“Birdbrain”: we’ve all heard the term, bandied it around, perhaps even referred to another person as one. But where does this come from, and does it have any merit?
The common notion is that birds are, to put in bluntly, dumb.
But birds aren’t stupid at all. By proportion, they have pretty tiny brains (a macaw’s brain is about the size of a walnut), so it was wrongly associated that a small brain meant small intellect (how very birdbrained of us to suggest this) but recent studies are proving quite the opposite.
Birds have a vast number of neurons located in their forebrains: the area that is responsible for intelligence. In fact, some species have as many neurons as primates!
So what does this mean for the expression, birdbrain? Take it as a compliment. Birds are amazingly complex and varied species. Crows and corvids demonstrate self-awareness in mirror tests and can use twigs to fish out grubs.
Arctic terns have amazing navigational skills, circumnavigating the globe from the Arctic to the Antarctic every year.
New Zealand’s alpine parrot, the Kea can break into locked cars, sealed backpacks and lunchboxes, all in the name of mischief. They can even solve complex puzzles as seen in the highly-recommended documentary ‘Beak and Brain – Genius Birds from Down Under‘
So next time someone calls you a birdbrain, do some research! Watch some videos, or, just paint them!
There’s so much hype around veganism at the moment. Every restaurant menu totes about offering ‘vegan this’ ‘vegan that’ ‘vegan wine’ etc. Cosmetic shops are telling us to ‘shop vegan’ by buying brushes made of synthetics instead of animal hair. Never mind that synthetic generally = plastic = more bad news for our oceans.
I’m not here to shame anyone or criticise, as there are some good points about eating a vegan diet: we can all admit we need to eat less red meat and processed food, and yes, the meat industry is undoubtedly cruel. But shoving our bodies full of synthetics and not eating meat and animal-based products is basically doing this:
By not eating meat and animal products, you’re not stopping your neighbour from eating them. You’re not stopping that same number of cows being sent to the production line: why? Because the meat industry isn’t about you.
The problem with the industry is precisely because it isn’t about you, or me. It’s about everyone. Global consumption. A few hundreds of individuals choosing not to consume these products will not make a dent in the multi-billion dollar industry (which is expected to exceed $800 billion within the next year or so).
Instead of the false presumption that you not eating the egg stops the hen from suffering (and producing a dozen other eggs for the supermarket, no doubt to go out of date, and then to be discarded/wasted), presume that you not eating the egg makes no difference.
If you want to make a difference, read books like Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Get in touch with the big meat heads, and tell them to change their methods. Be a vegan if you want: but don’t make it your beck and call unless you’re actually willing to do more than just make yourself feel better. It should be about changing the world empire that is the meat industry, in three ways:
– reducing our addiction to red meat. Beef needs ten times more grazing and production land than poultry, so by simply shifting our meat-eating needs away from beef, we’ll be saving vast areas of land from destruction. Instead, this newly freed land could be used to grow crops to feed the third world, instead of growing enough crops to feed enough animals to feed us.
– changing our attitude towards animals. Animals are sentient beings: they deserve respect and dignity in life, and even in death. If they must be killed, let’s make it quick and painless, and let’s not let them live in filth, pain and poverty in the months/years leading up to it. We do not live in a perfect world. Dogs are fought in pits on the street, cats are still drowned, horses are still abused and left out to dry after their racing careers are over, bulls are massacred in bullfights. Human beings are meat eaters – so are our closest living relatives. We shouldn’t not eat meat, but we should do it responsibly.
– learning to grow meat artificially, and safely. It’s already begun and I’m hoping it will be widely available to the masses within my lifetime. With current technological advances, I’m certain it will be. If we can continue to enjoy the taste of meat, the protein and vitamin benefits (Vitamin B12, anyone?), without having to kill any animals, that may be a more perfect world than we live in today. No more livestock would mean almost 40% of the world’s land available to re-populate (but, let’s not, I think there’s enough of us already), re-cultivate, or simply open back up to wildlife.
But what about all the cows? Would we introduce domestic cattle, sheep, pigs etc back into the wild? Start breeding them with wild species, start introducing them slowly? Leave them to fend for themselves? I ask you, is that ethical? Is that fair?
