HUNTINGTON An exhibit by Karen Bondarchuk, associate professor and foundation area coordinator in the Frostic School of Art (Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo), will be on display through Oct. 6 at the Huntington Museum of Art.

A reception for “Ergo Sum: A Crow A Day” will be at 5 p.m. July 26, with a presentation by Bondarchuk.

TDI: Your project, “Ergo Sum: A Crow A Day,” seems as though it would have taken so much time; did you really complete a crow each day, or is it more a representation of a year? In fact, how long did it take to complete one panel?

Bondarchuk: With the exception of a few days during the year, ... I completed a drawing a day. I started the work on Aug. 1, 2014, and completed it on July 31, 2015 (at 5:15 p.m.)! I spent evenings, weekends and breaks between semesters creating the raw panels so I wouldn’t have to make them during the academic year. This enabled me to have a panel on which to create a drawing each day.

Each panel differed in completion time. On average, I’d guess the drawing part of each panel took an hour, though some obviously took longer. It was largely dependent on how elaborate the panel was, how much detail I included and the process or material (gold leafing and carving, represented in some panels, for instance, took a lot longer).

TDI: It’s interesting how artists make connections, like your connecting crows to marking the passing of time. How do you arrive at those connections? Do you study and seek out images to represent concepts or do they happen subconsciously?

Bondarchuk: I’m not sure I think of crows as marking the passing of time as much as I see them representing the ordinariness of a moment or a day, but they also represent that which is extraordinary. There’s a marvelous poem by Mary Oliver that beautifully summarizes my sense of them (at right).

Crows are omnipresent, commonly forgettable and often overlooked, and yet when you start to pay attention to them, you begin to see the beauty, the intelligence and the complexity of their existence. Tony Angell and John Marzluff have written extensively about crows and ravens, and I am struck by their observation that crows and ravens have adapted to dramatic changes in their environment by “co-evolving.” In this elaborate dance, humans do something, crows and ravens adapt, we do something else, and they adapt again. This ability to think flexibly is a sign of a creature with extremely high intelligence (which is now well documented: corvids have brain capacities that rival some primates).

When I was creating “Ergo Sum: A Crow a Day,” I sometimes sought out images for concepts or inspiration, but more often than not I just allowed myself to draw whatever came to mind. I set down the basic rule that each panel had to contain a crow (or a corvid, as there are many panels depicting ravens). Beyond that, I allowed myself to play and tried to work uninhibitedly.

TDI: Can you tell me a little about how your mother’s dementia affected you?

Bondarchuk: My mother was diagnosed with dementia in 2010. At the time, she resided in Victoria, British Columbia, so I spent the following seven years traveling back and forth between the United States and Canada as frequently as I could (three or four times a year). My brother took her in for a few months before she was placed in a dementia-care facility on Vancouver Island in 2011.

My mother was a legal editor for most of her adult life. She was a highly intelligent, vibrant and articulate woman with an impressive vocabulary. During the time I was developing “Ergo Sum,” my mother had lost her ability to use conventional language. Her speaking became garbled and confused. As her language fell away, it inevitably permeated my work.  

Much like a flock of crows in winter, in aggregate, the “Ergo Sum” drawings took on a life of their own. The work process was akin to a jumble of fragments from my mother’s life and my life as well, bound together but eroding. Each panel was a response to a thought or feeling in a particular moment on a particular day, without direction, unmoored and disconnected from what surrounded it, not unlike the way I perceived my mother’s existence to be in the throes of her illness.

As equally as the “Ergo Sum” series was, from the outset, an homage to my mother, it was also an all-in-one distraction, therapy session and creative structure for me. The daunting task that I set out to accomplish gave me a means through which to process loss as it was occurring, and a way to make something concrete out of that which was disappearing. As such, the project bridged the 2,262 long miles and three time zones that separated me from my mother.

My mother died in winter of 2017, Robert Burns Day (a day she had celebrated on many occasions) and two weeks shy of her 85th birthday.

TDI: There is a large, dead crow in the middle of the room containing “Ergo Sum.” What is its significance”

Bondarchuk: The large crow in the center of the installation of “Ergo Sum” is from a series of sculptures I created a few years ago called the “Corvid Series.” The work is constructed out of scraps of blown-out tires that I collected on the sides of the highway here in Michigan, a scavenger made of scavenged material, but expanded in scale to human size. The Huntington Museum (among others) expressed interest in displaying one of my sculptural works along with the “Ergo Sum” drawings.

Art is an attempt to evoke a reality that is visual rather than verbal. Both the sculpture and Ergo Sum drawings can be seen as trying to make something whole and concrete out of something broken.

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