I remember the first time I saw Tina Piña Trachtenburg (aka Mother Pigeon) and her soft-sculptures of pigeons. I was enthusiastically starting work at More Art, a non-profit arts organization producing socially engaged public art exhibitions and educational activism throughout New York City. Walking by Piña Trachtenburg’s flock of stuffed pigeons artfully arranged on the cobblestone pavement of Union Square, was a very apt beginning to working with an organization developing public art and educational programs aimed at facilitating thought provoking responses to social, cultural and environmental concerns. All of the aforementioned issues are playfully addressed in Piña Trachtenburg’s multidisciplinary street art installation (she calls it an ‘outstallation’ due to her work being displayed outdoors). The pigeon is arguably New York City’s official unofficial bird, and the people of New York City generally have a love/hate relationship with these stout-bodied avians. Piña Trachtenburg’s realistically arranged grouping of pigeons seeks to raise awareness and empathy for these oft-misunderstood birds; and makes connections between natural and synthetic materials that shape and envelop our culture. Through her pigeon influenced pedagogy, we can learn about ourselves, our neighbors and the environment at large.
Pigeons taught Piña Trachtenburg about urban ecology. Studying and interacting with them on her Brooklyn rooftop became an experiential learning process. She even developed a bond with the birds she encountered and shared space with every day. This relationship and awareness led to her creating her coterie of soft-sculpture pigeons utilizing locally sourced materials such as recycled clothes for stuffing the bodies, wire for their feed and various colored acrylic fabric to represent their plumage. Her vibrant pigeon sculptures represent the different characteristics of the real pigeons she observes throughout the city. As for why pigeons make great artistic muses, she implores us to “Look at a pigeon the same way that you would look at a rose, or a bed of wild flowers. They are beautiful and unique, with each one being different from the rest. It is a privilege to have them around us.”
Piña Trachtenburg’s statement is similar to Georgia O’Keefe’s reasoning for devoting her aesthetic career to painting flowers, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around, so they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
One of the habits of mind we employ through art is noticing deeply (see: Educating Through Art), and Piña Trachtenburg’s work is effective for stopping us in our tracks, as well as inspiring our sense of inquiry (another habit of mind). Through performances with her pigeon sculptures, such as musical puppet shows, she communicates uplifting messages about the importance of caring for our surroundings. Her daily actions are documented through her Instagram, where she posts about interactions she has with her fellow humans and pigeons alike. She also discusses issues that affect our urban ecosystems, which include pollution, lack of affordable housing and the need to create safe spaces for all living creatures. Through her online and physical presence, Piña Trachtenburg advocates for us to love and respect our common feathered friends and even the rats, New York City’s other most oft-misunderstood and reviled wildlife species.
Piña Trachtenburg’s interdisciplinary approach of integrating natural and social sciences with the humanities (art, music, spirituality and performance), provides a holistic, down-to-earth perspective for environmental art education. Her multifaceted practice of making public art, performing and educating about ecological issues, highlights the role of art in regards to problem solving and taking action to improve our relationship with our natural surroundings. As a result of viewing and participating in her aesthetic world, we formulate a deeper and more fulfilling understanding of environmental issues that affect our city. We also develop the passion and rationale to make ethical and informed decisions in response to these issues.
In an episode on the podcast Stories Your Granny Never Told, Piña Trachtenburg whimsically describes her practice as a “pigeon religion.” While she was half joking (listen to the podcast episode to learn the context behind this remark), it does feel like she is creating both a sanctuary and doctrine for the moral and compassionate treatment of her feathered friends, and all living things by extension. By forming a humane relationship with pigeons, Piña Trachtenburg has made strides that benefit the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of avian and human alike.
In her recent pandemic-era outstallations, a hand painted sign reads “run for your lives! Humans are spreading disease.” A clear statement that humankind’s actions have direct implications on natural disasters, such as pandemics, which can be linked to our collective contributions to climate change (see: Coronavirus and Climate Change).
Art has a foundational role in spreading awareness and eliciting strong emotional responses around the poignancy of our current ecological crises. Prior works of art like Mel Chins’ Revival Fields (see: Activating Art and Education for Activism) and Michael Wang’s Extinct in New York (see: Back to Nature), stress the importance of protecting and nurturing our natural resources and habitats. They also signify how art and artistic thinking (using the habits of mind) can benefit natural and applied sciences. Piña Trachtenburg’s public facing art is accessible to even larger audiences because she exists in a realm outside of the traditional art or science industries. Her decision to work solely within a heavily trafficked plaza, ensures that people of all walks of life will interact with her eye-catching work.
From the public’s inquiries, discourses and responses to Piña Trachtenburg’s pigeon-centered outstallations, there are reasons for optimism around tangible social, cultural and environmental change. Taking heed of the environmentally conscious messages of ecological artworks might inspire significant emotional responses and further explorations, insights and actions that have positive implications on our relationship to our natural world. It has certainly transformed the moral and ethical choices in my life, especially how I consume and also produce within a materials based art and educational practice. I also have a long-lasting interest in scientific discoveries and research because of art-centered initiatives around natural phenomena, and I would proudly proclaim to be a convert of the pigeon religion.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Ackermans, Nicole. “Pigeon religion. With Tina Piña a.k.a. Mother Pigeon.” Stories Your Granny Never Told, 14 January 2021. https://www.storiesyourgrannynevertold.com/podcast/episode/1b05f58b/11-pigeon-religion-with-tina-pina-aka-mother-pigeon