A FAMILY OF CORVIDS
An interview with Frank, Jane, and Ian Boyden
by Margot Voorhies Thompson
On the south slope of Cascade Head there is an unusual family—mischievous, wily, beady-eyed. Inveterate collectors, raucous in their delight. It took me many years to understand that the Boydens are corvids disguised as humans. And so I set out to reveal their true forms.
—Margot Voorhies Thompson
Margot: Jane, Frank, and Ian, over the last fifty years, I have slowly become aware of an unusual lineage of energy in your family, something archetypal, maybe even totemic. I wonder if we might start this conversation by talking about crows?
Ian: I already like where this is going. I’ll start with something unusual, at least something I’d never seen before last week. Down the road from where I live there is a huge anthill, which I love to look at when I go for walks. A few days ago, I saw something black thrashing around on top of it. I walked closer and discovered that it was a Northwest crow (Corvus caurinus). It had its wings spread out and the ants were crawling all over the bird. The crow was now thoroughly part of the anthill, and it seemed impervious to the bites, in fact, it seemed euphoric, running its beak through its feathers. It was bathing in ants! What was going on? It was then that I thought—ant perfume! Maybe this crow was getting ready to go to a crow dance. More seriously, this interaction raises so many fascinating questions about crow/ant ecology and how intricately crows are tapped into energy in our environment.
I love your declaration of an “unusual lineage of energy”! I’d say that a characteristic of my family that I love is that we tend to not just observe our environment but also revel in energy sources in our environment—especially atypical energy sources. You can understand a totem as a specific organism, but it can also mean a set of behavior characteristics of that organism. A way of knowing, a way of being! We need to discuss this, but perhaps our family totem is the crow. Given the opportunity and a way to withstand the bites, I’d likely join that crow I saw the other day and bathe in an anthill.
Frank: For most of my life I have paid special attention to crows. It started when I was six. My parents owned the mining claim at Horseshoe Bend on the Rogue River. In the fall of 1948 they were staying at the cabin there and arranged to have a bush pilot fly me to the gravel landing strip at Black Bar, three miles upriver, where there was a famous fishing lodge owned by Hal and Bea Witherwox. That flight, my very first, was most exciting. However, what I found at Black Bar was even more so. Hal had a pet crow. I was instantly smitten. I fell in love with it. Powerful things can take over the young mind.
In the spring of 1953, my mother and I were camped close to a reservoir near Cody, Wyoming. I found a crow’s nest with crows close to fledging. I said nothing, but early the next morning I told my mother I was going fishing. While I was out, I stole one of the crows from that nest. “Mom, look! I found this crow deserted on the ground under the nest. It’s going to die. We have to save it.” Right. She was really pissed off. I know she knew. However, she had told me to never touch a baby bird in a nest because the mother would reject it and so she had no choice. I had a pet crow. We had it in a box in the back seat. It made an amazing amount of noise, ate a large can of horrible gooey dog food a day and what went in mostly came out and by the time we reached Portland a week later, things weren’t good between me and my mom.
I loved that crow and I know it loved me. I taught it to fly and I never neglected to feed and provide it with water and soon it was on its own. No box. No cage. It followed me the third of a mile walk to the school bus in the morning and would be there when I was dropped off, flying down to my arm or shoulder. My status as a young man grew. When you associate with an animal whose existence is predicated on its ability to observe, you have the chance to learn how to see things through that animal’s senses. Sometimes the crow would bring me things it felt worthwhile. Most often I would check out the things it was doing or examining. I didn’t want to pry too much or seem as though I was encouraging certain behaviors which the adult neighbors frowned upon but every kid in the neighborhood couldn’t get enough of. Things like riding on dogs or molesting napping cats. It learned which windows looked into the neighbors’ bedrooms. I particularly enjoyed hearing the yelling on Saturday or Sunday morning as the crow pecked on the glass until the desired attention was achieved. I learned a lot about the pleasures of tweaking the world from my pet. I learned how to see in ways I could never have without this bird.
