It started with a magpie. Artist Diana Beltran Herrera was in a studio building in Helsinki, Finland, when she noticed a magpie flying by and felt drawn to it.
“I particularly loved it because he looked like he was wearing a smart suit,” the Colombian artist shared in an email interview.
She began noticing other birds, like swans in the city. Soon, a love affair with how nature coexists alongside modern city elements in a place like Helsinki began for Herrera.
“I was amazed by how nature happened in that city, how respectful and aware people were of it. Everything was looked after properly in a good way.”
Herrera decided to put her observation for the birds in the city quite literally, on paper. Or rather, with paper.
“I love paper as the main because it has such a vast range of colours, weights, sizes and textures,” she explained.
In Herrera’s skillful hands, paper is cut, folded, meshed and put together with other materials like glue, then painstaking painted to become incredibly lifelike bird models.
Herrera’s work can be seen in commissioned projects like “The Little Things Are Everything” for Olivari Oil in 2012 which feature colourful models of birds from less populated states in the United States like the Western Meadowlark and Nene Goose.
In 2015, Herrera produced a solo show in Jakarta, Indonesia, featuring model bird species from Southeast Asia like the black naped oriole and purple throated sunbird.
Herrera’s life-like models are not only perched on delicate tree-tops, as she would sometimes display them as animals in motion such as the Kailedo Eden installation for Marina Rinaldi in 2014 featuring two magnificent red ibis with wings raised.
“My work is a bit funny because it’s an idea of the real thing but it’s never the real thing itself. It’s about trying to represent something and leaving it as its first stage.”
Herrera’s work would begin with making a detailed sketch from researching bird species in photographs, illustrations and nature books. She would pick out main elements from the bird and look into details like the feet, eyes, beak and wings.
“I then draw some parts of the bird in my computer to get an idea of its size and its parts. This helps me to get the right number of feathers, the right amount of details. But the most important thing to me is to decide on the best position because that dictates all the work that will come ahead,” she said.
Before she starts working on a model, Herrera said she likes a tidy and clean space. It’s easy for her to get lost in time to just focus on her work. She especially loves challenging projects.
“My work nowadays is about people asking me ‘Can you do this?’ and I say ‘Yes!’ to it all because I like the challenge of being able to solve anything with paper.”
Herrera is the kind of artist that strives to make her clients' vision possible, no matter how impossible it may be at the beginning.
“This is me trying to make them all happy and pushing all my creativity to come up with ideas and solutions that work for them.”
When Herrera is lost in her work, she sometimes forgets to eat. Then home is where she will be reminded to “go back to reality”. She said having young children meant she needs to take a break from work and focus on her family.
“I work a lot at night when my kids go to bed. It’s not a job you can get away from because everything around me inspires me so I am constantly doing it, thinking about it.”
Caption: In her skillful hands, paper is cut, folded, meshed and put together with other materials like glue then painstaking painted to become incredibly life-like bird models. Photo: Diana Beltran Herrera
‘I wish you bluebirds in the spring…’
Looking at Herrera’s bird models and the way she displays them against gorgeous paper flowers and other elements in nature, it’s not surprising if some observers feel a birdsong coming. Of course, Herrera knows her birdsongs and what they mean to some species.
“My husband who is a gardener knows a bit more than me, so he tells me this is a robin or a black bird. We can track where the bird is by listening to the sound,” she noted.
She explained that there’s more to a bird song that just the chirps most would notice.
“They are the sounds of language that manifest in many ways and have lots of meaning. Since I live in England, I became aware when the birds start singing around April, which is the time they start mating. Then in the early morning as they wake up and at sunset, when they reunite to go to sleep. I feel bird sounds are underrated because we perceive them as songs but they are not, they are a very beautiful language.”
When it comes to the sound of music, Herrera said she loves female voices.
“I like soft voices, and also I like to listen to lyrics that have messages I relate with. To me music is about stories. Sounds and melodies are important but what I connect with is the story they are telling me. I love to hear what they have to say.”
Herrera admits that she doesn’t listen to music often when she is working on her art.
“I enjoy being quiet. I have too much to think and do, that I never really get the time to sit and think what should I listen to today.”
When she does, Herrera said she could listen to the voice of American singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd “a lot”. Todd is known for soothing gentle folk numbers like Paraty and the stunning love song Under The Sun.
Other artistes on her current playlist include Cat Power with Stay, Jungle’s Drop and Rodriguez’s I Think Of You.
Building A Universe Out Of Paper
Herrera’s models are more than just pretty paper birds. Her work may inspire a tinge of regret on observers, as some of the bird species she recreates are no longer often seen in their natural habitat. The artist said it feels good to remind people about the importance of some animals, like birds to the ecosystem.
“Nowadays we have a lot of subjects that are so concerning and that need discussing. So art is a great tool. The fact is, we as humans are creative and inventive. It's really important because we should also draw all of our energy to conservation, progress, protection. To good causes. Also this is probably the only way we will remember.”
According to Herrera, she believes that the fragility of paper has its way of telling observers about how to preserve nature.
“Paper plays a very important role in my sculptures because it’s a fragile material, but at the same time when it’s glued together it becomes strong. I like to make things out of paper because it makes them look fragile. People then somehow appreciate more a bird made out of paper than a real one. I like for people to see the real world in the same fragility as we see man-made things,” she stated.
Herrera described her work as “an invitation to learn”, to be aware of how nature is very much an essential part of the human life. Yet, people seem to forget about the living and breathing aspect of nature until they see a flower or bird made out of paper.
“I like that more people feel like asking for a paper bird than having a real bird. That more paper flowers are being made so that real ones can feed the insects, that my work can replace a small quantity of things and that we are not harming them. I see it as a safe way to replace something.”
Herrera is currently learning to develop new ways to create flowers, plants, leaves and animals. She said expect to see fish and some other mammals in her work.
“I am slowly building a paper universe I would say.”
Cover Image: dianabeltranherrera.com
Writer l JEM
I like Pina Colada and getting caught in the rain. Not into yoga. Wait, how does that song go again?