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Artist Spotlight: Leila Jeffreys

North September 2019

Matt Pike


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Leila Jeffreys is a leading Australian contemporary artist, who began documenting birds in photographic portraiture back in 2008. Leila is able to capture impeccable detail in her subjects, abstracting them from their natural environment and inviting the viewer to confront them in a more personable way.

She is represented in Sydney by the Olsen Gallery, in New York by the Olsen Gruin Gallery and in London by the Purdy Hicks Gallery. I caught up with Leila to delve a little deeper into what drives her work.

You’re a member of bird life Australia, what is special about what they do?

People can feel overwhelmed when the are constantly hearing about the environmental problems we face. When people ask me what can they do I always say that a meaningful way to help is to support organisations like Birdlife Australia. They are the nation’s largest bird conservation organisation and there is power in numbers. They not only protect birds and their habitats through their multitude of programmes but they also work at a local, state and national level to lobby Government to protect our birds.

There are other organisations that you can support too, another great one is Bush Heritage, they buy and manage land, and also partner with Aboriginal communities to ensure there is a place for our native species.

Where did your love for birds begin?

I was obsessed with animals when I was little. I think that was due to the fact that my dad was an animal lover himself. He wasn’t interested in cities, he was interested in wildlife and the environment and so we travelled to lots of really beautiful places. As I got older and my life became centred in cities I found I really missed the childhood connection that I enjoyed as a kid; being in wild places and being among wildlife. I became a bit of back yard birdwatcher and that led me to notice how beautiful birds are. The thing with birds is that they are the last part of wildlife that remain part of our every day lives. Seeing birds and observing them is a beautiful reminder of the natural world.

Is conservation something that’s close to your heart?

Yes, conservation is everything. To me it means protecting wild places and ensuring that all animals that live on earth have a home in those places. Humans sometimes need reminding that we are not the only species on this planet; that it’s our responsibility to ensure that there are places for the other species we share the planet with to live and thrive. We tend to think that we’re helping them out, but it’s really a balance. Humans can’t survive without all these other species that exist within our ecosystem; we’re part of this web, not separate from it. It’s our responsibility to leave the planet a better place than when we got here.

Tell us about ‘Frantic Romantic’ and the Bowerbirds.

I was invited to create a work for a fundraiser called Art of Music. It combines visual arts with music and is held every two years. Singer Jenny Morris invites a selection of Australian artists to create an original work for exhibition and asks each artist to choose an iconic Australian/NZ song to inspire a piece of artwork. The artwork is then auctioned during a gala dinner at the Art Gallery of NSW with the proceeds being directed to a charity called Nordoff-Robbins which uses the power of music to change lives.

I worked with a satin bowerbird that had been rescued and was being rehabilitated in Bronte. He was so charismatic and so inquisitive that when I went over to do some initial photos he kept flying onto my camera and picking at the red button — he was colour obsessed. He was being prepared for a soft release, which means that the bird is able to come and go as it pleases and is offered supplementary feed, and even though he was reconnecting with his wild ways, he was still very curious and interested in me. Of course bowerbirds especially love the colour blue. I had this idea to see if he would be interested in picking something up so I very carefully hung a blue ring from a milk bottle top on the end of the perch. Sure enough, he looked at it and then picked it up, holding it really proudly. I could see the drive in him to find beautiful objects — it was so strong. There are some heartbreaking stories about bowerbirds getting caught in these rings so I quickly took a couple of photos and then removed the ring as I didn’t want him to fly off with it. While I was photographing him a song I loved by The Scientists came to mind; it’s called Frantic Romantic. I couldn’t get it out of my head because to me that is exactly what a male bowerbird is. He’s all about finding beautiful blue things to take into his bower — he’s an artist! His bower is his very own art installation, set up for no other reason than to impress a female bowerbird.

Do you have any favourite subjects? The Moluccan Cockatoos looked pretty special.

There are so many different species of birds that have all evolved so differently which is fascinating, so it’s too difficult to select one as a favourite. I’ve just recently been to the Arctic and saw many sea birds while traveling though the region. I got to see how they have evolved and adapted to life in that climate and that makes you fall in love with them.

As a general rule cockatoos are one of the funnest subjects to work with. They have become very social, intelligent and complex creatures and have enormous capacity for curiosity. Working with them is usually a lot of fun because they’re so social and keen to interact with you.

My mum recently got a pet budgie and I’ve been blown away by its personality... it can now say ‘G’day mate, how you going? And can say my name as well as its own... Bijou. Blue jewel. Hence I was instantly attracted to your work with birds and the way you capture their individuality.... How do you draw that out in your images?

I’m so glad you can see that in a bird as small as a budgie. When I was little we had budgies, one who used to live freely in the house and slept in my bed. Something I learnt then that has stayed with my whole life is their capacity for expression; they have all these different personalities. I don’t feel like it’s something I actively draw out in my images — all of the expression you see is there but it’s easily missed because of the bird’s small size and speed. When you focus on the bird, the lens reveals all their little expressions. It’s a matter of waiting for the bird to reveal its personality, or working with the bird to find a special combination of expression and composition. People are aware that dogs are really expressive but if they spent time observing birds they’d realise birds are the same.

Have you had any nightmare stories with unruly subjects?

No nightmare subjects but definitely plenty of unruly subjects: birds that I want to pose but instead want to chew the perch apart! One of the most memorable was during a photoshoot for the birds of my Prey series. We were giving the bird bits of rat meat to eat. One flew off with some in his beak and flicked the rats guts all over me and my camera. That was a messy photo shoot.

And tell us about your new body of work “High Society”?

For me it’s the first time where I’ve put together an exhibition that leans into more of a conceptual art show. The idea came from observing flocks of birds in trees. From a distance the birds are hard to distinguish, they look like leaves, but when you look up close you can see that there’s actually an entire society of birds living up there, living their own lives.

It’s been nine years since I worked with budgies and I was keen to work with them again. This time I wanted to pull my lens back a little to photograph a flock, and to create an image of the birds where they appear as foliage in the trees. I’ve also used some of the classic portraiture techniques that I am known for; zooming in on the birds to share the small social interactions and partnerships within the flock.

I’m so excited about this new exhibition because it also includes a piece of video art that I’ve developed. I’ve worked with over 300 birds, built a giant 10 metre aviary within a studio, filmed the birds in slow motion and set it to music that is really emotive and beautiful. It’s a way of putting a magnifying glass over their whole world and I hope it prompts people to think about these other societies that we often miss because of the seemingly small scale of their lives.

Are there any similarities between budgie communities and human ones?

Absolutely! A budgie flock is like a society: within the flock there are birds searching for a partner. When they find their partner they breed and raise young. Their young is raised within the flock with other young birds and they all learn from each other. Some birds get along, some fight. They build homes and search for food. They want to thrive. Sound familiar?

What can people learn from birds?

Birds are a visual representation of mindfulness, showing us that joy is an experience that doesn’t necessarily come from owning things. They’re also an accessible, daily reminder that life exists in the wild, outside our own communities.

Thanks for your time, where can we catch your next exhibition?

High Society is on show in at Sydney’s Olsen Gallery between October 16 - November 10. It then travels onto New York City where it will be on show at the Olsen Gruin Gallery between November 13 - January 6, 2020!

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