Jane: I can attest to the fact that Frank’s love of crows is still very much alive, and it has led to some very funny things. Years ago, I noticed a large number of empty Wonder Bread bags on the passenger seat of Frank’s truck. That was kind of puzzling. Definitely not on my grocery list. So I asked Frank (gently), “What’s up with all the Wonder Bread?” And he allowed that he had been spending his days in the Safeway parking lot attracting crows with Wonder Bread and drawing them. These are the hidden costs of living with an artist! A few weeks later, he began to show me prints he was making of crows. They grew into a suite of prints and what is not only one of my favorite set of Frank’s drawings but an amazing artist book titled BIRD SPIRITS that he and Ian made with the composer William Bolcom as a gift to me when I retired.
Margot: Frank, your crow images capture their moods, gestures and intelligence beautifully. You and I have both described each crow image in the BIRD SPIRITS series of prints to my husband, George. To this day, he holds those crow images in his mind. He can describe his favorites even though he has never actually been able to see any of the crow prints.
Ian: I love that George now describes his favorite images—a testament to his imagination and your power of description. How I wish I could see what he sees. Frank really captured their spirit. To be honest, I think he identifies with them on a spiritual level—these birds are incredibly observant, strident, I think they swear a lot. And above all else, they are tricksters. And once you know that, it is hard not to see that Frank is likely a crow in human form. My father is a crow! My mother fell in love with a crow!
Margot: Swearing and tricksters do seem to go together. When I come to your house, Frank, I can see how you may have inhabited a crow. You’ve described how crows like to compete for the best position on the river. The table where you sit in your kitchen is adjacent to the windows that overlook the Salmon River. Whenever we are at your house, there will always be a moment when you turn your eyes to the estuary, maybe get out your binoculars. It’s as if the view from your house is one of the best places from which you, like a crow, can observe the comings and goings on the river.
Jane, do you think you might also be a trickster crow minus the symphonic swearing?
Jane: Not so much. In the family of corvids, I mostly identify with the gray jays (Perisoreus canadensis), the way they float into the neighborhood and surprise you with quiet antics. I’d really like to have the courage and cleverness of the raven (Corvus corax) though.
Ian: There you are. My mother is a gray jay! So quiet, laconic, flying with such precision, with an awesome memory. Have you ever heard their “whisper song”? So magical. I imagine this is what the symphonies are like in my mom’s dreams. But I have to say that when it comes to the house in which I grew up, I would say there was something very ravenesque about her practice. Her piano was a black raven’s eye in the midst of all the chaos. Margot, have you ever heard the wonderful set of pieces William Bolcom composed for Jane? Maybe we can pause and invite Jane to perform Bird Spirits. Would you do that, Jane?
Jane: I’d love to.
Jane Boyden performs BIRD SPIRITS by William Bolcom
Margot: When Jane performs BIRD SPIRITS her exquisite playing brings the moods of crows to life for me. With Frank’s elegant rendering of vamping crows exhibiting their natural behaviors and Bolcom’s compositions interpreted by Jane, we can occupy either a Safeway parking lot with bags of that Wonder Bread or see what crow life is like in the Salmon River estuary when the tide goes out.
Ian: How we can know the experience of the Other is such a fascinating question. It is difficult enough to know the mind of another human, much less a non-human animal. One of the invitations of BIRD SPIRITS is to occupy the mind of a crow, but not just occupy it mentally, but also physically, in particular through the movement of our hands. Frank started the process by observing them and making drypoint prints that are virtuosic in the way they capture their spirit. If you ever watch Frank draw, it becomes clear how much his hands are a primary means by which he expresses the subtleties of what he observes. This energy was then picked up by Bolcom. Again, you can see how the energy of those drawings not just put his musical mind in motion, but also his hands at play. The handwritten musical scores look like they could have been scratched by each crow! And finally, listen to Jane as she plays these pieces. Her hands hopping up and down the keys of her piano. She becomes a crow. Hand and mind, claw and mind. The pieces are crows that have taken form in some human dimension of the crow dreamworld.
Margot: I love your description of Frank and Jane’s hands. That’s an important observation about your parents as artists. I’d like to recollect how BIRD SPIRITS came to be. Please tell me. I’m sure there is another story in that!
