Seen any extinct New Zealand birds at the shopping mall recently? Or maybe you spotted one while passing through Wellington Airport…
Urban Art Foundation’s latest exhibition features 12 paintings of extinct New Zealand birds, shown digitally on numerous advertising signs in main centre shopping malls and at Wellington Airport. The paintings are by Masterton-based artist, Paul Martinson and are a selection from 58 works originally commissioned by Te Papa to illustrate the book ‘Extinct Birds of New Zealand’ (author: Alan Tennyson, published by Te Papa Press in 2006).
So how do you paint a bird that no living person may ever have seen? Paul Martinson explains.
“Each time I come to illustrate a species and ‘bring it back to life’, I start with a different amount of information. For the Laughing Owl and Bush Wren there are photographs. For other species there might be historical information, such as descriptions of plumage, and in the past, museums such as Te Papa and Auckland Museum collected skins in order to look at differences within a species.”
“Each individual bird is different and I look at collections of skins to get a collective idea of what a species looked like. But sometimes the skins are rolled up in a tubular way so that features like the secondary coverts [secondary flight feathers] are hidden. They can also be brittle from age.”
“Creating a historical illustration can be quite a painful process of putting everything together like a jigsaw puzzle. I found that most historic illustrations of New Zealand’s extinct birds weren’t very helpful. They portrayed the birds with too much anthropomorphism – they humanised them.”
Paul approached the illustration process in a more objective, ‘sciencey’ way when completing the paintings for Te Papa. But many of his other works – while also featuring New Zealand wildlife – are strikingly different.
“I’m an oddity in the art world, with one foot in science and one foot in art,” he explains. “I straddle both worlds with my contemporary art incorporating surrealism and symbolism – but the overall theme has always been the same… it’s all about animals. I see people as animals too. We’re no different to any other species in the way we belong to the natural world and share so much biologically with other creatures.”
Paul sees the electronic billboard displays as a good way for his art to communicate with people.
“Everybody is so busy. There’s so much information to take in, in the modern world. But if you put something in front of people for a moment – a positive idea – then perhaps they’ll learn a little, understand a little more about our country and want to look after it.”
How many New Zealanders, for example, know that there were several, very different species of moa?
“Richard Holdaway and Trevor Worthy’s book ‘The Lost World of the Moa’ was a seminal work, full of data that showed how fascinating moa were, how diverse as a group of birds,” Paul says. “There were 9 species, each adapted to a particular niche so that they could co-exist without competing. There could be 2-3 species in the same area co-existing. There was diversity of body shapes, sizes… but all were most likely descended from a single species that branched out.”
Paul’s painting of a North Island Giant Moa features in the current Urban Art digital exhibition, but he has researched and painted the other moa species too. Those paintings were shown in his exhibition MOA at Sanderson Contemporary Art in September this year.
“It was a chance for Kiwis to see what these iconic birds may have been like,” Paul says. “There are very few images around of them, and we are learning more all the time about how the birds may have appeared. These 9 paintings are a snapshot of the different moa species with the knowledge we have right now.”
“The Upland Moa was the ‘mountain goat’ of moa and lived in the Southern Alps. The Heavy-Footed Moa was short and stocky. One scientist has described it as ‘A 44 gallon drum with gumboots for legs!’ And the South Island Giant Moa was huge!”
“The distinctive diagnostic feature for moa is their beak,” he explains. “Each beak is shaped for a specific purpose.”
“New Zealand must’ve been mind-blowing when the first people saw it. There’s an almost complete skeleton of the Stout-Legged Moa, sometimes called the Coastal Moa, which was found in the dunes in Wairarapa. I talked to a DOC ranger who explained what the dunes would’ve looked like back then. They were completely different. We introduced marram grass to stabilise the dunes and protect housing but native pīngao, which was then displaced, never collected sand as effectively. The dunes would once have been flatter, extending further inland, among areas of swamp and open scrubland. It’s mind-blowing what it would’ve been like. New Zealand is just a shadowland now.”
“Painting moa is really problematical. But because of ancient DNA techniques, geneticists are finding moa DNA and linking species and skeletons. They can put together a few feathers and, from the DNA, work out which moa it came from. The Little Bush Moa is one the only moa and one of the few extinct birds in the world where the whole genome is known,” Paul says.
“Sometimes there’s a hint of colour in the feathers of some moa and I’ve incorporated that in recent paintings. The Heavy-Footed Moa from the South Island had some feathers with beautiful white tips – a bit like the Great Spotted Kiwi’s feathers, but more so. No-one is sure where on its body the white-tipped feathers were, but the Heavy-Footed Moa was part speckled.”
“The Giant Moa had brown, streaky plumage. The feathers are grey-brown. Tropical birds are highly coloured and plumage is important in their displays, but our birds are more subdued: browns, ochres and rufus colours. No-one knows why. Perhaps it’s because they lived in dense bush. Our birds have distinctive calls. They communicate by sound, not visually.”
Having researched, studied and painted our extinct species in such close detail, it is perhaps no wonder that Paul is saddened by how many have been lost.
“New Zealand is the bird extinction capital of the world,” he says. “We account for a quarter of all the modern anthropogenic [human-caused] bird extinctions for the world – about 240 species – and most of what is left has a threatened status.”
“The Predator Free New Zealand ambition is so important because if we don’t help preserve what’s left where are we living? We’re just living on a rock! The Predator Free movement is so positive. It’s saying, ‘Let’s not let that happen’ – and its working!”
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