Talking to Birds

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Pictured above: Helga Maribel Sanchez with The Wild Turkey


Helga Maribel Sanchez found her way to The Ruins Project by making three tiny filati-filled rings. And then ten more rings. She became utterly obsessed with the act of pulling filati for the little circles of The Ring Wall at The Ruins. In the end, we lost count, but I believe Maribel’s final contribution of rings numbered more than fifty.

When an artist falls in love with The Ruins, it’s my job to help channel their skills and energy. Together, we can make great things happen. Maribel has a unique recipe of mosaic ability, commitment of time, and a deep love for the story we are telling here in stone and glass and ceramic.

The Ruins Project, for those new to its story, is a giant cement canvas that was once a bituminous coal operation in the Appalachian woods of Pennsylvania. Abandoned and left behind, along with its very important industrial revolution history, it has now become a kind of cathedral to the people who come from coal. With the help of 250 artists from all over the world, it is resurrecting forgotten things.

The front door of The Ruins Project

Mosaic is the art of choice at The Ruins

Just a few years after those first rings, Maribel now has five important installations on the walls, with an ambitious sixth project in progress behind the scenes. The Blue JayThe Pileated Woodpecker and The Wild Turkey are now permanent parts of The Feather Project, a group call that invited artists to build native Pennsylvania birds in high realism. 

“The tension of nature versus industry is a theme that continues throughout this giant cement canvas and the birds have become lead characters.”

The birds have added an important theme of contemporary ecology to the overall composition of The Ruins. Their mosaic feathers and beaks speak with quiet dignity to the healing power of nature. The tension of nature versus industry is a theme that continues throughout this giant cement canvas and the birds have become lead characters. Together, they are a mosaic ornithology lesson for those who enjoy identification. And they are often mirrored by their real-life counterparts that flit through the landscape of The Ruins daily. We have had sightings of all three of Maribel’s mosaic birds in real life, close enough to photograph with their doppelgangers, but we have not captured those moments quite yet.

Maribel’s bird work and, as I sometimes call it, her talking to birds, is deep work

She researches not just their appearance but their personalities, their quirks, and eventually imbues them with an anthropomorphism of spirit. I say of spirit because their human qualities are in their artist statements, not their images. Maribel’s birds are as realistic as birds can be in mosaic. We often hear intakes of breath when a visitor comes upon one because, from certain angles, they trick you into thinking you are seeing a real bird.

Saturnino Libertad: The Blue Jay

Materials: Malmishiato, smalti, rose gold smalti, fused glass, and filati on an apoxie sculpt substrate 11” long x 4” wide 

The Blue Jay

The Blue Jay, her first bird, was named in memory of her father, Saturnino Viterbo Sanchez. The story of her father is a complex one and it cannot be separated from her artistic process.

He was born in Dominican Republic. The son of an important political family, Saturnino was a gifted musician who chose to become a music teacher. He came of age in the dark time of General Trujillo’s dictatorship. The Salma Hayek movie, In the Times of The Butterfly, is a good representation of this turbulent era. In 1965, Saturnino joined a group of young people who rebelled against the government. He was one of the first to become a part of the Constitutionalists faction that sought to bring justice and liberty to the people. He rejected the government to which his family was loyal. Tortured and pursued, he ended up in exile with the help of the US government. He left his family of origin behind and built a new life in Puerto Rico.

Saturnino tried to live life as an unknown. He fought big internal battles, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. He dreamed about returning to his country. Despite his troubles, he was a great father. An inventor and autodidact, he could fix anything and he used those gifts to build a sewing machine repair business. As a bohemian musician, he serenaded his daughter lullabies with the bandoneon, the guitar and the harmonica. Maribel grew up poor but blessed and loved.

She looks back at her father’s battles, both real and internal, and feels a deep pride that he fought so she could enjoy the liberty of being born in America.

When blue jays visit her porch, she sings back to them with her father’s gift for musical mimicry. She quite literally talks to birds as a way to stay connected with Saturnino who died in 2012.

The Pileated Woodpecker (Drycopus pileatus)

Materials: Filati, malmischiato, smalti, fused glass, red-dog, coal, and Youghiogheny River shale on epoxy. 19” long and 9” wide

The Pileated Woodpecker

Maribel identified four characteristics of this largest of the North American woodpeckers that she used to build her emotional relationship with as she worked. The pileated woodpecker is a communicator, a discerner, a developer and a forager. She weaves these characteristics into a kind of bird/mosaic philosophy. She chose to name her subject Rachel, which means I am now forever linked to this flamboyant bird.