Ian: I don’t remember exactly how this book came about, so correct me if I get this wrong. It was during a time when I was making a lot of artist books. Jane was getting ready to retire from 30 years of teaching. One day, Frank called me and said we REALLY NEED to make Jane a gift for her retirement. The idea got completely out of control. Frank asked the composer William Bolcom to write a piece of piano music for Jane. Frank sent him the suite of nine drypoints of crows as a trade. But Bolcom surprised Frank by writing not one piece of music for Jane, but a short piece for each print in the series. And he called this suite of piano pieces BIRD SPIRITS. And, when I learned of this, in a fit of exuberance said, we should make that into an artist book…. I had a vision that I would make the covers of this book out of black lacquer, so that it would link not just to the black plumage of crows but also the black lacquer of the piano. Soon, I was on the phone with Steinway asking them for their lacquer recipes, and they sent me gallons of lacquer. And I worked deep into the night, night after night over weeks and months spraying lacquer and frazzling my neurons with lacquer thinner, and ultimately ended up with this artist book.
Frank: Yes, that is essentially the way it went but I should add a few details. This was to be a surprise and that was difficult because it took many months. Ian had been making the covers of his books from exotic woods. Really beautiful covers. He wanted to continue that but the covers for the Bird Spirits book were big and we thought that such rare woods would warp. I suggested using a very thin eleven-ply birch plywood made in Finland which was supposed to be totally stable. We were excited and decided to make 90 books and that meant 180 pieces of plywood 14.5” x 11”. That much fantastic Finnish plywood cost me $4700 and since Jane kept our books I had to find the cash outside our income stream. We cut it all up, rounded edges, sanded it, and primed it. Before the lacquer each piece took about 3 hours of prep time. We then made an elaborate spray booth and that cost me another $700. Then the lacquer spraying began. Coat after coat and a tree close to the fan vent began to wither and lose its leaves and the smell was wafting into this nice neighborhood so a lot of the spraying had to happen in the middle of the night. As the lacquer began to dry and cure, to our dismay the fine expensive Finnish plywood started to warp and over half the covers had to be thrown out. I’m not sure why Ian doesn’t remember this. The making of the covers was preliminary to the final construction which took close to 1,000,000,000,000 hours for each book.
Ian: Haha! It wasn’t just the tree that withered, as you can see, it was also my poor neurons. I didn’t want the neighbors to complain about the smell, so I sprayed the covers at night. Even though I covered myself with a Tyvek suit, my whole body was saturated with lacquer thinner. I would come home, and Jen would make me sleep in another room! The insanity of this project inspired Jen to write a poem commemorating the event.
Making It Big, Standing Back to Be Sure
Spraying the lacquer was a crime
and we knew it, but we were making
something big and it had to shine.
We sprayed late at night; in the morning,
children walking by for school fainted
into the grass. Frogs blistered in their pools,
which hurt us, too, but what we made was almost done.
We pushed open the doors and rolled it into the lawn.
The drivers-by pumped their brakes,
collided anyway, and lay wrecked, but still looking.
It bulged bigger than a Steinway, gleamed
of high-lacquered black, and played everyone
like a mean thrill. All night we wore the masks
of chemical thieves. So children grew listless, so
the neighborhood dwindled
like a band of winter crickets.
It was big, we said, standing back to be sure.
(from The Mouths of Grazing Things, University of Wisconsin Press, 2010)
Margot: Well, I see that Jen has caught onto the corvid behaviors of the Boyden family! That poem got me laughing. “Bulging bigger than a Steinway” is a provocative line and it suggested to me those corvids larger than crows: the Ravens. Can you share a memorable story about ravens? Have raven images flown into your imagination and artwork? As corvidae yourselves, surely you have thoughts about the raven in the hierarchy of corvidae that haunt the Salmon River estuary.
Jane: It is a thrill to hear and see the ravens fly over, usually a single, sometimes in pairs, in which case they often roll and play in the sky with each other. I love their presence in Haida mythology, particularly Robert Bringhurst’s retelling of The Raven Steals the Light. Who in these northern latitudes doesn’t love the arrival of light? And had you heard that ravens were waiting to meet early humans when they crossed the Bering Land Bridge?
Margot: Jane, thanks for your great book recommendation. It’s remarkable to learn that ravens were waiting for the humans by the Bering Land Bridge. You have said you admire the courage of ravens.
I’m interested in knowing more about wishing for raven courage. I’ve read that a murder of crows will attack a bald eagle and I’ve also heard that a raven will boldly attack an eagle if the eagle were to threaten a raven’s nest, its eggs, or its offspring by flying near its nesting site.
