Airborne Art

Rebecca Carlton’s ceramic-bird sculptures represent the world’s languages

In a bare-bones industrial space inside the Door County Economic Development Corporation (DCEDC,) artist Rebecca Carlton is assembling three suspended sculptures that represent the world’s languages.

About 7,000 languages are spoken around the world, according to the Linguistic Society of America. Carlton wanted to represent all of them with porcelain homing pigeons, but decided that making 7,000 birds was too big of an undertaking. So she scaled back to 700, with each pigeon standing in for 10 languages. 

“I selected the homing pigeon for a number of reasons,” Carlton wrote in a description of her exhibit. “More than 3,000 years ago, our first long-distance communications were made by written messages sent via the extraordinary homing pigeon. I use this white bird as a metaphor of surrender and an ultimate symbol for peace.”

Each bird’s belly features a country name, the language of that country, the number of people who speak that language and a colored dot representing its region or continent.

The undersides of the birds in the sculpture. Submitted.

While one pigeon in the exhibit may represent a language with five million speakers, another bird may represent one with 150 million, Carlton said. A large map that goes along with the exhibit shows the distribution of the languages throughout the world.

Carlton’s birds are suspended in three designs: a spiral, a V formation and a circle. The spiral represents a tornado, a moving force of nature.

Work by Rebecca Carlton. Submitted.

“To me, it’s like the energy of human beings,” Carlton said. “Each one of us has to have an ego to survive, but if that ego is not put in check or used for good, it’s chaos.”

This installation was too tall for the Peninsula School of Art studio Carlton worked out of last year, so the artist gravitated towards DCEDC’s industrial space in Sturgeon Bay, where the ceiling is 19 feet high. She also rented a hydraulic lift with an electric motor and a safety belt to hang her work.

In the V formation sculpture, every bird is both a leader and a follower, just as humans are throughout their lives, Carlton said. 

“After the bird leads, it goes to the back and it drifts,” Carlton said. “The rest of the community supports [it,] rebuilding that energy level so then it can move to be the leader again. That’s cooperation and survival.”

In the third piece, porcelain birds hang in a circle close to the ground. Designed for viewers to lie on their backs and look up through it, the sculpture is reminiscent of an ancient form of connection, when communities would gather to talk around a fire.

Viewers lie on their backs to look up at a circle of porcelain birds. Submitted.

“They could be mad, angry and volatile, but they knew for survival, they had to figure it out,” Carlton said. 

The artist has been working on her self-funded piece for seven years, viewing it as a catalyst for community conversation. As such, she’s working with several organizations within the community to host programs related to her work.

In addition to holding an opening reception sometime this spring, Carlton has scheduled visits for local schoolchildren, including a class of fourth-graders from Gibraltar and their art teacher. 

From May through fall, some of her work will be on display at the Link Gallery of Children’s Art at the Door Community Auditorium in Fish Creek, and local high schoolers will be invited to create work about listening. 

“We, as a community, don’t hear teenagers’ voices, and there are not a lot of opportunities for them to speak up,” Carlton said.

Another opportunity for high schoolers will be a persuasive-essay, Are We Listening workshop, co-led by Carlton and Peninsula Pulse editor Debra Fitzgerald, during which students will practice listening and write about their need to be heard. 

Carlton is expanding the reach of her project with Open Door Pride to create programming about equity and inclusion, and Crossroads at Big Creek to create an event that questions if Door County is listening to the land and another program with Write On Door. 

“The intention of the sculpture[s] is to be inclusive of all, to recognize the significance of every language community and to acknowledge that every voice counts equally,” Carlton said.