Inspiration. Sometimes, it comes to us in bucket loads, while other times it can seem as elusive as rainfall in Malta’s winter. But there are plenty of ways to kick start your brainstorming, by getting out in nature, reading a good book, or perhaps learning a new skill. When I’m not feeling particularly energetic, but I’m looking for a fix of inspiration, I’ll often turn to my favourite documentaries. Below, I’ve mentioned five of my favourites that I feel every artist should watch.
First Life, by David Attenborough
I could have listed all of Attenborough’s documentaries here, but there’s something extra special about this one. Nothing is more inspiring to me than trying to understand just how vast time is, and how the processes of evolution work together with the changing environment. From fractal proto-animals like Charnia (below) to the stunning Trilobites, you’ll surely get inspired by unique, abstract forms and the stunning scenery.
Other Attenborough top picks: Life in the Freezer, Frozen Planet, Planet Earth II, Life Story, The Hunt, The Life of Plants.
Wonders of the Solar System by Brian Cox
This series, along with the Wonders of the Universe and Stephen Hawking’s Genius kicked off my love affair with the Cosmos and started my Cosmic Nature paintings. Never has complicated physics, destruction, beauty and chaos been described so eloquently and with such beauty. What’s great about these episodes is that they explain theories and ideas so clearly that you feel a little smug just for watching and understanding them. The visuals are simply stunning, too.
Last Chance to See with Stephen Fry & Mark Cawardine
This charming collection chronicles English writer/comedian/actor/activist Stephen Fry’s journey across the world with wildlife photographer and friend Mark Cawardine to visit some of the rarest creatures on the planet, following in the footsteps of Douglas Adams’ book and series made 20 years previously. From the sad failure to find the Baji river dolphin (a subject I also painted) to the touching tale of the Kakapo (oh, another one I painted) this documentary is full of joy, hope and adventure.
Well, there should be an art documentary on my list, and this is one of those that gave me a new appreciation of Picasso. This particular four-part series chronicles the life and works of Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse (the end of this is extremely moving), Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso and features a good balance of storytelling, embellishing and historical accuracy. Though I wouldn’t call Andy Warhol a master, but perhaps that’s for another blog…
The Story of God with Morgan Freeman
Whilst I’m not a religious person, this documentary is beautifully narrated and discusses many issues that are important to humanity as a whole, and to us as individuals, whether we’re spiritual or not. From understanding creation to the meaning of life, death, the Apocalypse and more, this is a fascinating insight into world religions, beliefs and culture.
What do you watch when you’re looking for inspiration? Are you more of a film buff? Let me know in the comments!
Unless you’ve lived in a hole for the last 48 hours, you’ll know that the United States hosted a magnificent and rare spectacle yesterday; the first total eclipse in the region in 99 years.
As the earth went eerily still, eerily cold and so rapidly dark, the moon made its debut – obscuring the sun like a giant 8 ball blocking a cosmic snooker pocket. Glasses off, but only for a fleeting moment. The moon gave the sun its diamond ring – then, glasses back on, and all of a sudden the light returned, like the sheets being pulled from your morning slumber.
People laughed, they gasped, they screamed, and they cried. What is it about this unique and extraordinarily precise phenomena that moves us in such a way? Is it the shock to our circadian rhythm, is it our fear that the sun may not peep out the other side? I witnessed a partial eclipse in the UK in 1999, and was glued to live streams yesterday. From the other side of the world, I was hooked.
A Great Eclipse Painter
A secondary source to my eclipse inspiration came from the works of a painter I’ll admit I stumbled across by chance (thank you, News Feed!). If you haven’t heard of Howard Russell Butler, and you love art and eclipses, you’re missing out.
It’s not simply that he painted beautifully serene and emotive paintings of eclipses and other cosmic scenes, as well as landscapes. His works are beautiful in themselves, but what I find most remarkable as how he managed to plan out and sketch his eclipse paintings in 110 seconds. Once he caught his eclipse, he scribbled furiously, coming up with exceedingly complex values and mathematical symbols for the different hues of the light, the corona and the beads. All this, whilst the picture in front of him vanished.
From art to photography to fashion, weirdly ridiculous and indeed mind-numbing flat-Earth theories, eclipses have inspired us for centuries. As an artist, I see great potential in this subject, and plan to take full advantage of its publicity 🙂
I had started painting the stunning California Condor some time ago, and then, inspired to paint an eclipse, I found that the two would fit together perfectly.
