto Rey, MFA ’87, on a two year journey of research and reflection, resulting in his latest exhibition.

Lifting the veil

Portrait of Alberto Rey, MDA '87.

Alberto Rey, MDA '87

I first encountered extinct bird specimens in 2015, while on a tour of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History’s archive in Jamestown, N.Y. Seven birds and around a dozen other threatened species were neatly laid out in a drawer lined with white paper. I was deeply moved by the veil of sadness surrounding each of the birds. Their bound feet and cotton-stuffed eyes were particularly disturbing, as they seemed to be a perfect metaphor for and reflection of the brutality that led to each species’ elimination.

As I continued to look at the birds, my mind filled with questions: Where were they acquired? Who collected them and how? How did they get here? What were their lives like? Why am I not as moved by the specimens of other birds in other drawers?

Investigating extinction

It took me more than two years to figure out how I could create a body of work that would capture my emotions and try to answer some of these questions. During those years of research, I learned that there is no shortage of extinct bird collections around the country and the world, but for reasons of time and scheduling I limited my initial investigation to 18 specimens from the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. The end result was a book, “Extinct Birds Project”; a website, extinctbirdsproject.com; and a traveling exhibition of 18 paintings, called “Lost Beauty I.”

Each painting in the exhibition presents one extinct bird in a horizontal format alongside a burnt match. I chose a horizontal composition so that the viewer can look into the eyes of the birds—or, in this case, the cotton that has replaced their eyes. I chose the burnt match to show scale and also to serveas a metaphor for finality and expiration.

About the exhibit

“Alberto Rey: Lost Beauty” is a two-part collaborative project with the Buffalo Museum of Science and UB Art Galleries. “Lost Beauty I” exhibited this past summer at UB’s Anderson Gallery.

About the artist

Alberto Rey is a painter, filmmaker, writer and Distinguished Professor at SUNY Fredonia. His work can be found in the permanent collections of more than 20 museums, including the Albright- Knox Art Gallery and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. He lives with his family on the banks of the Canadaway Creek in Chautauqua County, where he is also an Orvis-endorsed fly fishing guide and the founder of a youth fly fishing program.

Published March 15, 2019