UK based artist Vanessa Foley is dedicated to her craft and subject matter, the bird — her art does not veer from its purpose of exploring and accurately depicting all manner of avifauna. Foley has discovered what many spend a lifetime searching for — she has found her calling, that one thing to commit to and work at until it is second nature. History is deep with artisans like Foley, those who took to a single task and devoted a life to it. The baker and the cobbler. The blacksmith and carpenter. The monk. The priest.
Foley’s work begs the question, how do you respect the natural world, honor it without destroying it or removing it from its environment? Foley’s solution goes beyond ornithology or any branch of science and adheres to a perspective of faithful objectivity. She obeys the weight and size, texture and movement of her subjects. When committing a bird of prey to canvas there is no exaggeration of the claw, the beak, the inherent danger of the creature. Foley brings out the truth, whatever it may be.
At the start of 2017, she was announced as the latest member of The Vacvvm, an illustration group headed by artist Aaron Horkey and creative director Mitch Putnam. The group brings together a selected clan of artists from across the globe, offering an outlet to release personal work and flights of fancy with an elite support system headed by Horkey and Putnam. Foley’s first foray into the world of The Vacvvm was with the exhibit ‘The Silent Aviary’ held at the collective’s Minneapolis headquarters. For the event, Foley created a series of portraits of native Minnesotan raptors alongside deadly flora. The series, ‘Minnesota Killing Season,’ was an ambitious and stellar entry into the group.
Foley’s work acts as a vital connection to the inner chamber of the natural world, those secret canopies where the falcon and eagle, owl and sparrow rest. With each piece, Foley offers the audience catharsis from the continual throb of the modern world.
“There’s a great Rumi quote, ‘what you seek is seeking you,’ that’s very much how I feel about my work with birds, this path was always waiting for me and I have absolutely no regrets from taking it.”
— Vanessa Foley
CJ: There’s a high level of research going on in your work – your series ‘Minnesota Killing Season’ for the ‘Silent Aviary’ show feature native Minnesotan birds alongside poisonous foliage. That’s a very specific combination. How much time is spent in research? Is the research part of the fun?
VF: Research is very definitely a big part of the fun and it’s something that I spend a large portion of my time on and get a bit obsessive about. I have a huge file on my computer titled ‘Bird Inspiration’ that I’m constantly adding to, and if I’m ever at a loss as to what to work on, that gives me the needed impetus to get started.
The problem very often is narrowing my choices down so shows like the ‘The Silent Aviary’ with The Vacvvm, of which my ‘Minnesota Killing Season’ was part of, really help to focus my attention, as the whole show was devoted to native Minnesotan birds.
Was joining the Vacvvm an easy choice? Is a being part of group important?
I’ve long been a fan of all of the artists in The Vacvvm, the art they produce, the level of skill they have and their professionalism, so joining them was one of the easiest choices I’ve made since becoming a full-time artist. I’m the type of person that overthinks every decision, explores all eventualities and frets endlessly about the choice I ultimately make. But when Mitch asked me to join the collective I immediately said ‘yes’ before he could change his mind!
As I live in the UK but show the vast majority of my work in American galleries, I find being an artist is a rather solitary pursuit so It really feels amazing to have such genuinely good people that I admire so much as my community, that’s a huge benefit and the first that comes to mind about being part of The Vacvvm.
Was the ‘Silent Aviary’ show your idea, or was that from (Vacvvm creative director) Mitch Putnam?
The show was Mitch’s idea, they had recently moved The Vacvvm headquarters into a beautiful new studio and gallery in Minneapolis and so the opening show was an excellent way to showcase the new space.
The theme for the show was native Minnesotan birds, again Mitch’s idea, but after that, each artist had free reign as to how that was interpreted. For my submission, I focused on the darker side of nature, all raptors native to the area surrounded by deadly flora. I had the privilege of being able to attend the event and It was so great to see the show with all these beautiful birds portrayed in each artist’s signature style, it was such a special experience and one I know I’ll treasure for years to come.
You’ve mentioned that the majority of the galleries you work with and commissions come from the States – is there not a strong support in the UK for the work you do?
It’s just sort of been the way things worked out that most of my work comes from America, I have shown a couple of times here in the UK but that was when I was just starting out and it’s something I would look to again in the future, it would definitely cut down on the days spend stressing over my work making that transatlantic journey!
The chance to show in all these galleries that I had only ever read about in Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose was such an incredibly exciting prospect and one that even today I still can’t believe I actually do!
Taking such care for realism, is there room for, or an interest in, heightening elements of your subjects? Is accuracy the priority with each piece?
