Wes Anderson vs. Texas' Wild Birds

Woodcut artist Lisa Brawn explains "Quién Es Más Macho?"

To any old Joe Sixpack, famed indie-film characters such as Zero Moustafa or Richie Tenenbaum and exotic birds like an indigo bunting or a Carolina chickadee would seem to be far-out foes, having literally nothing in common. But to nature-inspired pop artist Lisa Brawn, a showdown between them was inevitable.

Zero Moustafa by Lisa Brawn

Step away from the crowd of sightseers swarming South Congress, dip into the ever-so-tranquil Yard Dog Gallery, and against crisp white walls you'll find Brawn's Lone Star melee pitting wild birds of Texas against figures from Wes Anderson's films. It’s hard not to be drawn to the spirited, eye-catching images. Bound by extravagant ornamentation, vibrant color, and unique persona, these unlikely pairings are bringing film buffs and naturalists together in the same arena.

Indigo Bunting by Lisa Brawn

The Chronicle caught up with Calgary-based Brawn to talk about the show as she was taking her pups out for an afternoon walk.

Austin Chronicle: Randy [Franklin, longtime owner and operator of Yard Dog,] mentioned you had been working together for about six years. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with that gallery? And why you think it is a good fit for your work?

Lisa Brawn: I did a show in Calgary, and someone mentioned how they thought it would be a good fit and that I should just go ahead and send my stuff to Yard Dog. I didn’t know anything about Yard Dog, but I trusted this guy. I emailed Randy the next day. He got back to me immediately and said, “This is a perfect fit!” So I thought, "How strange and wonderful!" I wasn’t expecting that, but I sent some pieces down. I’m a self-taught woodcut artist using all recycled, salvaged wood. I sent him some portrait genre work, musicians and cowboys. I don’t know, it was just a match made in heaven.

Steve Zissou by Lisa Brawn

And a year or two later I started getting preoccupied with wild birds, so I sent Randy some wild birds and, again, it was a beautiful intersection of my interests and my particular skills finding the perfect audience in Austin. He offered me a solo show, so I went down there and, sure enough, Austin is my town. Everything I love in the world is the whole Austin attitude. It turns out over the years [that] Yard Dog is my best gallery. I have infinite faith in Randy, and I think he’s got a really sweet gallery going there. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. I couldn’t be happier to have made that connection; I feel very lucky.

Just recently, Randy asked me if I wanted to have another solo show, and I had a couple ideas kicking around. For some reason, I’ve been really preoccupied by Wes Anderson – I mean, just like everyone. I love all of his characters, and for some reason, a bunch of his characters were reminding me of exotic wild birds. So I was like, what if I did a “Quién Es Más Macho?” showdown with Wes Anderson characters and the wild birds of Texas? And Randy was like, "YAH!" But I didn’t even know at the time that Wes Anderson graduated from UT-Austin. There you go, that’s a long answer.

AC: Yeah, you started talking about a lot of the other stuff I wanted to touch on! Tell me a little bit more about how you decided on the theme of pairing the Wes Andersons with the birds. Was it just a coincidence that you were fascinated by those two things at once, or is there something in the spirit of each of them that you found similar?

LB: I really tried to follow my instincts. Whenever I’m preoccupied or obsessed with a couple of things, I want to look at them together and see what they have in common. This is just a big experiment for me to see and explore what was going on with these two. It’s very exciting to me to look at birds of Texas – incredible, beautiful birds, just so unique and extraordinary. Since I’m doing portrait genre work, I get to do portraits of the birds just to see all of their color and their character. Then I was looking at their Latin names, thinking, "These sort of remind me of all these Wes Anderson characters." I don’t know, it just happened organically. It was just an exploration for me to find out what they all looked like together. I wanted to see it, so I thought, "If I want to see it, maybe someone else wants to see it." I sent them all down, and Randy set them all up, and they’re just seamless here all together.

Northern Cardinal by Lisa Brawn

AC: In what way do the woodcuts showcase these characters better than, say, paintings?