The communicator.  She has nine methods to communicate according to Lawrence Killham (1959).  Drumming, drum-tapping, rapping, with cucks, high and low calls, woick woicks, gwaicks gwaicks, and dancing.  She communicates her ideas in a non-traditional way and sometimes with an awkward rhythm.

She is the drummer of the forest. She hammers with persistence. She hammers and hammers at her purpose until she gets to the other side.

The discerner. She is discerning of the details. Her narrow tongue is extremely effective for picking up food in tight places. This is symbolic for using a narrow route to get the most profound effect. She asks us to use fewer words, or fewer tesserae, to make a stronger impact in our statement and to listen more clearly to the subtle energy of our intuition.

The developer. She builds many nests before committing to the one that she will settle into for herself. She opens up neighborhoods for numerous cavity dwellers. She prepares the way for others.

The forager. She excavates constantly.  She forages for provisions and roosting habitats. She sees value even in dead trees.

Maribel placed three small hearts in the center of the bird’s breast; one of coal, one of red-dog and one of Youghiogheny River shale. This subtle touch communicates her understanding of the power of this place by transforming geology into material into tesserae.

For me, one of the most striking things about the woodpecker is its movement. I know that the artist spent hours watching how her bird circles a tree as it travels up and down a trunk.

The Wild Turkey (Meleagris Gallopavo) also known as The Big Deal

Materials: Slate, Italian and Mexican smalti, gold smalti, filati, malmischiato, tiles, glass, fused glass, slightly melted glass, picassiette china, Multimax Laticrete on mesh. 43” (high) and 36” (wide)

The Wild Turkey

In Maribel’s words, “achieving pieces in realism is a great challenge of constant learning. I always start from the premise that I don’t know anything and that I am facing something new and unknown over and over again. I start with a thorough investigation of the bird, its physique, character, behavior and personality. At that moment, a conversation begins between two strangers who are just getting to know each other.”

Maribel calls this technique the deconstruction theory. She begins to divide the bird into parts and thinks about how important each part plays in the survival of the bird.

It becomes an almost scientific analysis to begin to comprehend the bird in its entirety. Breaking these ambitious mosaic compositions up into many small steps helps her solve two problems. By only needing to tackle small sections at a time, she avoids the overwhelm that an artist can face taking on a large, complex project. And by looking at the bird as a puzzle, she finds that it reveals its secrets to her, one small step at a time.

“I always begin with one feather, one movement, one line. By breaking it into parts, I can see the whole,” Maribel continues.

“For me, the gaze is what holds and reflects the spirit of every living being.”

“When I manage to step into communication with the soul and spirit of the bird is when I place the first pieces of the mosaic. Just like a portrait, it’s important to begin with the eyes. For me, the gaze is what holds and reflects the spirit of every living being. Until I get the gaze to reflect the feeling of the bird, I am not pleased. Sometimes I return to it over and over again until I achieve a special relationship with the rest of the bird’s body. My intention is to achieve a more intimate, personal conversation. Perhaps even a close bond of those that can only be achieved at the family level such as a brother or a sister or with a best friend. I want the bird to communicate with me in every detail, and for the spectator to feel the same way even if they don’t understand it.

“This is the crucial moment in the making of my mosaics; where the birds and I achieve a more intimate communication. A communication beyond words. I believe it is a force outside of myself. God uses me to communicate. He heals me and comes to my rescue speaking to me through the birds.”

The bas-relief technique allows Maribel to create more movement, dimension and realism, so that the viewer truly believes the birds are alive. She believes the bas-relief is a powerful tool for mosaics and would like to see it used more often.

“Sometimes I have to control my brain because I see things not only in pieces but in living dimensions, which may be overwhelming for a spectator. Someone who perhaps cannot visualize life the way I do, freely. In those moments, I laugh to myself and even think there is a chance I am uncovering a kind of creative madness, a very sublime emotion.”

The final step of Maribel’s bird work is a technique she calls sewing. It is similar to how quilts are created as you take each patch and join them together through an invisible seam. Seams which no one is meant to see. She also compares this to a finished painting on canvas with the viewer barely perceiving the brushstrokes. As you stand in front of The Wild Turkey, you are free to comprehend the work as a whole, unaware of the twelve separate mosaics puzzle pieces that have been sewn together so tightly.

Having watched her sit, patiently sewing the parts of the turkey together, I feel strongly that Helga Maribel could teach a class on this technique that translates so well on the concrete of The Ruins.

Watch a video of Maribel on her “sewing day”

The day Maribel spent quietly sewing and singing to herself, as the real birds of The Ruins swooped and sang their choruses around her, was a moment in time I will never forget.

Instagram: @helgamaribelsanchez @sagermosaics
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