A Blue Jay flew in circles above the birdbath we had in our backyard the day my mother left. She left one cage only to walk into another. She wrapped her hands around the bars the second she realized what she had done. I was there when she asked for the keys. I told her they were in her pocket the entire time. She couldn’t hear me.
The bird eventually flew away. I watched as the sun glinted off its wings, illuminating its body and giving it a sense of wonder. The blue of its wings shined, its feathers effervescent and beautiful. The Blue Jay so aptly named, the color being all I could truly see. I stared at the bird with awe, watching as it left in peace. The color stayed with me long after it flew away, though, almost hauntingly. The color was no mirror of the sky, nor was it pictured online. It was impossible to find, but the search for blue led me, again, to her.
The thing about blue birds is that they are not really blue. “Magic,” my sister said jokingly when I first told her.
“No,” I answered completely serious, “it’s a trick of the light.”
Light has many definitions, as every word does. Brightness and energy and spiritual illumination. It gives visibility, it is of little weight, it is beautiful, it means to ignite. The bonfire we had weeks before she left is now glaringly red in my mind. It’s another color I can’t seem to find. The bonfire we used old school papers and three matches to ignite. I wonder if she remembers. I know my sister doesn’t.
We were sitting around the fire pit roasting marshmallows, talking about nothing of importance. My mother got a phone call and went back into the house. I looked at my sister and smiled while I pretended not to know who she was talking to. I often wished I was capable of lying to myself. It would be easier if I knew nothing, easier if I could fool myself into believing nothing was wrong. But the truth was in the way she answered the call, in the way she walked away, in the way she whispered to keep her secrets safe.
I looked away from my sister and stared into the fire. The marshmallow on the end of my stick went up in flames. I watched the fire take over, a part of me knowing that it would soon spread beyond this pit. I glanced one more time at my sister, hoping the flames wouldn’t burn her, then abandoned my place by the fire.
Up until that night, I always enjoyed the times we spent in the backyard. We watched movies on a projector outside—the light aimed at the smooth wall of our shed. We had pool parties with family and friends almost every year for my birthday. We jumped on the trampoline—she often watched with worry. I played frisbee with my sister, practiced my swing for softball with my Dad, chased my dog in circles. There was that one day we created a whirlpool. I remember the pressure of the water against my legs and how nice it was to do something as a family.
The scientific reason for the illusion of blue birds all comes down to the interior structure of feathers. There are nanostructures made of air and protein molecules contained in blue wings. These nanostructures can be smaller than the wavelengths of visible light which is important to the color of their feathers. Blue wavelengths of light match the size of the nanostructures inside the blue bird’s feathers. When light hits the bird’s feathers, it encounters the nanostructures and all colors of wavelengths pass through, except for blue. Blue, due to its matching size, is reflected back to us and becomes the only color we see. This process is called structural color, a process other birds do not go through.
Other birds, such as red and yellow birds, get their color from the pigments in their food. If a red feather from a red bird were ground up, the resulting powder would be red. The same situation does not have the same outcome for blue birds. If someone were to destroy their feathers, they would destroy their color. The blue disappears, leaving brown powder in its wake. It’s deception, manipulation, light reflection.
She had a way of making tomorrow a lie. Telling me one thing only to say the opposite the next day. She was careful, though, with her words. I’d be left guessing which days she was being honest and which days she was lying. She crafted her words like a painter whose raison d’être is to paint. I suppose that makes her an artist or perhaps, the art itself. Growing up, I learned she could be as mysterious as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or as lost as Vincent van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers. Other times my mother could be brilliant and beautiful and chaotic like a work of art by Edward Munch. I never knew which part of her would stick around the longest, which part of her was real. It often felt as though she were slipping away, and no amount of security could keep her around. After all, even the Mona Lisa went missing at one point. Then I saw the Blue Jay and she finally slipped away.
There’s a Brazilian street artist, L7M, who travels the world spray painting birds on buildings. His artwork stems from one idea—the idea that, “Everything generates from chaos.” This idea is visible in every piece of art I have seen of his. Each bird he spray paints sends a different message, each bird a new illusion. One of his birds lives in Maracay, Venezuela. This particular one caught my eye in a way the others didn’t. It is just as colorful and chaotic as all his work is, but this bird is the only one to be pictured with a cage. Instead of being inside the cage, this bird carries the cage on its back.
Can we escape what binds us or are we stuck carrying our cages with us wherever we go? Can someone ever truly be free? Will she ever be free?
* * *
When asked for a picture by Time Magazine to be featured in the list of the worlds’ 100 most influential people, the British street artist Banksy sent them a picture of him with his face covered by a paper bag. Anonymity is clearly important to him and people rather enjoy the speculation of who he really is. I find it interesting how some artists, like L7M, whose real name is Luis Martins, are open with their identity and how others, like Banksy, go to great lengths to keep it a secret.