Frank: The concept of shapeshifting has fascinated me from childhood. My maternal grandmother read me an amazing collection of stories and mythologies--Arthurian legends, Beowulf, a few Icelandic sagas, Greek mythology, stories from native peoples of North American, stories of transformation and magic. A relatively high percentage of these stories had characters which existed by changing form. There were deep and clever and nefarious reasons for that behavior, much of which was lost on me at age eight or ten and a lot of it terrified me. To be honest, I could see the advantages of the ability and I believed it could happen. I looked for examples and I began to experience things and see things which exhibited different forms under different conditions of light and shadow, in and out of wind, looking through water and through sky. As I did this, one of man’s greatest attributes, imagination, kicked in and then I was on my own.
Over my adult life I have continued my interest. There is a very long history in art of shapeshifting and one of the artists whose work I hold close is Odilon Redon. Redon was quite interested in such metamorphoses. He grew up in the estuary area of the Dordogne River along the Southwest coast of France. This area was little inhabited and the landscape held vast marshes and strange light. He had a solitary childhood wandering in that nature and spoke about things that changed forms. His work often reflects such perceptions. As long as eyebrows are featured in this corvid extravaganza, Redon had eyebrows exactly like mine, the right one going up and the left down. His were a little more bushy.
Over the years, living in this estuary has given me a deep sense of the ability of what exists here to change shape physically and perceptually. The Salmon and Raven Plate is an example of that.
Margot: The other day I walked the beach during a minus tide on the north side of Cascade Head in Neskowin. A group of crows arrived and landed to get the sand crabs. They scared the whimbrels away. They made a certain peace with the gulls that were huddled with their legs tucked beneath them on the sand. No budging for the crows that had been chaffering and annoying them. When a large bald eagle landed in this picture, the crows flew east and the gulls flew west. The silent intimidation of the eagle was palpable.
Frank: For years I have watched crows and ravens interacting in the estuary. Much of that interaction involves who gets the best place to observe things, much like our King of the Mountain games. There are only a few good perches on the limbs of giant Sitka spruce or stumps washed up into the salt marsh along the river. There is a lot of confrontation and a lot of noise. Only one bird per perch and the winner triumphs. In the early 1990’s I produced a series of nine bronze totems, some 12 feet tall. They were titled Triumph 1 through 9. With few exceptions, they were made from sticks and other materials I gathered from the landscape: the river, the beach and the tide flats. Each sculpture incorporated a different sculpted bird.
Margot: Frank, I understand your love of crows and ravens. They are both smart and solve problems in different ways. Crows have the ability to solve problems as a group whereas ravens solve problems as individuals and pairs. I believe what I’ve just stated is grounded in the current science on Corvidae.
Frank: And sometimes they create a lot of problems all together. That can be quite a sight. I’ll share a story with you that stands out as one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. If we are lucky, the world graces us with a few experiences that for whatever reasons allow us into some sacred space where that experience is indelibly printed in our minds.
Ian and I were guided by crows and ravens and gulls to this particular experience. Early morning found us driving south on Highway 101. We had descended Cape Foulweather, looking along the four mile stretch of Moolack Beach. It was late May or early June, windless and clear, with the tide incoming. There was nothing subtle about what was going on in the air. There were probably a couple of thousand crows and ravens and untold numbers of gulls flying over the highway and beach. The beach was covered with more birds. It was mayhem and we had no idea what was going on. We stopped. It looked dangerous. The birds were showing us something and that something appeared to be food but what food? We went down to the beach and as we got closer, we observed that the surface of the beach as far as we could see was moving and the birds were running about thrusting their beaks into the sand. As we moved on to the wet sand, we entered the zone of upheaval and we could see that it went on for at least two miles, hundreds of acres of moving sand. What the birds had drawn us to was a massive gathering of mole crabs. We could only guess how many million there were. Thank you, crows and ravens!
Ian: It was like a scene from a Hitchcock movie. But instead of Frank and I becoming another course in the cosmic feast, we simply witnessed sheer wonder. Heraclitus once said, “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it.” I think corvids are masters of expecting the unexpected. They practice it. I once watched a raven dance with its own shadow cast on a white bed sheet hung out to dry. I read a story of another raven who found a pile of coat hangers that it hauled off one by one and used to build a nest. The crow bathing in ants…. And when the entire ground began to undulate with some sort of cosmic mole crab love, the ravens and crows were there immediately. Calling each other to the feast but also drawing our attention to it as well. I think corvids are teachers at heart.
