By Alex Israel
It’s late on a brisk Wednesday evening in May and an eight-foot-tall Double-Crested Cormorant is making its way across the intersection of Broadway and 105th Street, its wings proudly spread wide in its signature drying pose. This isn’t a spring fever dream—it’s the second-to-last installation for Nicolas Holiber’s Birds on Broadway: the Audubon Sculpture Project, presented by the Broadway Mall Association, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, and NYC Audubon.
With help from a Cool Hand Movers crew, his assistant Bishop Mcindoe, and a couple of power tools, Brooklyn-based artist Nicolas Holiber transports the bird from a palette on a truck to the foliage of the mall in under an hour. Throughout the installation, Upper West Siders stop to ask questions (“What’s that you’re dumping over here?”); commend the artist on his use of materials (“Only reclaimed lumber? That’s awesome!”); and praise the ubiquity of public art in New York (“I love this city!”). It’s a bird-aciously beautiful sight to behold—and it’s ours to enjoy for the foreseeable future.
Birds on Broadway is an extension of the Audubon Mural Project, a public-art initiative spearheaded by the Harlem-based Gitler &_____ Gallery in partnership with NYC Audubon. It’s also a marvel of materials and mass. Featuring ten larger-than-life sculptures of birds that are threatened by a changing climate, the goal of the installation is to spread awareness about a group of more than 300 imperiled birds—half of all North American species—at risk due to shrinking and shifting ranges.
From among the 145 threatened species that reside in or migrate through New York (according to a 2014 National Audubon Society study), Holiber decided to showcase the following ten birds, built over the last year and a half, which are on view now through January 2020:
- Red-Necked Grebe, 64th Street
- Peregrine Falcon, 72nd Street
- American Bittern, 79th Street
- Scarlet Tanager, 86th Street
- Brant, 96th Street
- Double-Crested Cormorant, 105th Street
- Common Goldeneye, 117th Street
- Hooded Merganser, 139th Street
- Snowy Owl, 148th Street
- Wood Duck, 157th Street
WSR connected with Holiber—the youngest artist to have a solo exhibition presented by the Broadway Mall Association—to explore his creative process, a newfound interest in birds, and the value of public art. Read more in the Q&A below.
Tell us about your work generally. What inspires you as an artist? How long have you been doing this? What are your preferred mediums?
I’ve been making art my whole life and after college I explored a couple of different careers that were not art-related. In 2010, I decided to go back to school to get my MFA at the New York Academy of Art and since then have been focusing on my career as an artist. My background is in painting and a large part of my studio practice is still devoted to that. I do love making sculptures and there’s something special about creating an object that occupies a space with you. In both disciplines, I try to incorporate nontraditional materials and focus on an emotional connection with my viewer.
How did the Audubon Sculpture Project come about? Do you have a particular interest in birds? How did you get involved with NYC Audubon?
The Audubon Sculpture Project is a companion to the Audubon Mural Project started by Avi Gitler. When I was approached with the idea, I had just completed my first public art installation with NYC Parks called Head of Goliath, which was installed downtown in Tribeca Park in 2015. NYC Audubon was the perfect partner for this project, since the exhibition focuses on local bird populations and I was extremely excited to work with them. I’m embarrassed to say that before this all started, I wasn’t much of a birder, aside from a general appreciation of the more high-profile species like the peregrine falcon or snowy owl. But after working on this project and researching these birds, I found a new interest in the amazing species that come through the city. I was surprised by the diversity and hardiness of these animals.
What has been your favorite bird to design & why?
I think my favorites are shared between the Double-Crested Cormorant and Brant. They’re both relatively simple in design but also very stoic and I think the birds’ personalities come through very well. They were also the first two sculptures to be finished, so it was a learn-by-doing experience.
Has anything surprised you about the process? Any challenges you’ve had to overcome?
There were a lot of challenges throughout the building and designing process. Most importantly, I had to make sure these sculptures would be manageable for moving and installation, so most of them are built in sections that come apart. I also had a limited time to make the work, less than 12 months, so staying on top of my deadlines and meeting my goals was very important. One thing that did surprise me, though, was that the smallest sculpture in the exhibition, the Scarlet Tanager, was one of the most difficult to make. It’s the only piece that’s put together with nails instead of screws and I had a hard time working at that scale with the smaller, brittle pieces of wood.
This isn’t your first time working on a commission for NYC Parks. What do you find most compelling about creating public art installations?
I love public art because it takes the work out of an institution – a gallery or museum, and places it right in front of the viewer, kind of forcing them to reflect on it. I enjoy hearing all the responses and reactions, good or bad, that people have about the work that they have to share space with for a period of time. This exhibition in particular, is special because it crosses over into several different disciplines; environmentalism, conservation, and education. Through these artworks and the signage that accompanies them, we’re raising awareness and teaching people about the threats faced by these birds.
From what I can gather you’re Brooklyn-based. But we’re excited to be seeing your art in our neighborhood! Do you have any go-to spots/recommendations on the Upper West Side?
Of course! I do love brunch at French Roast on 85th & Broadway. Also, Harlem Public at 149th & Broadway has amazing burgers and a great beer selection.
What’s next for you?
I’m excited to get back into my studio and start my next body of work. I’ve been experimenting with concrete and look forward to making new sculptures and paintings. I also have a few private commissions that I’m very thankful for, which I’ll do this summer.
This is the third installation of ‘The Bird Bulletin,’ a recurring series featuring topics about birds and the people who love, chase, and help them on the Upper West Side.