I first heard about Banksy in my Book Arts class a couple weeks ago. We were talking about how he shredded his artwork seconds after it was sold for 1.4 million dollars. The woman who bought the painting went through with the purchase, citing two very different reasons for her decision. One reason was that she now had her “own piece of art history.” The other reason was that the value of the artwork would increase as a result of its self-destruction.
After hearing about this event, I thought about why someone would destroy their own artwork. Some people think Banksy did it to mock auctions and the selling of art. I can understand how this rumor started. Banksy once said, “When you look into an art gallery, you are simply a tourist looking at a trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.” I can only imagine what he thinks of auctions. And while he has a point, walking around an art gallery does feel like being a tourist, I am not inclined to accept this rumor as fact.
I believe it had a lot more to do with the illusion that art can be destroyed. At the auction, the title of the painting was Girl with Balloon. After the painting was “destroyed,” a representative of Banksy’s scrapped that title and renamed it. Now, the piece is known as Love is in the Bin. One man even said in response to this event, “Banksy didn’t destroy an artwork in the auction, he created one.” The idea that destruction could be an illusion has been ingrained in my mind from the moment I first heard about Banksy.
There are two definitions of destruction I feel worthy of further thought. Destruction being, “the action or process of causing so much damage to something that it no longer exists or cannot be repaired,” and destruction being, “a cause of someone’s ruin.”
People describe the incident surrounding Banksy’s Love is in the Bin painting as “self-destruction” and then go and say no art was destroyed, but instead created. I started to wonder if both possibilities could exist simultaneously. After all, Girl with Balloon no longer exists. Or does it?
When my mother left with the blue bird, I thought for a moment that she would be just as free. Despite all her deception, I wanted her to fly in peace. Instead, she became the cause of her own ruin. But there’s a part of me that still hopes there will be more for her than just destruction, that there will also be creation.
* * *
There’s street art all over England, but in the city of Hull there’s a particular piece that captured my attention. Inspired by graffiti style artwork, The Girl with the Blue Bird, features a young girl in black and white. The girl sits with her legs crossed and her head lowered. She peers down at a blue bird—the only color in the piece—with a look of despondency. I question why one would be sad when regarding a beautiful bird, often called the bird of happiness and a symbol of freedom.
Was the girl not as free as the bird? Or was she, too, lost in its illusion?
Happiness was what my mother yearned for. It’s the reason she left in the first place and I sincerely hoped she would find it. Unfortunately, she somehow found herself spiraling after finally getting her life back on track. Perhaps, if I was there with her, I could’ve helped her. Maybe, if I was there when it mattered, she would finally live up to her name. But I didn’t focus on her much when she left, instead focusing more on what she left behind.
After she left, my dad spray painted, “The End 2017,” on the wall in our basement. I initially assumed it meant the end of their marriage, but lately, it feels as though the message has changed. It was the end of an era, the end of a family, the end of a life. His tag has since been painted over, but I still see it when I walk into the basement. I’m always reminded of how words can be destroyed, but in that destruction, I’ve started to figure out, there can also be creation.
Tagging in its simplest form is writing one’s name on a wall. It is not uncommon for tags to show up on public spaces, unwanted and unwarranted. But those simple tags have evolved over time into more distinct art. These names led to movements, movements that have influenced and changed the meaning of art.
The graffiti movement erupted in the 1980s, most notably attributed to the streets of New York City. It gave the world of art a new aesthetic and made people question its vandalism aspects. This movement complicated the world of art and only became more complex when it evolved into street art.
I had no idea that street art is not the same thing as graffiti. They seemed very similar and are very similar, but with more research, I started to notice the differences between the two. The most noticeable difference between them is that street art is image-based and graffiti is word-based. The more significant difference, though, is the intent. With street art, the idea for most artists is to make a statement and spark a conversation. Graffiti art is more about the artist speaking to other graffiti artists.
There is one connection between the two art forms that tie the two together that is worth noting. The connection is that both are illegal, the law labeling their art as vandalism. It isn’t unheard of for some people to get permission before painting on a specific wall, especially with street artists, but most do not. Banksy, for example, has told his fair share of stories about evading the police, even going as far as saying that it’s part of the job description. This is where I struggled to understand public art. What’s the motivation for creating it? If there’s the risk of fines, a record, jail time, why do it?
My parent’s divorce was finalized this past August. The divorce itself didn’t bother me, I actually welcomed it. They needed to be apart, needed to let each other go. I felt that was the only way either of them would ever be free. They simply weren’t a good match and that happens in life—some people are simply not meant to be together. The biggest question their divorce left me with was why.
Why didn’t my mother keep flying until she was free, especially when she was so close? Why did she fall into another bad relationship? Why does she continue to stay in that relationship when she could easily leave? After all, she’s had the key in her pocket this entire time.