Margot: Both you and Frank have described some of your personal observations of the interplay between humans and other species. You also refer to the role of tricksters and shapeshifting in the history of art and literature the world over. Do you think that the role of shapeshifting in human history and storytelling in your own lives heightens awareness, increases knowledge and expands our capacity for empathy? Is the intuitive anticipation of an artist’s mind to seek greater self-knowledge through the process of shapeshifting?
Ian: Perhaps the most pervasive illusion that plagues humans is our sense of separateness from each other and from our environment. The ramifications of this sense of separation affect every aspect of our lives. Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” His words are profound truth. While he was talking about race relations in America, these words extend to all relations, not just between class, ethnicity, religion, race, but to literally every imaginable relationship. The relationship between humans and the environment—frogs, oceans, forests, the whole planet. The Other only comes into existence when we make it an Other.
How we teach this truth may in a sense be what culture is. One traditional method of teaching interdependence is through storytelling involving shapeshifting. What is shapeshifting if not to become the Other? To do so requires empathy. The human brain is an absolutely awesome empathy machine. But empathy is not inherent—it is something which can be developed and molded. It must be practiced. It is an art form. It is an art form that allows us to bridge chasms of unknowing. At the very moment one gains self-knowledge through such an act, one is also articulating, even celebrating our “inescapable network of mutuality.” Empathy is our shared garment of destiny.
Margot: Ian, how do you feel knowing your father is a crow and your mother is a gray jay?
Ian: It is pure magic. Interspecies marriage aside, corvids are known to be exceptionally vigilant parents! Many years ago, I was in Sapporo, Japan, right about at this time of year, almost the summer solstice! I had terrible jet-lag, which had me wide awake at three in the morning. I tossed and turned. Finally, I decided I would get up and take a walk. I had a map and noticed there was a large city park nearby. So I headed that direction. But when I got there, the park was completely surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. I stood and looked in. It was just starting to get light. From within the trees there was just the most astounding gurgling and cawing and chattering that I suspected had to be some kind of crow or raven. So, I thought, I will imitate this noise and see if anyone comes out. I was cawing through the iron fence when something hit me in the head. A twig. I looked up and in the branches above me were two Jungle crows (Corvus macrorhynchos). These birds are like a combination of an American crow and a raven. They have enormous bills. And this pair of birds was clearly upset. They were breaking off twigs and throwing them at me. What had I said?
So I apologized, in English, figuring they would at the very least understand my intention. Please forgive me, I have no idea what I might have said, I certainly meant no offence, I am friendly… And so on. But the crows would have none of it. In this regard they are like humans. Once they want blood, it takes a miracle of intervention to stop a war. I kept backing up, keeping my eyes on them. And when I thought I had achieved a safe distance, I turned and started to cross the road. At that moment, something huge hit me in the head, knocking me to the ground. It was one of the Jungle crows! And just at that moment, a taxi came around the corner and the driver hopped out and helped me to my feet. Are you okay, he asked? And he insisted on looking at my head. It turns out that these crows will often cut open your scalp with their talons. I told the driver how I had made the mistake of wanting to communicate with the crows. Bad Idea, he said getting back into his car. I wonder what I said? I asked. At that point, he became very serious. English was his second language, so this was the seriousness of trying to express a complex idea in a foreign language. Finally he said this: Mother Loving Children Protecting. And with that he drove off. So you can understand why I am so happy to know my parents are corvids.
Margot, is it not enough you taught me how to write, and now you reveal my parents’ true form!?
Margot: Ian, it’s quite likely that you must be a corvid too…you exhibited the traits of a trickster early in your childhood. Jane, I’d love to hear your insight as Ian’s mother. I’m anticipating another good story.
Jane: We used to collect feathers on our walks and at the age of three or four, Ian would only hold onto the bright blue feathers of the Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). They shed quite a few and he hoped to make a cape. Tiny hummingbird feathers would hold his attention for an instant and red-tailed hawk feathers held no interest at all. It was the Steller’s jay or no bird.
