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Ellie Harold’s Birds Fly In Exhibition at Oliver Art Center

A project that’s been in the making since February, 2018, Frankfort artist Ellie Harold’s multimedia exhibition BIRDS FLY IN: A Human Refuge is set to launch on August 7 at the Oliver Art Center. A team representing the U.S., Mexico, Germany, and the U.K. have collaborated to create the art, music, and poetry featured in the avian-themed installation created in response to migration issues at the U.S. southern border.

BIRDS FLY IN comprises 16 of Ellie’s large format oil paintings displayed on both sides of a Refuge Structure designed by local architect Wilfried Schley. The Structure fills the Oliver Art Center’s Beck Gallery: Its chain link walls are like those used in detention centers in which asylum seekers have been held in the U.S. On the outside, Mylar blankets and shoes worn by migrants in Mexico have been attached to the fencing, along with banners with poems related to the refugee experience. A ceiling fabricated by fiber artist Elizabeth Rodgers floats above the Refuge. On the inside, lyrical framed bird paintings serve as windows through the chain link.

Inspired in part by Houston’s Rothko Chapel, visitors may experience the art against the background of original soundtrack music written and performed by Mexican composer/violinist David Mendoza. In the center of the Refuge, an octagonal bench created by Roo Davison provides seating for “slow looking and deep listening.” The music emanates from within a large bird cage fashioned by metal sculptor Steve Kline. A User’s Guide suggests how visitors may take a creative “time-out” within this secular sanctuary. After experiencing the Human Refuge, visitors will enjoy the OAC’s Borwell Gallery on the lower level where they will find large colorful banners featuring poems by 7 local writers along with a display of works available for purchase in support of the Oliver Art Center and Birds Fly In, Inc., the non-profit organization that seeks to mount the exhibit in national venues.

Ellie first conceived of BIRDS FLY IN while stuck in traffic on an Atlanta expressway. “I suddenly realized how the political rancor that was dividing families across the U.S. was like one huge gridlock filled with road-raged people on both sides. What would it be like if there was a place, like a bird sanctuary, where humans could take a time-out for rest and reflection?” Shortly after the 2016 Presidential Election, Ellie’s paintings had begun to feature birdlike shapes. Now, she understood her bird art might play a part in helping people reduce the stress related to current events.

With renewed enforcement of policies related to migration at the U.S./Mexico border, Ellie began to see that birds might also serve as a metaphor for the human desire for greater freedom and love. In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico conducting one of her Art Retreats for Women, she heard David Mendoza perform in a local café. “His soulful music made me weep,” she remembers. “And, when I told David I would love to bring him to Michigan, he replied, ‘It is my dream to come to your country.’” This serendipitous encounter led to Ellie commissioning Mendoza not only to create his first professionally recorded CD album but also live painting/music performances the pair have given in San Miguel. While U. S. Customs & Immigration Service denied the pre-COVID application for Mendoza to travel to Frankfort, the soundtrack music may be enjoyed by all who visit the exhibition.

When COVID safety measures were put in place to allow for the Oliver Art Center to reopen, plans for a large public reception for the family-friendly exhibit were scrapped. Instead, BIRDS FLY IN will simply open without fanfare during the OAC’s regular hours with all mandated physical distancing and mask protocols. On this change, Ellie reflects, “I had actually been concerned a loud opening might prevent visitors from experiencing the wonder of BIRDS FLY IN. We hope that visitors will take advantage of this opportunity for contemplation. With the unrest in our country today, it seems the timing couldn’t be more appropriate.”

BIRDS FLY IN: A Human Refuge will run through September 11 at the Oliver Art Center and is scheduled for a 3-month installation in 2021 at the Dennos Museum in Traverse City. For more information and to view and introductory video, go to BirdsFlyIn.com.