Birds in Art

Local artists turn to flying subjects

“If an artist has a mood or a theme that they’d like to portray in their artwork, you can find a bird representative for that theme or that mood,” said Rob Hults, executive director of Open Door Bird Sanctuary. “It could be power; it could be strength, beauty, grace, diversity, color – there are so many things that birds can represent. Magic and whimsy and fantasy – you name it.” 

“Whimsical” is one way to describe the birds portrayed by artist Mary Ellen Sisulak, owner of Turtle Ridge Gallery, in her showcase titled Our Birds. Her work highlights the birds just outside the window of her Ellison Bay studio, including cardinals, Baltimore orioles and purple martins.

Sisulak’s birds come in a variety of media, including painted and etched leather, prints and encaustic wax. She said she generally relies on photos of local birds, taking them herself or capturing them with a camera outside her studio that’s designed to track movement. 

“I got a camera, like a hunting camera, so I just put it out there by the bird feeder, and it takes photos and videos of the animals that are out there,” Sisulak said. “Of course, the first couple weeks, it was just my dog, Banjo, but then the birds started coming.” 

Using photography as the basis for her bird depictions allows her to accurately reproduce the birds’ details, but Sisulak said sometimes photographs don’t fully capture the essence or character of the bird. 

In these cases, she turns to Open Door Bird Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization in Jacksonport that houses birds that are unable to survive in the wild. Hults said there are 19 birds currently at the sanctuary, including owls, raptors and a turkey vulture. The sanctuary is open to the public on summer Saturdays, but it’s also available for private tours – something that he said can provide a rare viewing window for artists.  

“You don’t get that opportunity very often,” Hults said. “Birds don’t make good models. They don’t sit still real long, but coming to the sanctuary and having a chance to have an owl in front of you for 10 minutes – to study it and see the feather patterns, the color patterns, how the light shows up on them, how they move, where the animation comes from – that’s kind of a neat thing to offer.”

Hults said artists working in many media – from sculptors to tattoo artists – have visited the sanctuary for inspiration. 

“That has really fascinated me, too – all the different media of art that can be used to portray the birds,” he said. 

For artist Kurt Kreissl, volunteering at Open Door Bird Sanctuary has inspired him to use birds as subject matter for his portraits. He said after spending time with the birds at the sanctuary, he was surprised by how much personality he could capture in his drawings of them. 

“For me, it’s always the eyes,” Kreissl said. “I love capturing what’s behind the eyes – that’s what I love to do when I’m doing a portrait of a person. It was strange to me to see how much depth there was behind the eyes of a bird. To be able to try to capture that is what pulled me in.” 

When student artist B Salmi Klotz moved to Door County two years ago, he knew he wanted to find a way to spend time with birds, so he also began volunteering with Open Door Bird Sanctuary. Klotz said the rescue birds quickly became a source of artistic inspiration – especially the owls and turkey vulture. 

“I think that there’s something to be said about portraiture, not just for people,” Klotz said. “I think everything has a personality, even if it looks different in different species. I love watching [the birds]. I think they’re just fascinating because they have such strong personalities.” 

Both Klotz and Kreissl focus on realism in the birds, but Sisulak describes her work – which often incorporates materials such as geodes and gems – as more illusionistic. 

“I guess I wouldn’t consider myself a complete realist,” she said. “I think I would say maybe I do illusionistic realism, where I’m creating an illusion of a place or thing. Some of my work is very simplified.”

Hults said that no matter the style or medium, seeing a bird up close is an amazing experience. 

“You can see a bird out on a branch or flying overhead or something like that, but birds are so animated,” he said. “Capturing that animation is something artists love to do, and coming here to the sanctuary, they have the opportunity to see a bird up close.”