When artist Hilary Robin McCarthy started volunteering at the Wild Bird Fund a few years ago, her tasks were less than glamorous, and included cleaning pigeon feces from cages.
But when the Upper West Side resident started working with a mute swan named Vanessa, she inadvertently found the newest subjects for her oil paintings.
“I would just take photographs of the swan swimming in the tank,” said McCarthy, 41. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God, this is a painting waiting to happen.”
Not only did her volunteer work inspire her show “Songs of the Mute Swan,” it provided a venue: her collection of six oil paintings on canvas are on view in the window of the Wild Bird Fund Gallery on Columbus Avenue near 87th Street through June 11. The wildlife rehabilitation organization, located next door, will eventually expand its operations into the small, temporary gallery space, adding a larger operating room, x-ray area and a flight room for song birds. Fifty percent of McCarthy’s sales benefit the non-profit.
Though an ideal pairing, McCarthy started work on the paintings before the space was converted into a gallery. McCarthy, a nearby resident who lives in the same building as the organization’s director, Rita McMahon, was walking by the window one day and noticed a crowd had gathered at a show opening. She approached the gallery director, a fellow volunteer, about her swan paintings, she said.
The paintings aren’t McCarthy’s first to include animals. A former dog walker, McCarthy is also commissioned for pet portraits. But she was hesitant to incorporate the birds into her work at first.
“Like, oh no my career is going downhill, I’m painting swans. It’s like painting flowers in a still life,” she said. “But it’s just really how you do it. It can be as cheesy or as beautiful as you want. I just said, ‘Forget it. I don’t care what people think. I’m just going to do it.’”
McCarthy, who has a master’s of fine arts from New York Academy of Art and is currently working on a bachelor’s degree in art history at Columbia University, was inspired by artist John Singer Sargent’s use of white in his portraits, especially in the garments worn by his female subjects. He incorporated different colors like pink and gray in the white attire, she said, an approach she took when painting the birds’ white feathers. She also experimented with the iridescent effects of gold and copper leaf in her paintings’ grasses and floating leaves.
McCarthy said she stays away from political themes in her work, but she learned during her research about efforts by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to control the population of the mute swan, an invasive, non-native species in New York. McMahon, whose organization receives about 4,000 birds and other wildlife each year, said the state does not allow reintroduction of the animals anywhere north of Westchester, though most mute swans she cares for come from Massapequa and the city’s animal care shelters.
“They’re not allowed to put them back, even if they rehab them,” said McMahon. “So what does the rehabber do? It’s awful in that regard.”
McCarthy’s compositions mostly show the birds gliding in water, their long necks curved and their heads bowed, and she references the birds’ signature grace in the gallery’s window display with a pair of pale pink ballet slippers and scattered white feathers.
She realizes, though, that her work, in the window next to the Wild Bird Fund, sometimes has some stiff competition. Recently, she said, a pair of peacocks on view next door drew attention.
“Walking down the street I think, ‘Oh they’re looking at my window,” she said. “No. They’re looking at the peacocks.