Ian: Frank mentioned shapeshifting and transfiguration earlier. When we pick up a feather, there is always the invitation to transformation. A Haida text describes the incarnation of the sky god: as a boy, this god keeps putting on the skins of various animals and walking out into the environment where he momentarily transforms into elements of the firmament. He then returns and asks his mother how he looks. At one point, he dons the skin of a Steller’s jay and flies out and hovers over the ocean, the blue of his feathers merging with the blue of the sky, finding parity in the color of the water. And for a moment, before he returns, he becomes the sky itself. “Mother,” he asks, “did I look well?” She replies, “Yes, son, you looked well, the supernatural beings will not tire of looking at you.”
It is true, I never tire of looking at Steller’s jays. I’ve spent a lot of my life looking at them and they are the subject of a major work of mine titled AVIAN FLAME. This was a site-specific installation in which I fed two of my self-portraits to 21 Steller’s jays. It took seven days for them to consume these two heads, and as they did so, they flew back and forth, as if they were physical embodiments of conversation. At the end of the process, I had the first draft of a manuscript of observations of those birds, a set of photographs, and a video of them consuming me, titled “Seven Days: Self-Portraits Reshaped and Completed by Jays.” Here, check it out:
Ian Boyden, Seven Days: Self-Portraits Reshaped and Completed by Jays. Video from the installation Avian Flame, 2013.
Jane: I’m known for being attracted to eyebrows. I can’t take my eyes off those handsome blue inverted V’s above the Steller’s Jay’s eyes. How can the other jays resist?
Margot: Like you, Jane, the other jays can’t resist! Did you actually get to witness the Steller's jays eating Ian’s self-portraits while their actions were being filmed?
Jane: I did get to watch the jays. I admit that it was unnerving to watch them attack the heads while Ian’s image was still recognizable. (I had the same reaction on seeing his concrete heads being thrown in a creek.) I relaxed as the mass of seeds lost its human qualities. Then I could just enjoy the antics of the jays. Towards the end of the video, one seed mass looks quite bird-like to me and I felt the birds avoided it awhile in that state. Those jays certainly were ravenous! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
Margot: Those jays went straight for the noses. That bothered me. Was that because it was the easiest place to begin getting the seed unstuck?
Ian: If it were up to Steller’s jays, there would be no noses. It makes you wonder about the Great Sphinx of Giza.
Margot: That’s hilarious. What bound all the seeds together in the casts of the heads? When the heads ceased looking like Ian, I noticed that the left head began to take the shape of a jay. For me, that was the transformative moment when it was apparent the jays had fully taken Ian’s likenesses. Then, they continued to eat until nothing was left. The effect of the wind in the filming was great, too.
Ian: The seed heads were bound together with gelatin. I have many molds of my head. I create a mixture of seeds and gelatin, pour it into those molds and then bake them for a while. It smells pretty wonderful. After they cool, I take me out of the mold and, voilà, I’m ready to eat!
I love the way the jays sculpted me. And that moment when they turned me into their own likeness really blew my mind. It was very healing and reassuring.
Margot: Ian, the footage your camera captured of the jays was mesmerizing. As Jane has noted, their eyebrows were irresistible.
Ian: One of the joys of these projects is that they give me the opportunity to observe some aspect of the environment closely and often for a very long time. In this case, Steller’s jays, their behavior, especially how they communicate. They have a crest of feathers they raise up and down on the top of their head that indicates how they are feeling. But, when you observe them closely, you can see that this display extends way beyond those crest feathers. I think birds communicate extensively through subtle movements of their feathers all over their body—tail feathers, wing feathers, and certainly those eyebrows! Electric blue.
I came to know many of the jays in this video and I gave them names—like Storm Collar, Gutter Rattler, The Voyeur. If you look at them long enough, you begin to see distinguishing characteristics. As they move into adulthood, they develop really wonderful eyebrows, but some more than others, and some that give Frank a run for his money. There was one jay who I named Ma-tsu, after the great Ch’an teacher Ma-tsu Tao-yi (馬祖道一, Chinese, 709–788) who had very impressive eyebrows. His eyebrows were so impressive, in fact, that he would use them to teach his students. One day a monk named Yao-shan Wei-yen (藥山惟儼, Chinese, 751–834) went to visit Ma-tsu and asked him to explain the Southern Chan tradition of pointing to the heart/mind and, in so doing, seeing one’s nature and becoming a Buddha. Ma-tsu made the following reply:
Sometimes I teach it by wiggling my eyebrows and blinking my eyes, sometimes I don’t teach it by wiggling my eyebrows and blinking my eyes. Sometimes wiggling the eyebrows and winking the eyes is it, sometimes wiggling the eyebrows and winking the eyes are not it.