I definitely wish that I was brave enough to push things a bit more with my birds, the most experimental I ever get is maybe extending a wing slightly to give more drama or if I’m feeling really daring I might give my bird a slight quizzical tilt to its head.
It’s something that I really do want to explore more fully in the future, not in a way to make my birds surreal looking, accuracy and doing justice to my subject will always be a priority, but as a way to pack more personality into my birds. I still feel really new as a bird artist and I know with time as my confidence grows this will naturally happen.
You’ve visited Rising Sun Farm and had the chance to spend time with real birds of prey. Are encounters like that vital to your work? Are you able to notice details in person that a photograph can’t capture?
Yeah, I absolutely find close interactions with birds, especially my beloved birds of prey, to be of great help in portraying them and I try to do this as much as possible. But even on an everyday level, I’m constantly trying to befriend birds I encounter (whether they like it or not!), I’m that strange person that always carries a pack of bird seed in their pocket and will unashamedly crouch down to feed and chat with them anywhere and everywhere.
I definitely notice details that don’t always come across in photos or videos of birds, even the weight of a bird on my arm helps my understanding of how I should portray it. But also on a deeper level, I like to be able to make eye contact with the bird and to really experience a connection to such an unknowable creature, this is something I strive to express constantly in my work.
“I like to be able to make eye contact with the bird and to really experience a connection to such an unknowable creature, this is something I strive to express constantly in my work.”
You have a very focused body of work – it’s fine art by nature and you’ve found an audience through prints and well-priced originals. Did you ever do commercial work? Editorial?
I haven’t done editorial work, but a few years ago I was lucky enough to be contacted by K2 to work with their graphics manager on a pair of their Missconduct skis. One of my ‘Eagle Owl’ drawings was used to great effect and I was really excited to see it ridden by Yuki Tsubota in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
It was definitely a thrilling experience to be part of, and I would be open to something similar in the future, but truly my heart is firmly rooted in the more traditional parts of my work and I’m fortunate enough at the moment to have incredibly supportive collectors that allow me to do this.
I assumed editorial might have been your previous gig. Where did you work before being an artist became a full-time job?
I wish I had had such an exciting career before becoming an artist! The reality was, after leaving school higher education just wasn’t an available option for me, so I drifted around a series of jobs that didn’t require formal qualifications. I’ve done everything from working in a cinema (pretty much my second favourite job after being an artist, I’m a huge film fan!) to shop work to being a receptionist, all very pleasant jobs and ones that afforded me a lot of free time to indulge in my hobby of art.
No matter what job I had I always thought of myself as an artist so when I got to a certain age I just realised I had to stop messing around and try to make this view I had of myself a reality.
Your series of ‘Gilded’ bumblebee paintings are beautiful. There’s an honest fragility to them – they are not focused on the stinging nature or annoyance of the bug (which are both ‘human’ issues really) but you put the insect on display as they are. Even the paper shows a gentleness. The concept of life as fragile, gentle, flows through your work. As a whole, your body of work explores how even the most delicate of creatures can also have strength, weakness, cunning, and intelligence. Are you approaching your work with these concepts in mind?
I do try hard to get across much more than just an image of a bird or a bee. And thank you so much for your lovely reading of my work, that fragility and honesty are exactly what I want to express to people.
I feel very deeply that all creatures are equally deserving of respect and protection, we all have the same basic needs to live in peace and to feel safe, and for many humans we have the power to make these things possible, whereas for much of the animal kingdom we are the very ones that put these same needs in danger. So through my work, in my small way, I’m trying to get people to look again at the precious creatures we are surrounded by and to encourage all in our very busy world to take a little time to see clearly how privileged we are to share our planet with them.
“I feel very deeply that all creatures are equally deserving of respect and protection, we all have the same basic needs to live in peace and to feel safe.”
The only figure to appear in your art is yourself. For The Vacvvm you painted a self-portrait featuring a raven at your shoulder, slightly obscuring your face. It’s a beautiful drawing that puts your rarely seen skills as a figurative artist on display. Is it reluctance or a lack of interest in people as subject matter?
Thank you for being so kind about that piece and I assure you, you wouldn’t have used the words ‘skills as a figurative artist’ if you have seen the first few versions of it. They were so hideous at one point I got scared to look in the mirror again in case what I had drawn was the actual reality! I really battled to get that piece right and if it hadn’t been that it was for The Vacvvm I would have abandoned the project early on.
I’m very much of the feeling that, for the limited time we all have on this earth, I want to do one thing and do it to the very best of my ability. So early on as an artist, I decided to focus almost exclusively on birds. It was an easy choice as, alongside art, they have been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember and, as I mentioned earlier, I still feel brand new at this, there are so many ideas I want to explore in my art all revolving around birds that I think that the problem will be lack time to fit it all in in my life.
