From his studio on the fringes of Amsterdam, artist Wouter Klein Velderman likes to hike into the surrounding swampy reed lands. He is enthralled by the birds he encounters, yet they’re often too far away for him to distinguish their precise shapes, patterns, or colors. He turns to studying birding guides and books on the history of the Dutch landscape, deepening his knowledge of the relationship between birds and this wet river environment.
In the spring of 2018, Klein Velderman was given permission to study the Artis Bibliotheek’s copy of Nederlandsche Vogelen (Dutch Birds) by Cornelis Nozeman and Christaan Sepp. This first compendium of birds living in the Low Lands was published in five volumes between 1770 and 1829—and remains the country’s first extensive overview of these species. Given its large size and costly hand-colored gravures depicting the birds—often rendered life-size—the book was at the time considered a monumental (and pricey) production.
The book’s detailed gravures ultimately inspired Klein Velderman to create his own interpretation of the birds depicted. The polyvinyl chloride that he has successfully used in his sculptures for years—commonly referred to as truck tarpaulin, or PVC fabric—is a tough and stubborn material. The colors and patterns representing the birds’s bodies are cut out freehand with scissors and a knife. This sounds easier than it is. Compared to the ease of a painter’s brush, the stiff PVC fabric does not let itself be plied easily—it seems to have its own will. Seeking new contrasts and compositions that please him rather than closely resemble the original gravures, Klein Velderman intuitively reconstructs each bird’s body parts and feather patterns, resulting in graphic interpretations of birds that often appear mutilated, as if they have been hit by a car or shot at.
Using a heavy industrial sewing machine, Klein Velderman then applies stitched patterns to the PVC fabric that seem to reference the structures of urban environments—fences, buildings, brick walls. In this way, he goes beyond representing the natural, foliage-rich scenes depicted in the gravures and offers sharp social commentary on the natural environment and its human impact. Colored according to RAL—a European color-matching system—the fabric is one hundred percent opaque, which conceals underlying material. Cutting away an abstracted feather pattern from one piece of fabric reveals another vivid color, and in this way the work attains an intricate layering. When all components are in their proper place, they are welded onto a wooden panel and assume a viscous, plastic-like appearance.
The world of birds is changing constantly, with species thriving or perishing over time. In the Netherlands, where human activities occupy an increasing amount of space, many animal species are under pressure to survive. Nevertheless, some birds continue to thrive, thanks to their ability to adapt to civilization. The beautiful black meerkoet (Eurasian coot), for example, now builds its nest from plastic debris floating in the canals of Amsterdam; as rendered by Klein Velderman, the meerkoet becomes a bird of plastic living in plastic.
Harmen Liemburg is a graphic designer, printmaker, and journalist based in Arnhem, Netherlands.