LB: Oh! The woodcut medium is so fantastic! For me, it’s so simultaneously destructive and creative, because of the black lines. I love the delineation, flattening space, and you can really see the shapes and colors. I don’t do prints from the woodcuts, [even though] it’s traditionally a printmaking technique. I made a few prints on mulberry paper at the beginning, and it just wasn’t where my heart was. It just seemed limiting to me. But the woodcut is everything I love: It’s so physical and tactile; you can get so much color in there. Sometimes it has this iridescence, and it’ll just catch your eye. Depending on the time of day, the shadows will throw differently across the surface of it so it changes over the course of the day, it’s just more alive.

When I’m working with salvaged wood, it doesn’t start out very pretty, so it’s a fantastic process for me to use something that could have ended up in a landfill. I was working with 100-year-old Douglas fir beams that were just horrible. I had to plane them down and pull out a bunch of rusty nails. I brought them back from this thing that was kind of unlovable into this most beautiful little jewel. I don’t know how to describe it; it’s sort of like turning it into a little jewel box. And the colors, especially in wild birds, are incredible. One day I just thought, "You know, I’m really preoccupied with birds. I wonder if it’s possible to describe this information in a woodcut? Is this even possible?" Sure enough, I tried it, and the subject, my medium, and my particular skills at the time all came together and worked out. And I was like, "Uh oh!!" [Laughs] "Now I’m in trouble!" Because now it’s given me endless inspiration, like the different ways of describing feathers and all of the little details that you can see in the birds – it just seems magical to me. Their little pinfeathers and the highlights in their eyes, I’m capturing that in a block of wood! This is amazing to me, so … [Sighs] I’m enamored with the whole process and the whole subject matter.

Madame D by Lisa Brawn

AC: The wood doesn’t look like it was in that bad of shape, that’s incredible.

LB: I know. It’s completely transformed, which is what I love to do. I love to take a lost cause and turn it into the most beautiful thing in the world. It is irresistible to me, and that’s not the easiest thing in the world. It’s a predisposition I have, but my life could be a lot easier if I just started from an easier place. There’s a lot of wood that’s easier to carve than old Douglas fir, which is very cured, very hard, and the grain is very stubborn. So it’s a compromise with the wood. A softer wood, you could do whatever you want, but with this particular wood it’s a real negotiation, which is interesting to me, too, because I’ve sort of met my match.

AC: Do you think that's reflected in the woodcuts, that they’re imperfect in a way?

LB: Oh yeah, I’ve been working for years at this, and I am completely heart-and-soul dedicated to this. My skills are as good as they can be, matching up with this material. The woodcuts are absolutely rustic and imperfect, but that adds so much character to me.

AC: Do you study photographs when you are doing the birds and the characters? For the birds, do you go out and actually try to find them? What is that process like?

LB: Well, I have a bird feeder where I get a lot of woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, and I try to photograph them. But mostly I rely on my photographer friends. Because they go out with their telephoto lenses and hide in the bushes [laughs], so that’s like a full-time job right there. I have personal friends and people I work with in the Flickr community that have tens of thousands of photographs, and I ask their permission to reference their close-up photos. And of course, the woodcut is three times removed from that because I’ll sketch, carve, and then paint, but they can still see the starting point of their photograph.

Plain Chachalaca by Lisa Brawn

AC: Pop art isn’t usually focused on nature or themed in that way. Do you think these two parts of your interests coming together is something that could catch on and become a larger theme?

LB: That’s an interesting question. I don’t really know. I am very interested in pop art, and you can see that in my colors. I also have another series that is much more pop. I do pop portraits in plywood. But yeah, wild birds aren’t the most obvious subjects for pop work, so it’s an intersection of pop and folk, I think. Especially because the particular wood that I’m using. I just stay open-minded and whatever’s vibrating for me, I guess I just have to explore that. That’s a weird way to describe it, but it’s as accurate as I can think of.

Sadly, Wes Anderson is probably too preoccupied filming his new stop-motion film to visit the gallery, but Lisa hopes he gets the chance to see her work soon. As far as the showdown goes, “The jury is still out, but in my opinion it's down to Madame D. versus Plain Chachalaca,” Lisa says.

"Quién Es Más Macho?" is on view through July 30 at Yard Dog Gallery, 1510 S. Congress. For more information, call 512/912-1613 or visit www.yarddog.com.

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Yard Dog Gallery, Lisa Brawn, Wes Anderson, Randy Franklin

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