Just like a total eclipse, the California Condor is a rarity, too, as one of the world’s most endangered birds, an enduring Native American symbol, brought back from near extinction by an expensive and dedicated conservation and breeding project. This magnificent bird is surviving, but by no means thriving.
I’m definitely going to work on another eclipse piece, but I’m waiting for the Muse to strike first! I have a few ideas…
But, in some cases, we can make fairly accurate estimations for situations that are extremely likely to occur, thanks to diligent research and hard science.
Betelgeuse, the red and brightest star in the constellation of Orion in the night sky, may be barely perceptible to the naked eye, but this cosmic orb is actually a super massive, unstable star reaching the end of its life, and ready to explode. It could be tomorrow, it could be a million years from now. But one day, it will happen, just as sure as our own Sun will die. Betelgeuse will grow, and grow, using up the very last stores of its energy, and will explode in a fantastically cataclysmic supernova. It will shine like a second Sun. We may as yet be lucky enough to witness such a spectacle, and we are, thankfully, some 430 light-years out of harm’s way.
But not every scientific prediction and eventuality can be so epic and so benign to us as the fate of Betelguese. The humble bumblebee, an annoying summer visitor to some, a problem-solving, dancing, geometry-wielding genius to others, has a fate that seems to be hanging in the balance, very much as the stability of the red star in the heavens. Yet the fate of the bumblebee is much closer to home.
Bumblebees have seen a dramatic drop in their population levels, with as much of a third of their US populations having decreased in recent years (http://www.globalresearch.ca/death-and-extinction-of-the-bees/5375684). Bees are not only vital pollinators, allowing countless species of plants and flowers to pollinate and reproduce, but they are also an important part of our own elaborate food chain. From honey in its raw form to soaps, lip balms, syrups and more, bees have been powerful contributors to our desire for sweet tastes, soft skin and juicy lips.
But at what price? Climate change, growing use of harmful pesticides and invasion of foreign species are speeding up the crisis bees face, but ultimately we may be their biggest threat. It’s difficult to predict how soon such a population could crash, whether it is a local crash, or restricted to vulnerable populations or even entire countries. A small, colony-dwelling animal such as a bee is no doubt hard to study, and hard to calculate in terms of accurate numbers and breeding success. With only handfuls of dedicated beekeepers to help with the maths, once again it seems science can only predict what may be around the corner.
I’m not suggesting we throw away that little jar of honey that we love to spoon into our cereal, or to soothe a sore throat after a rough winter, all I am suggesting is that we stop, step back and switch of the lights. Crane your neck up, as high as you can, and see if you can spot Orion among the tango-haze of light pollution. Next time you hear the soft bzzzzzz coming towards your eye, don’t flap your hands to shoo it away. Stay still, stay calm, and take a look.
How is one supposed to feel, knowing that we, on our pinprick of our blue planet, in our speck of dust under the cosmic carpet of our milky way, are hurtling through space and towards infinity, with absolutely no consolation except the knowledge that it’s actually happening.
I guess in a way, the art world is like an expanding universe. As soon as you get sucked in to it, it seems like there’s a never-ending, spinning web of ideas, styles, names, name-dropping, brush-bashing and social media platforms that making your impact in it seems infinitely impossible. The more time goes on, the more new -isms crawl out of the woodwork, and all of a sudden your left wondering where your place in the art universe is. The further away the galaxy from us, the faster it appears to be moving. Just as distant ideas and desires appear to be slipping away before we can ever hope to grasp them. As distance grows, speed increases.
But I think that, in the same way that there’s no true centre of the universe, only your perspective within it, there’s no universal law for art. There is nothing to stop us being the artist we want to be, or choosing any one of the multitude of paths we conceived for ourselves. The more we know about art and our universe, the more power we have within it, however slight. We have to admit though, that certain things are well beyond our control. By the non-randomness of particles slamming together at just the right distance from the sun, a lot of it is really down to luck.
And just as the universe, by some incomprehensible miracle, started from a single, infinitely small point (a singularity), art started in the same way. Long, long before we first painted in the caves, or scratched angular marks into a mammoth bone or reindeer antler, long before we even contemplated our sense of being, the spark was there. The one, fleeting, chance coming together of nothing, created everything.
It was nothing but non-random luck, that Stephen Hawking happened to be the surprising inspiration behind this blog post, and this painting of elephants against the milky way, though I am sure I didn’t do the expanding universe justice.
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