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Canberra Today 15°/19° | Wednesday, November 29, 2023 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

What a hoot – a gallery full of owls

Artist Sally Blake amid her parliament of drawn owls at the Pivot Gallery.

THE Pivot Gallery at Belconnen Arts Centre has never looked quite as it does now, with no fewer than 248 images of owls by artist Sally Blake staring down – and even one wall features the shadowy outlines of extinct owls.

“Greyish Eagle Owl” by Sally Blake.

You feel you’re being watched.

Named after the collective noun for this bird of prey, “Wise Parliament” encapsulates both the term “a parliament of owls” (think a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks or a bellowing of bullfinches) and the reputation the bird best-loved by Athena, goddess of wisdom, has for intelligence. 

Even the Indonesian national police counterterrorism squad “Densus 88” has the owl as its symbol of vigilance. 

Blake, a well-known artist whose work is held by the ANU, the Australian National Botanic Gardens, the ACT Legislative Assembly and Tamworth Regional Art Gallery, works across textiles, drawing and sculpture.

She has been fascinated by owls for a long time and has been working on this project for around two years of deep study, assisted by supplied images from 30 photographers around the world.

“Owls exist on every continent, every place in the world except for Antarctica,” she tells me.

“Humans have made such a big connection with owls, because they are forward-facing and have big round heads, like humans.” 

Her studies lead her to the conclusion that we have found great, symbolic meaning in “this stunning creature” in different cultures.

To some, they are about death and renewal, most cultures would agree that they are observant, some cultures associate them with ghosts, others see them as foretelling events, pretty well everyone fears their nocturnal hooting sounds – “it’s what we’ve projected on to them,” Blake says.

“I have a theory that their forward gaze, looking at us, tells us that it’s time for us to think about our relationship to what we do in the natural world,” she says. 

Owls, she points out, are now endangered because of land clearing, also because of rodent-control poisoning, which puts them at great risk. Ironically, they were once respected as the best rodent controllers.

Another problem is that many owls have very small habitats and, for instance, may live on just one island.

It’s been a labour of love as Blake executed her many owl artworks of varying sizes in coloured pencil, drawn-over with coloured pens, but she tells me she has also used pinpricks to replicate some finer parts of their expressive, searching faces. 

Although she has a reputation as a sculptor, she’s never sculpted owls, rather focusing on covering as many species as she can, from barn owls to the sooty owl, the powerful owl, the barking owl and the masked owl, to name a few.

“Owls are wonderful to draw,” Blake says. 

“Wise Parliament”, Sally Blake, Belconnen Arts Centre until October 8.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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