And with that he fixed his eyes on Yao-shan, and said, “How do you respond?'' It is said that at that moment, Yao-shan was awakened. And because of this Ma-tsu was reincarnated as a Steller’s jay flying further and further westward until he reached the Salmon River estuary. And about 1200 years later, I, in a fit of compassion, fed myself to Ma-tsu. It’s quite simple really.
Margot: Upon the jays’ first discovery of your self-portraits, they looked like tentative explorers as their curiosity got the better of them and they landed atop one of the heads. Sassy but wary. Gradually, they got comfortable while pecking your nose off. Then they grew confident and competitive with each other and ripped off bigger and bigger chunks, stuffing their mouths with amounts they could hardly swallow. One jay even had to regurgitate what he’d crammed into his mouth. I laughed out loud at the bird comedy. This bird comedy made me think that traits of the human comedy were being exhibited in the bird world as they rushed to devour those heads. That was both fascinating and wonderfully crazy!
Ian: That moment when the jay regurgitates the seed was amazing. I don’t remember if this is captured in the video, but it actually spit those seeds directly into another jay’s face. It knocked the other jay right over. I think it was intentional. In the world of the jay, you have to respond in real time. And when you fall, they are all there to witness, and comment rather loudly about it. Their genus name Cyanocitta literally means “chattering blue”. It is as though we are listening to a color discussing the world. And when they were first described by European naturalists, the subspecies on the Oregon coast was named Cyanocitta stelleri carbonacea, meaning a jay that “resembles carbon.” You can imagine my delight upon learning that, linking to all of my work with ink and forest fires. So I think Jane is likely right. How funny, she gave birth to a Steller’s jay!
I guess it’s my turn to put on a cloak of blue feathers and ask: “Mother, do I look well?”
Jane: You know that blue is my favorite color and that I have to live where I can see the sky. When I can see a Steller’s jay in that sky, I join the supernatural beings.
Margot: A favorite color has power in the eye of the beholder. Jane, what a great description. The film was a raucous and sustained meditation upon how the jays symbolically stole you, Ian, and made you part of them. What got you to conduct this seven day experiment up at Grass Mountain, another very choice position in the Salmon River estuary?
Ian: Entwined with all the ravenous joy of this piece, there is also a great sadness. In 2013, I tried to move my family to the Oregon coast. To return to the Salmon river valley has been a life-long dream and it seemed like it was going to become a reality. But, after a few months of being there, it became clear that this wasn’t going to work out, for many reasons I won't go into here. I was heartbroken, almost out of my mind. I don’t know how I came up with this idea. I decided that I would feed myself to the Steller’s jays and thus be reincarnated as a jay. If I could not live in that valley as a human, I would live there as a jay, really as a flock of jays. So that is what I did. I made myself in the form of seeds. It took the jays seven days to complete the feast. I sat and watched and filmed the entire process, part of which I just shared with you. I’m pretty sure in the jays’ mind, they think they stole me! And I don’t want to tell them otherwise, for that is an aspect of their joy. But, in fact, I gave myself to them, which is an aspect of my joy. There are many ways of becoming an immortal.
Margot: This is a transcendent story, Ian. I won’t forget it. You’ve given me insight into your thinking and your art. Thank you, Boydens all. These are definitely entertaining stories. Full of great observations and more Corvidae mischief!
Byline: A Portland native, Margot Voorhies Thompson studied at Lewis and Clark College, Reed College, the Pacific Northwest College of Art. She taught in the master calligraphy program at the Hochschule für Kunsterlische in Linz, Austria. Her work is in the collections of the Portland Art Museum; the Brooklyn Art Museum; the Stanford University Hospital; and the Printmaking Workshop in New York, among others. She has completed several collaborative book commissions with Kim Stafford, Pattiann Rogers, and Wendell Berry for the University of Oregon’s Knight Library Press. Other commissions include pieces for Oregon University of Health and Sciences, Portland; Portland State University; Kaiser Permanente, Tualatin, OR; the Woodstock Branch Multnomah County Library, Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, both in Portland, and Oregon State Hospital in Salem, OR. In 2017, she spent a month at the Playa Residency program in Summerlake, OR. Learn more about her work at: https://www.margotvoorhiesthompson.com/