Simple Pleasures—”The Botany of Nests” at Strybing Arboretum


Beal—13 Great-taled Grackle

Sharon Beals, Nest of Great-Tailed Grackle, 2009, Digital Photograph (nest collection of Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology).

After viewing enough of a certain kind of contemporary art—the sort that’s usually accompanied by pseudo-erudite artists statements that all too often lead to brain knots—one yearns for art that can be appreciated without explanation. Art that is beautiful in its simplicity and simply beautiful.

Sharon Beals’ new photographic collection “The Botany of Nests,” is that kind of art.  The exhibit, at the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture just inside the Strybing Arboretum gates, consists of nearly 30 digital photographs, tender portraits of birds’ nests. But these are not just random birds’ nests. Without special permits, it is illegal for private citizens to possess most species of native birds, their feathers, eggs, or abandoned nests. Beals was lucky enough to get permission to photograph specimens from the collections of three institutions—the California Academy of Sciences, the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley.

This project was truly was a labor of love. Beals’ spent 18 months photographing nests. With special access to the collections, the artist moved a small working studio into each lab. She routinely worked long hours, often spending  nights in the museums until midnight to get the right shot.

Sharon Beals, Caspian Tern Nest, Mexico 1932, digital photograph 2009 (nest collection of Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology).

Many of the nests date back 75 or 100 years. Beals’ pared-down presentation of her subject matter creates a subdued yet majestic atmosphere that ultimately dignifies the subjects as the artifacts that they are.  As a collection, the photographs are a wondrous record of avian construction habits.  In the presence of these photographs, it is hard not to believe that birds possess a heightened sense of aesthetics. (Or is it just the ultimate case of form following function?)

Aside from their aesthetic beauty,  the nests hold fascinating insight into bird behavior.  The Caspian Tern hides its eggs in plain site among the shells along tide’s edge. The  House Finch, not fussy about the origin of its building materials, ironically used castoffs from a human house —sewing scraps, plastic, paper and cellophane—making it perhaps the ultimate recycler in the bird world.  The photo of the House Wren tells a sad tale of a nest abandoned; on the other hand, one can’t help but be fascinated by this macabre reminder of the life and death struggle that goes on largely unseen by human eyes. The Barn Swallow specimen, collected in 1937 in China, arrived at the Academy of Sciences wrapped in Japanese newsprint. Thus it became a record of the Japanese occupation of China, as a result unwittingly intertwined with human history.

Taken together, this collection is not only a gorgeous aesthetic accomplishment, but an irresistible archeological record of avian civilizations. The photographs bring a hidden world into our consciousness; photographs like these will be the only evidence of bird habitats available to most of us humans.


Sharon Beals, Altamira Oriole, digital photograph 2009 (nest collection of California Academy of Sciences).

And this is precisely the photographer’s goal.  In conceiving of this project, Beals’ was influenced by Scott Weidensaul’s Pulitzer-Prize finalist, Living on the Wind, which details the migratory habits of birds. She hopes her photographs will heighten awareness birds habits and disappearing habitats. Her artist’s statement is simple:  “to keep the common birds common.”

“The Botany of Nests”
Helen Russell Crocker Library of Horticulture (Strybing Arboretum)
through June 30th.

Wider Connections

Sharon Beals

Scott Weidensaul —Living in the Wind

Rosamund Purcell—Egg & Nest

Winged Migration

2 Responses to “Simple Pleasures—”The Botany of Nests” at Strybing Arboretum”

  1. LIZ. I am always engaged, surprised, thrilled, delighted and ever find the unexpected here. And this is no different. What a joy. I’ll be certain to stop to see these images first hand. Thanks for keeping the fun coming.

    By the way, this week marks the end of The Kite Runner at the San Jose Repertory Theatre. This is a must see if your readers wish to make the trek. And, of course they will be treated to an exhibition of my own exhibition of 50 black and white photos taken in Afghanistan in the early 1970’s: Afghanistan 1970-1975, Images From An Era of Peace. Make a note, spread the word. The final performance is April 26th. See the full story at, or !

    Best, JH

  2. I loved this sentence, “After viewing enough of a certain kind of contemporary art—the sort that’s usually accompanied by pseudo-erudite artists statements that all too often lead to brain knots—” Have you been sitting in on my Women and Art class? The teacher is fixated on “artists” like Mary Kelly who don’t produce art but tons and tons of obscure text. Kelly’s claim to fame comes from her exhibit of her son’s caca stained diapers as art. Euuuu. Then we studied Donna Harraway and Judith Butler. Don’t ask.
    Give me pretty pictures any day of the week.

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