Art show spotlights works of nature

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Although he never saw himself as an environmentalist, his art lines the walls of a local conservatory.

Ephemera: Winged Creatures of Texas, a free exhibit featuring the work of former TCU adjunct art professor William Hassell, runs Aug. 29 – Nov. 13 at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, 1700 University Drive.

Hassell wrote in email that, as a child, birds fascinated him simply because they could fly.

“I was also drawn to their colors and patterns and later to the symbolism associated with birds – crows and ravens in particular have a wealth of associated mythology,” he wrote. “I see birds now largely as a barometer of a healthy environment.”

Hassell said he hopes his interpretations of nature will spark imagination and curiosity.

Hassell, who lives in Fort Worth’s Fairmount neighborhood, said inspiration for one piece, which depicts a full moon shining down upon purple moonflowers and a sphinx moth, came from a neighbor’s flower garden.

Another piece shows a plain, dreary colored bird against a bright, colorful background. Hassell described it as “a painted sort of ghost of a bird” designed to make one wonder what if birds no longer existed.

As an artist, Hassell wants to maintain autonomy, he said, and was reluctant to embrace environmental issues but has become more environmentally aware and even feels a social obligation.

“Any individual on a small personal level can make a positive environmental impact,” he said. “Something that is not ‘just about me’ but about the world at large.”

Below is a conversation with the artist.

The 109: Is there a favorite species that you like to use as a model?

Hassell: There are several types of birds that recur in my work ─ mockingbirds in particular but also blue jays, cardinals and woodpeckers ─ all rather common birds but distinctive and iconic in their own way. I am drawn to birds with attitude and big personalities. For a long time, the kingfisher was a favorite. I always associate them with watery places. I have also painted hummingbirds, owls and an assortment of freshwater shorebirds.

The 109: If used as actual live models, what are their reactions to you as the artist?

Hassell: They don't sit still.

The 109: Have you traveled long distances to view a certain bird?

Hassell: I always hope to see certain birds in certain places ─ like bald eagles ─ but I can't say I have specifically traveled a long distance to see a certain bird. I am not a "birder" in the conventional sense. I don't keep a "life list" like serious birdwatchers. For me, I associate certain birds with their surroundings ─ like magpies with New Mexico. I did go on an "owl prowl" once ─ an early morning walk sponsored by an Audubon chapter with an ornithologist to view owls, but that didn't involve much travel.

The 109: What draws you to woodblocks?

Hassell: I've always liked the stylized landscape and atmospheric elements of Japanese woodblock prints ─ especially Hiroshige and Hokusai ¬─ and also the tilted and exaggerated perspectives. I've produced quite a few color lithographs over the years and have been influenced by the color in the woodblock prints, especially the gradations of color used to achieve atmospheric and spatial effects in the skies and water.

“Hassell’s work is often compared to and linked with American and Mexican folk art because of its bright colors, bold patterns and simplified forms,” according to a BRIT press release. “It draws, however, from a broad base of influences.”

Hassell wrote that while many artists’ work has influenced him, “John James Audubon was probably my first hero; [he was] part frontiersman, part naturalist and ornithologist and part artist."

Ephemera: Winged Creatures of Texas will be open to the public in BRIT’s Madeline R. Samples Exhibit Hall from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and also for Gallery Night from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6 with an opening reception to be held the same day from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The show will also be open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4 and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.brit.org.

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