“I’m very much of the feeling that, for the limited time we all have on this earth, I want to do one thing and do it to the very best of my ability. So early on as an artist, I decided to focus almost exclusively on birds.”
You move equally between color pencil, paint, and pencil. Do certain subjects demand, or require, a specific method?
That’s sometimes the case, I do try hard to figure out the very best medium for each bird, obviously, for very colourful birds it would almost be a crime to portray them in black and white so I turn to either paint or colour pencil in those cases. But sometimes if a bird is very highly patterned the monochrome effect of graphite can give stunning results.
I tend to veer wildly with my work, spending months trying to nail a technique in either pencil or oil, and then it’s with relief I change over again. When I do this I feel a freshness and vitality in my work that I enjoy and I’m always surprised at the things I’ve so recently learned in a completely different medium can be transferred across and help me problem solve in the new medium.
In discovering your interest in birds and then honing that craft, you’ve accomplished something that very few ever will – finding that one thing to focus on and finding success at. Were there other or paths you were traveling before dedicating yourself to painting birds? Did anything get sacrificed to give your attention to birds?
So much has to be sacrificed at the altar of obsession! It’s funny to consider this question now as I’m in the process of moving my studio and I recently came across a file I had kept from when I was first starting to seriously set out as an artist. It was packed with pictures I had found inspirational at the time and had saved as possible painting ideas. There were so many wildly disconnected images — still lives, landscapes, portraits, wildlife, and it was very strange to see how hard I had been searching at that time to find my spark and I felt such a sadness for that person I had been and how lost I was in those early years.
So I had definitely tried lots of different subjects before I devoted myself to birds, but those pieces never got inside of me and itched at me constantly to do more in the same way. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say I don’t feel like I had a choice in the matter, there’s a great Rumi quote, ‘what you seek is seeking you,’ that’s very much how I feel about my work with birds, this path was always waiting for me and I have absolutely no regrets from taking it.
You keep your canvas very spartan. Outside of the central bird, there is little else and very few elements in your work are not of the natural world – the only reoccurring item is arrows, sometimes a single arrow, sometimes two. What inspired you to introduce such a violent thing into your work?
There have been different reasons that I’ve added arrows to my compositions, I’ve used them as part of the narrative or occasionally at the request of a client, but the use of them that resonated with me the most deeply was in my painting ‘Two Arrows.’ This piece was in reference to the Buddhist teaching that physical pain is inevitable but mental pain is optional, and as an obsessive over thinker, I’m all too familiar with mental pain.
In my research into this teaching I came across a vivid illustration of a man on a battlefield who had been pierced by an arrow, he would never pick up a second arrow and stab himself with it, but yet that’s exactly what we worriers put ourselves through when things go wrong, or even when things go well. I’ll always find the tiniest thing to magnify and stress over, so ‘Two Arrows’ was a great reminder.
You wrote about your piece ‘Golden Wings,’ calling it the most personal piece you’ve ever created. It’s interesting to consider what artists and audiences connect with – some want a recognizable landscape, a familiar face, or complete abstraction. What makes a painting personal to you? How do you instill yourself into your birds?
It’s often through my research, which encompasses not only images but also their history, traditions surrounding the bird and fables or myths connected to it, that I do into a bird that I’ll find something that strikes a chord with me.
I find that I can then explore and express, sometimes very distressing feelings or situations, from a safe place while at the same time creating a piece of art. It’s very cathartic to be able to spend so much time on a personal piece like this, to be able to really examine and lay bare my emotions, and hopefully to find some healing in the process.
It’s interesting that you call yourself an ‘other thinker’ and a ‘worrier,’ two traits that seem to go hand in hand. It seems like those traits, which you might find negative, benefit you in your work. I tend to lean towards those same traits, but I instead focus on the art of folks like you, research and writing, as a way to clear my head of life’s common worries. Is there a thought, or a consideration that if you lost that ‘over thinking’ your art would change?
You know I’ve never thought about it that way before, I’ve definitely always thought of those traits in a negative light, but I really think you’re on to something there! I know that my work tends towards the obsessively detailed and that’s probably just an extension of the person I am.
Just as you focus on others as a way to clear your mind, I think I very probably do the exact same thing with my birds. I can really lose entire days to perfecting the feather pattern on a wing or a reflection in the eye of a bird. I try to always keep a beginner’s mind with my work, just because I’ve portrayed a certain bird even several times before, I don’t rely on those past experiences to create the piece. So working in this way there is no autopilot and my entire mind is consumed with my work and well and truly away from my day to day worries.