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West Loop artist finds beauty in dead birds

Photographer Art Fox at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

With her 2-year-old son on her hip, Anastasia Makarova paused at a photographic exhibit of migratory birds at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and sensed that something wasn’t quite right.

One of the birds in West Loop-based photographer Art Fox’s new exhibit, Broken Journey, is lying on its back, wings spread, as though it was sunning itself at the beach. Another appears to levitate without moving a muscle.

But it was the birds’ little black eyes that bothered Makarova — each is crinkly and shrunken.

That’s because all 15 of the birds in Fox’s exhibit are dead. Look closely, and you might see a speck of blood, a broken beak, a limb twisted unnaturally.

Fox, a retired physician, said he draws inspiration from elusive objects.

“The birds are so literally fleeting,” Fox said. “They are here one minute and gone the next. You see a flash of yellow and don’t really know what you saw or can’t see in any detail. Conveniently enough, since these were dead, they were very patient about letting me take lots of exposures.”

Anastasia Makarova and 2-year-old son, Egor, at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times
Anastasia Makarova and 2-year-old son, Egor, at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Many of the birds in the exhibit were presumably dreaming of warmer climes, when, while migrating, they slammed into the mirrored glass of a Chicago high-rise — hence the exhibit’s title. It’s a devastating problem. Each year, the all-volunteer Chicago Bird Collision Monitors recover about 5,000 dead or injured birds from a 1-square-mile patch downtown. They’re gearing up for this year’s spring migration.

Fox says he plucked some of his birds off the street while out riding his bicycle. Others came from the cold storage at the Field Museum and from Loyola University Chicago. Fox doesn’t have his own studio, so he photographed many of them on the eighth-floor balcony of his condo and some in his bathroom.

“My wife would say, ‘You get that dead bird out of here in 30 minutes!’ ” Fox said.

The idea of the project wasn’t to horrify visitors to the nature museum, a destination that draws hundreds of children daily.

“There was at least one bird that had maggot eggs . . . on it,” Fox said. “I could leave that, but I thought, if anybody looks closely, they’re going to be really grossed out by that.”

Steven M. Sullivan, the museum’s senior curator of urban ecology, explained his hope for the exhibit this way: “We don’t ever want anybody to be bored while they’re here. Certainly, these dead bird pictures are aesthetically beautiful to little kids. And whether the adults want to try to explain this or not is fine. But the adults, hopefully, are getting that other layer of message.”

The exhibit also features recorded bird songs and tips for how the public can help protect migrating birds.

For Makarova and her son, Egor, the exhibit was interesting, if a little puzzling.

“I was confused because their face is different from their claws,” said Makarova, a recent transplant from Moscow, noting the birds’ lifelike grip and blank eyes.

But she wasn’t at all concerned at having to explain the images to her toddler son.

“He saw a lot of rats in Russia,” she said, dismissively.

The exhibit runs through Feb. 12.