“Why Birds?” The Art of Zannah Noe

NOE_FRTSan Francisco Open Studios kicks off every year with a celebratory party previewing many of the works that will be shown over the month of October and into November, as over 800 artists open their studios.  One of the recent traditions has been to have many of those artists paint wine glasses as gifts of appreciation for the fellow artists, art collectors and patrons who attend the Private Preview party.  For a number of years, my wife and I sought out the glasses painted by Zannah Noe, adorned with her distinctive images of crows and ravens.  It was, therefore, a minor tragedy when, at a recent party, someone knocked over the glass we had carefully sought out, and shattered it.  I shared our misery with Zannah. She generously offered to replace it; and the result was a wonderful set of painted champagne glasses.  I share this story because I have admired her work for years, strangely drawn to her images of the birds – sometimes solitary, more often in groups.  And yet, I had never really asked her about them. 

When we recently met over coffee for the interview for this profile, we chit-chatted briefly – then Zannah asked: “How are we going to do this?”  I hesitated briefly and responded: “So, why birds?”  Zannah pointed out that the Corvidae family of birds, which includes ravens, crows, magpies and jays – among others, are the most intelligent of birds.  Many have self-awareness and tool-making abilities.  As a result, man has from time immemorial been fascinated with them. They appear in the myths and legends of most cultures.  They are iconic.

In most Western cultures, as we have looked to religion to provide absolute answers, the raven has morphed into a singular symbol of ill-will or misfortune.  However, in virtually all pre-conversion, shamanistic cultures the Raven has been a more complex symbol.  They are about the Zannah_Noe_Portraitquest for knowledge – knowledge which can be both a boon, but also perilous.  They stand at the gateway between this world and the after-world; they are healer, but not entirely trust-worthy; they are creator and trickster.  It is that duality that has drawn Zannah to them.  One or two in a painting, and they are waiting and watching.  They are about possibilities.  Put them all in a line, and they are gatekeepers waiting to take you to the other side. They are about transformation.  Repeating these images into the picture frame is a way for Zannah to tell a story, but not in a linear way.  Why birds?  It is because, for Zannah, the ravens and crows tie together many avenues of exploration.

In addition to her painting, Zannah also embraces yet another of the Raven’s traits: assemblage.   The raven’s nests can be works of art, brightly incorporating man-made objects in their construction.  “Her new interest in assemblage stems from utilizing her collection of objects and images from solely functioning as inspiration into becoming the art itself.”  The latest works are more overtly conceptual in nature, with the collection of objects contained in each box conveying a message with a wide range of potential interpretations.

fish_and_bird_It is interesting to look at the work of some of the artists that she lists as influences. There is the brilliant graphic novelist Bill Sienkiewicz. His seminal work, Stray Toasters, is a crime thriller with a protagonist, “Magik” who is either a wrong-accused, unfairly incarcerated hero, or possibly an untrustworthy narrator – you be the judge. She pulled out a powerful image of “Woman with Dead Child” by Kathe Kollwitz.   This German illustrator/printmaker spent a lifetime chronicling injustice in the world around her.  She studied under Carrie Mae Weems, at the University of Massachusetts. The works in series by this distinguished photographer exploreTransAmerica_Pyramid racism and gender issues and bravely challenge the establishment. And then she throws in Bansky, the infamous graffiti artist, whose work is both politically-charged, but also tongue in cheek.  Clearly Zannah is a little bit complicated.  With the Crow, she seems to have found a perfect avatar.  I know that for me, drinking champagne from flutes encircled by crows on glass branches will always be a little more thought-provoking from now on.

Zannah Noe maintains a studio at Hunters Point.  She is a landscape artist (Birds on a Wire & Cityscapes) and an Assemblage artist.  You can see her work at both Spring and Fall Open Studios; or at her studio by appointment.  She will be a featured artist this month on ArtSpan’s Tour des Artistes, a fundraiser for the Art for City Youth program, which I will be co-hosting.


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