The average lifespan of wild Blue Jays is seven years, but for those in captivity, it is different. There are recordings of Blue Jays living more than twenty-six years when they spend their lives in captivity. Which is worth more—time or freedom? For some people the answer is easy. They would choose to live forever even if it meant sacrificing their freedom. For others it’s not even a question worth debating—to be free is worth a shortened life. For me, it’s not an easy question and I still don’t know which is more important. I question now whether or not it’s a simple question for my mother, though I hesitate to call her up and ask. I’m not sure if I really want an answer or perhaps a part of me already knows it. My mother spent twenty years in a marriage that caged her in and while not every year was bad—some might even have been the best years of her life—twenty years is a long time. I feel like she didn’t choose between time and freedom, but instead sacrificed both.
* * *
There was a French artist named Yves Klein who specialized in the color blue so much that there’s a shade of blue named after him. He created his own blue, International Klein Blue, and used it for his art. Hundreds of monochrome paintings dedicated to this single shade of blue. But why blue? He once said, “I did not like the nothing, and it is thus that I met the empty, the deep empty, the depth of blue.” It seems to me he paved his way out of something meaningless through art and used the color blue as his guide. But what did this color do for him? What did it give him?
“At first there is nothing,” he said, “then there is a profound nothingness, after that a blue profundity.” Profundity—insight, depth of knowledge and thought. This blue was his beginning, it gave him inspiration and opened his mind to possibilities without dimension. It was the cause of his greatest illusion.
With the help of two photographers, Harry Shunk and Jean Kender, Yves Klein created the illusion of flight. This all began with his desire to re-create a jump he claimed to have made from a second-story window from a building in Paris, France. Throughout all my research, I could not find a single explanation for why he made the jump in the first place. It seemed that part of this artwork did not matter. The photograph itself shows Yves Klein mid-air, the city of Paris behind him. As for how he created the jump back in 1960, it is the work of a technique called photomontage. Photomontage is the process of creating one seamless image by combining multiple images. This is where Harry Shunk and Jean Kender were integral to the creation of this piece of artwork. The two photographers took pictures of Klein as he leaped from the window, his arms spread out like the wings of a blue bird mid-flight. Seven people below him held a tarpaulin to catch him. Once the jump was over, he had the photographers capture an image of their location without him in it. That picture of an empty street became the second piece, the finishing piece, for his final photograph.
His final photograph was the combination of two negatives—the negative of Klein jumping and the negative of the empty street where the leap took place. Once the two images merged together, a single, seamless photograph was created. This was not the end of his illusion though. Part of the trick was fooling the public into believing it was real. He created a fake newspaper with his seamless photograph on the front and distributed it at multiple newsstands in Paris. The caption of his newspaper was, “The Painter of Space Leaps Into the Void!” and an interesting excerpt from the article read, “Today the painter of space must, in fact, go into space to paint, but he must go there without trickery or deception, and not in an airplane, nor by parachute or in a rocket: he must go there on his own strength, using an autonomous individual force; in short, he must be capable of levitation.” I love his use of the words trickery and deception and how they are at odds with the truth of his work. He aptly titled his photograph, his art, his illusion, Leap into the Void.
Why take such a dangerous leap? Sure, Yves Klein had a tarp to catch him, but for street artists, there is no safety net. Banksy says his art, “made him feel better about himself, gave him a voice.” For L7M, he says that painting the streets, “allows me to create what I create and be at peace with myself. It makes me feel alive and I feel completely free…it’s the most honest form of art in the world.” He went further on in his explanation, saying that his art allows him to live like a bird, flying and painting and migrating. His interviews are extremely thought-provoking to me and I find the more I read, the more I understand what he means. He makes art because it gives him freedom, and the fact that that art is also what could take it away is of little matter. To be free and to be at peace is at the heart of what matters most.
My mother, born Freedom Starr, does not live up to her name as she is always trading one cage for another. She left the day the Blue Jay made its first and only appearance in my life. I see her from time to time now, wondering who she would be if she never took that call the day our bonfire ignited. What if she hit decline and the man on the other line just stopped calling? But what and if are two words that lead down a dangerous path. The belief that there could have been a different outcome, a different future, is a false idea and a false idea is the very definition of an illusion.
The Blue Jay I saw the day my mother left was also an illusion, as all blue birds are. The same goes for the cage she locked herself into. I know that even if I had the key and gave it to her, she would toss it right back to me.
Katelynn Commisso is a senior at Wells College in Aurora, New York. She is majoring in English with a creative writing concentration. She currently works as a marketing intern for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and uses her free time to write creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Most recently, her nonfiction has won the Rose Hill ’98 prize.
featured artwork by Krista Commisso