Exploring 'Our Fragile World' through art

Joel Oliphint
"Drink Your Tea" by Edith Dinger, part of Studios on High Gallery's new exhibition, "Our Fragile World"

When Edith Dinger was a child, she would sit and look at birds with her grandma, and if they spotted a new bird, Dinger would fetch a bird book to identify the species. From the time she was a little girl, Dinger understood that the world was full of different types of feathered, flying creatures.

Then, about 10 years ago, Dinger and her husband vacationed to Merritt Island, a national wildlife refuge in Florida. “The birds are so spectacular there that it's hard to not be hooked,” she said. “Since then, a lot of our vacations have just become birding trips.”

Birds also make their way into paintings by Dinger, who’s a scenic artist by trade and normally paints large-scale pieces for theater productions. But because the pandemic has shut down most theater performances since mid-March, Dinger has had more time to focus on her fine art, particularly oil paintings.

In the spring, she made a still-life painting of an Eastern Towhee perched atop a China teacup and titled it “Drink Your Tea,” named after the phrase used by birders to describe the call of the bird pictured. After completing the painting, Dinger saw an open call for submissions from Studios on High Gallery for a forthcoming juried exhibition at the Short North space titled “Our Fragile World,” featuring “artwork created in response to the fragility of our modern world with themes inclusive of social justice, the environment and global health.”

“When they announced the theme of the show, I was like, ‘Oh, this is perfect,’” said Dinger, whose work is on view at Studios on High Gallery through Nov. 5.

“Drink Your Tea” exudes both beauty and fragility. The teacup itself, adorned with flowers and sitting on a saucer, is the definition of breakable, and the towhee perches precariously on the cup’s edge as subtle wisps of steam from the hot tea rise around it.

The painting, Dinger explained, is part of a series about incorporating birds into our domestic lives, while also riffing on Victorian-era dioramas that often featured taxidermal birds and other animals.

“There's a feeling of that history of conservation: Are the birds alive or are they not? Are they for display? Are they for us? Are they part of our lives?” Dinger said.

The painting came at a time when Dinger had more time and space to reconnect with nature and with painting, but also at a time when bird populations are declining. Recent studies have shown that North America has lost more than one in four birds in the last 50 years.

“I want to bring more attention to that, and I also know that sometimes you get more flies with honey. If you create something that's really beautiful and pleasant to look at, it might draw people to look a little bit further. It might bring a larger crowd that looks a little bit further into why I painted what I did. And maybe it helps them think about that a little bit,” she said. “There's good news, too, like the way that everybody planted milkweed and the monarch butterfly is bouncing back a little bit. It's not too late to do something about it, and it's not too late to be hopeful about that. We just have to be aware."