Written by Julie Burchstead, FOMR Volunteer
Photos by Julie Burchstead, Carey Goss, and Karen Edmonds

March 6th had barely even turned on the lights as we turned out of the Malheur National Refuge Headquarters onto Sodhouse Lane headed to Burns.  Outside the window, the unique landscape was gradually revealed. Where some might see only sagebrush, I saw endless vistas, moody skies, ancient geography, and despite the wintery conditions… birds, and birds, and birds. Harney county has a certain pull on a person. It is a place I grow to love more with each visit. 

Karen Edmunds (my fellow volunteer) and I were headed to Slater Elementary. There we would meet Carey Goss, Malheur’s Refuge Wildlife Specialist to begin the first day of the 2023 Harney County Artist in Residence Program, or AiR in short. 

For the past several years, interrupted only by the pandemic, Carey has put her heart into this program, hoping to ensure the children of Harney County see the wonder that surrounds them in this unique place where they live, with the fresh eyes of newcomers. Alongside artists who have been a part of the program before me, Carey has transformed what formerly was only an art contest, into an education opportunity-wrapped in annual art experiences. Children who choose to, can still participate in the art contest, but that has become a separate entity. The AiR program is jointly supported through Carey from the Refuge, and funds secured by Janelle Wicks, Director of Friends of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The program annually precedes April’s Migratory Bird Festival, the children’s artwork becoming part of the celebration.

Over the course of a couple weeks, Carey, Karen, and I rolled into K-8 classrooms with carefully packed tubs loaded with art supplies, educational charts, and George, a Great Horned Owl, who since meeting his demise lives on as an ambassador of refuge educational programs, flying into the heart of every Harney County student he meets.

A generous hour provided in each classroom flies by. Carey begins each session with basic bird biology, anecdotes, recent observations, imitations and recorded bird calls. Students are drawn to her obvious love of her work at the refuge, and knowledge of the birds that are here for the noticing-even from students’ own school playgrounds. Each child chooses a bird from a large collection of photo cards. All the while, Karen has been turning each child’s desk into a mini-art studio of supplies. 

Finally, I introduce the art activity, telling students, they can teach others about the birds that can be seen here using an art technique called crayon resist: A contour line drawing, traced with marker, colored with crayon, and painted over with a wash of watercolor. Trying new things, especially in art can sometimes be intimidating for students. With the artist’s permission, I shared a student’s work from a different class. We noticed how the rendering, though it did not look just like the photograph, was beautiful, and easily recognizable for the bird it depicted. Your work will be your own, too, I reminded them. Art does not have to look just like a photograph, to be beautiful, to instill curiosity, and to have the power to teach others. I model each step of the process, emphasizing how to notice a bird’s shape with their eye before creating a line. What if you only look at this part of the bird? What shape do you see there? Notice how this Robin’s wing is shaped a bit like an ice cream cone-rounded at the shoulder, pointed at the feather tip like a cone? See how the wax in the crayon resists the watercolor paint? This is the difference between using watercolor to paint and using it as a wash.  We discuss the artistic choices they could make. And then we release students to give the process a go. Some dive right in. Others need a bit more coaching or reassurance. Karen and I make rounds and support the artists through each step. 

The collective hum of students at work is broken only by bird calls, and student excitement, as Carey circulates the room, her iPad, collections of feathers, eggs, and nests in hand, teaching each student specifics about their own chosen bird while they draw, and color, and paint.

By the end of two weeks, we had the delight of working with almost 600 K-8 students in Burns and into the far reaches of Harney County ranches. We are exhausted and energized. The students’ artwork, enthusiasm, and effort has impressed us all. 

Naturalist and poet, Mary Oliver once wrote, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” What we come to care about, we take care of. Expressing what we see through art, asks us to pay attention to what we see in finer detail. Art provides a language beyond words for sharing what we think is important in the world with others. These days, the attention of our young people has a lot of competition. If through this program, we leave students more likely to notice birds and with more appreciation and curiosity for the natural world around them, we will have succeeded. Leaving one classroom, a note was pressed into Karen’s hand. In confident kindergarten script it read: “To Brd Pepl, I love brs.” 

The young author had no idea how that one little note, delivered in its handmade envelope, decorated with a brilliant blue bird singing beneath a signature Harney County sky, made the “bird people’s” day.

Note: We are grateful to all the teachers who invited us into their classrooms. Student artwork will be viewable in participating Burns businesses beginning the first weeks of April and through the Migratory Bird Festival.