A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

Feathered Friends….Recollections on Teaching at Wave Hill

Mixed-media artist Wennie Huang, PSA, a frequent teacher at Wave Hill art workshops, produces works that range from small drawings and limited-edition books and projects, to site-specific installations, including a permanent mural installation inspired by a tree in Inwood in upper Manhattan. She has created site-specific installations in both Glyndor and Wave Hill Houses and curated the exhibition Ornamental Instincts in 2008. Since then, she has led Wave Hill art workshops in pastel, watercolor and mixed media, and a book-making workshop for children. Huang currently teaches at Parsons School for Design, 92nd Street Y, and the Pastel Society of America (PSA), where she is a Signature Member.

Plumage to Quill: Studies and Renderings of Birds in the Landscape

When I first began teaching at Wave Hill a decade ago, I was drawn most to its abundant views of nature, planted and pruned, perennial and piney, and nestled within it two grand houses, and within each of those, delicious selections of visual art in dialogue with its surrounding nature; creating altogether something like a Chinese nesting box. I was drawn to the elements that remained still enough to draw them, and what was less visible were the moving elements; the bugs that bit, yes, but most of all, I neglected to see the birds of Wave Hill.

Birds are most visible to young children, among them my son of 10 years ago. Back then, at age 5, before he morphed into the teenager he is now, he was drawn to their lack of stillness: to their jerky quirky movements, their peeps and songs, and most of all, to their ability to fly. Perhaps he sensed in them a kindred spirit. Indeed, he did inform me upon seeing his shadow in the night cast from a street lamp, that his spirit animal was a penguin, alas a flightless bird. My son’s favorite souvenir from those days was an orange t-shirt from The Shop at Wave Hill, with an artful silkscreen illustration of a robin. To him, at age 5, Wave Hill was the place with the birds.

Turns out, he was right. This spring, I brought birds to Wave Hill for the spring art workshop series, Plumage to Quill. They were still birds, stuffed for study, frozen in time, like the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, where I participate in the Animal Drawing Program headed by Patricia Wynne, a resident scientific illustrator and printmaker. It was Patricia who generously lent her private collection of birds. And it was at the museum that I finally came around to seeing the birds, and painting them in watercolor; which spawned the idea for having an art workshop combining life studies of birds with views of Wave Hill.pic_1

pic-2Our star specimen was Edgar, the English raven, pictured in my sketch here. Well over a hundred years old, Edgar sat in the front seat on my weekly commute to and from Wave Hill. His cohorts were an adolescent hawk, and a bufflehead mallard I nicknamed “Pthalo.”pic-3

Patricia also lent us a whole box nested within which were 13 frozen songbirds, including locals felled by a misplaced window: yellow-bellied sapsucker, ovenbird and flycatcher; as well as more exotic, domesticated pets of Patricia’s who I am sure lived a grand life before being preserved: a canary,  and cordon bleu, gouldian, zebra and owl finches. pic-4

We began the workshop in mid-April with an action-packed bird walk led by none other than naturalist Gabriel Willow, who enlightened us on the particulars of binocular use, birdsong and umwelt, literally a birds-eye view. This culminated in our visit to an exhibition of Gabriel’s artwork in the Tea Room in Wave Hill House, which closed earlier this month. It combined and merged his renderings of extinct birds within contemporary urban landscapes. Gabriel also taught a botanical illustration class on June 10.pic-5

Having never met Gabriel, I identified him immediately by the way he swept up the ovenbird by the legs—Patricia had informed me this was the best way to hold the specimens—because who else would have this response to a box of dead birds?

Over the four weeks of the workshop series, participants studied and sketched directly from the bird specimens. The next three sketches are by class participants Bernie F., Katherine D. and Naomi G.pic-6


After a study of structure and shape, we layered media, including ink, colored pencils, pastel pencils, watercolor and gouache, to distinguish particular colors and markings on the feathers, in particular those surrounding the head. Next are two of my own sketches of a canary, followed by volunteer Ellen H.’s of a hawk and Nancy V.’s of a flycatcher.pic-9

pic-10pic-11pic-12And some participants incorporated photographs as references, as well. Here, for instance, is Marianne M.’s composition of a heron based on a reproduction.pic-13

During the last two weeks of the workshop, we focused on composition to integrate the entire bird within Wave Hill’s landscape….sometimes grouping birds together…first on branches of trees we viewed out Armor Hall’s gothic windows, before integrating views of Wave Hill. In order, here is work from the third session: Elaine D.’s composition of Edgar with two songbirds,pic-14

Nancy T. adding landscape to her bird painting,pic-15

Judith D. adding branches to her watercolor,pic-16

Jean M. creating the landscape before she sketched her birds,pic-17

Lena B.’s mixed-media composition,pic-18

Jeannie M.’s colored-pencil drawing of a hawk perched in the pines outside Armor Hall,pic-19-resized

Elaine D.’s watercolor composition of Edgar with two songbirds,pic-20

Dorothy K.’s two songbirds,pic-21

Katherine D.’s hawk seen against the pines outside Armor Hall,pic-22-resized

Marianne M.’s composition of a heron based on a reproduction,pic-23

workshop volunteer Carole G.’s composition incorporating the Palisades as backdrop,pic-24

Bernie M.’s visionary watercolor using the pine outside Armor Hall as a unifying landscape element,pic-25

Nancy V.’s hawk perched among songbirds in the pines,pic-26

Kathy M.’s mixed-media watercolor and collage of two songbirds on the balustrade,pic-27

Jean M.’s complex collage of yellow-bellied sapsucker, finch, cordon blue finch, flycatcher and hawk,pic-28

and Katherine D.’s mixed-media collage incorporating her watercolor of a hawk and the a copper beech.pic-29-resized

Before the last workshop, we also took time to share our experiences in a group critique. We discussed how incorporating the bird into the landscape became a much more emotional experience than anticipated.pic-30

Participants recounted their personal bird stories and encounters, how they overcame their initial hesitation in handling the bird specimens, and how creating studies from the actual specimens transformed their experience of drawing birds, and, ultimately, themselves.

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