“Avian Conspiracy Theory by Krystal Anton, Kip Haaheim, Steve Huey, Kenn Peters,” Leedy-Voulkos Art Center

View of “Avian Conspiracy” with bird renderings by Steve Huey and bird house prototypes by Kenn Peters

For artists, the art of bearing witness is a tricky one. How does one mix a politically potent agenda with an aesthetic vision and make both equally compelling? The four collaborators of the “Avian Conspiracy Theory” — Krystal Anton, Kip Haaheim, Steve Huey and Kenn Peters – have made that happen. There is an urgency to “Avian Conspiracy Theory,” along with a timeless beauty, that makes this exhibition one of the standouts of the year.

Various interpretations of bird species, bird houses and a soundtrack of various birdcalls, comprise what at first appears to be simply a beautifully evocative showcase of all things birdlike. And “Avian Conspiracy Theory” is certainly that. But it is also much more. It functions as a sobering, moving memento mori as well as an admonition. In the end, this is a cautionary exhibit that also proffers a chance for change.

Anton and Huey are married and have known Haaheim and Peters for years. Despite full-time jobs, in 2018 the four came together and began combining individual, personal projects into one seamless installation. (Their first collaboration, a smaller version of the present exhibit, was organized in Wichita three years ago). The pandemic gave all four more time to further refine and expand their vision into what we see at Leedy-Voulkos.

Installation of acetate birds by Krystal Anton

Steve Huey, who is the Principal at Wallace Design, has degrees in architectural engineering and environmental design, and is also a member of Hand Print Press. He regularly sponsors art shows at his firm at 17th and McGee. When Kenn Peters, a custom home builder and trim carpenter from Lawrence was scheduled three years ago to show his architectural sculptures of imaginary birdhouses, Huey asked if he could simultaneously install his own series of print/collages of a dead mockingbird, inspired by Krystal Anton’s ongoing studies of bird strikes (when a bird flies into a window and dies) at Johnson County Community College. At which point Anton decided she wanted to be part of the exhibit also. Dr. Kipp Haaheim, professor of music composition at the University of Kansas, then volunteered to produce a soundtrack to make the installation “a full immersion environment.”

Anton’s formal title is Zero Waste Coordinator in the Center for Sustainability at Johnson County Community College. She has reduced landfill waste from JCCC by 65%, but on her own initiative she began a formal study of bird strikes at the college in 2018.

During her research, Anton discovered that since the formation of JCCC 50 years ago, the bird population had declined by 70% on the campus, and that included more than 90 different species. In a recent interview, she pointed out that “A billion birds die from bird strikes every year in North America alone, and windows are the worst.” She began collecting all the dead birds at the JCCC campus, and ultimately convinced the groundskeepers to give her all they could find. “They are super helpful,” Anton says. (They’re not the only ones. During our interview, the president of JCCC emailed to let her know about a dead bird outside his office).

Bird rendering by Steve Huey

Each of the thousands of birds Anton collects is photographed, weighed, frozen, and ultimately sent to the University of Kansas Center for Biodiversity where they are studied. Bird strikes can be reduced substantially by using specially treated glass, and Anton promotes this alternative to architects and builders everywhere. (See the list at the end of this article for organizations that help birds.)

For this exhibit, Anton took 3000 of her bird photographs and printed them on recycled acetate. She then cut each one out, a truly labor-intensive enterprise. (“Even my dogwalker helped me cut some,” she says). Other images were printed on cotton and stuffed with various kinds of recycled materials. The acetate birds are strung from the ceiling and activated by lights and wind; the stuffed birds lie on the floor in front of panels of glass, an obvious reference to bird strikes and building windows.

Kenn Peters’ 35 exquisitely designed, highly varied “birdhouse prototypes” are crafted from “found and reclaimed objects,” as he notes in his artist statement. Besides working as a master carpenter for 47 years, Peters also has degrees in philosophy and comparative religious studies. In an interview he stated that his houses really function more as totems. Close inspection reveals that none of the birdhouses has a functional entry and is deliberately deceptive. Peters is concerned about the “oft-ignored consequences — environmental, social and philosophical — of building,” and he writes that his work here gestures “at the slick renderings of accomplished architecture firms.”

Bird rendering by Steve Huey

As with all good vanitas renderings, the “Avian Conspiracy Theory” harbors an underlying morality theme which, as Huey writes in his artist statement, is that of betrayal. A subtext for Huey’s artworks of a dead mockingbird relates to his knowledge of a pedophile priest he knew growing up. Some of the halos around Huey’s bird renderings are constructed from cut up newspaper reports from when this priest’s trial took place and made headlines. The burn marks on his artworks were made with gunpowder, a reference to the sacred heart, and the hymn “O Sacred Heart” the priest made all the altar boys sing.

The “O Sacred Heart” music is subtly recorded in Haaheim’s score to the exhibit, along with bird calls from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, refined to represent birds native to Kansas, and manufactured thumps and crash representing bird strikes. In all, Haaheim developed seven layers of sounds randomly selected by computer algorithms, resulting in “an organic audio environment that is always changing and unpredictable.”

A statue of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and the environment is placed on the floor of the exhibition. During his life in the 13th century, Francis was said to have preached to the birds, and taught that nature was the mirror of God. The four artists of the “Avian Conspiracy Theory” remind us of this, singly and together.

“Avian Conspiracy Theory by Krystal Anton, Kip Haaheim, Steve Huey, Kenn Peters” continues at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., through Nov. 27. Hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday Saturday. For more information 816. 474. 1919 or www.leedy-voulkos.com.

Bird rendering by Steve Huey

Compiled by Krystal Anton

American Bird Conservancy
How to prevent bird collisions on windows

Bird collision study in Kansas City
Volunteer or report dead birds

Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City
Conservation, bird watching

Lights out for birds, bugs, and people

Missouri River Bird Observatory

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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