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Nature is more than a place to visit – it is home

The magic and majesty of bird whisperer Leila Jeffreys

Love and affection between humans is seen as natural and to be expected.  But we can be ambivalent when it comes to other creatures.  It obviously extends to dogs and cats and horses and other domesticated pets. 

Thomas Berry in The Dream of the Earth speaks about a need to be in-communion with the natural world in a similar way to that practised by indigenous communities.  They had / have an affinity with the earth in all her manifestations that embedded their lives with the plants and animals with whom they shared the land.  Country is not just soil.  Country is a living, breathing ecosystem and their lives were / are an extension of this. Little wonder that this intimacy develops such deep and enduring bonds that when broken cause such feelings of loss and grief.

So be prepared. This story by Neha Kale: Flying high with bird photographer, Leila Jeffreys (SMH 11.19.19) is a window into the world of a photographer who has devoted her life to getting up close and personal with her subjects – who feels her work is more urgent, given that we’re living through the Age of Extinction.

For Leila Jeffreys, emotional connection isn’t reserved for humans. It’s a currency that flows between creatures who share the natural world. The artist, 47, has spent the last decade taking portraits of birds, affording her avian subjects a dignity and complexity that’s as rare as it is visually distinctive. She once met a bird called Seisa, a palm cockatoo with a red cheek patch, crowned with a jaunty thatch of black feathers. The encounter changed her for good.

“When I was setting up my equipment, she was quite shy, so I had to see if she was happy for me to work with her,” Jeffreys says. “I gave her nuts and she came closer to me. By the end of the day she was nuzzling my neck. I cried because it was such a profound moment. [She was] just an animal wanting to see what this other weird animal was doing.”

In her 2019 book How to Do Nothing, the American artist Jenny Odell writes about how regular visits from crows, a species that can recognise faces, remind her that she’s a human animal. Life in the big city, often contained within cafes and apartments and busy public transport, makes it easy to forget other creatures could see us as part of their landscape. But when you spend time with Jeffreys, this feels like fact. 

For people like Jeffreys, the forest is more than a bunch of trees and a few animals scampering about. Jeffreys’ friend and colleague, painter James McGrath, says the artist’s empathy for birds is bound up in her artistic rigour.

“Leila will go to some small island and live with the birds and connect with the scientists and volunteers and there’s so much emotional intelligence there,” he says. “People want a connection with nature; it is essential to their soul. Her works are that window. She is a very underrated Australian artist – she is an international artist, yet she’s not even seen sometimes as an artist. Her gaze is not just the gaze of someone describing things. I think the birds know it because [in her images] they are almost smiling at her.”

Years in the making the photography is now recognised as art of the highest order. 

“Leila’s work is part of a lineage of artists that reveal the natural world, allowing us to glimpse the complexity and beauty that surrounds us,” says Danny Lacy, senior curator at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, who curated Jeffreys’ work for the 2017 exhibition Birds: Flight Paths in Australian Art. “Every opportunity we have to reflect on the creatures we share this planet with is connected to the health of their natural habitats and the broader ecologies we depend on.”

Her work, beautiful as it is, is a stark reminder of how badly we behave when it comes to protecting our non-human next of kin.

According to 2018 figures from the national Threatened Bird Index, the population of endangered birds in Australia has halved over the last three decades. Does Jeffreys feel her work is more urgent, given that we’re living through the Age of Extinction? “It’s what drives me,” she replies. Back at the sunny Marrickville home she shares with her son and husband, Jeffreys shows me an iPhone image of her second-ever video work, Nature is not a place to visit. It is home,

Leila Jeffreys’ High Society is on exhibition at the Olsen Gallery, Woollahra from Wednesday, October 16 until Saturday, November 9. Bird Nerd: The Art Of Leila Jeffreys is now available on ABC iView.   Watch now: Click on this link

To read the full story click on the linkFlying High with Leila Jeffreys