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Cornell Artist’s “Lost Bird Project” Comes to the Screen

By Hugh Powell

An art project memorializing five extinct species has been made into a feature-length film that will be shown in New York City on Friday, Dec. 2, 2011. The Lost Bird Project consists of five sleek bronze sculptures, each as tall as a person. Conceived and created by Todd McGrain, a sculptor and Cornell University art professor, they stand as memorials to loss as well as reminders of our ability to change the world.

The five pieces—a Great Auk, Passenger Pigeon, Labrador Duck, Carolina Parakeet, and Heath Hen—stood in the Cornell Lab’s Morgens Observatory for part of 2009 before McGrain embarked on a quest to place each sculpture near the spot where the species was last seen in the wild. That quest is the subject of the new film (see the trailer, above), which casts the loss of extinction against the artist’s determination to see his vision through—a neat and ultimately hopeful parallel to the resolve that’s required of conservationists.

I was there when the sculptures were installed at the Cornell Lab—I even helped move one or two of the 500-pound pieces into their final position. Walking up to them, you can look right into their eyes; their smooth curves invite you to make contact with them, to touch extinction; their flat black finish reminds us that the details of these birds are gone forever, and this revives the thought that with enough effort, we can make sure the birds we have left in the world keep their brightness and motion. It’s this thought, and the sculptures’ mute but somehow reassuring presence, that manages to give the project an air of hope.

If you’re in New York City this Friday evening, Dec. 2, the free screening will be held at the SVA Theater at 333 West 23rd St. A reception begins at 7:00 and the film starts at 7:30. Click here to register for a ticket.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library