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New exhibit aims to ‘unframe’ artist’s work

Spring is for the Birds is the latest offering from Haines Junction artist Martha Jane Ritchie
Artist Martha Jane Ritchie poses with her linoleum-printed paper swallows and aspen tree trunks at Arts Underground on March 5. They’re part of her upcoming show, “Spring is for the Birds,” which opens March 6. (Jackie Hong/Yukon News)

Amongst the aspen trunks and thin willow branches hide dozens of birds — cliff swallows are tucked into their distinctive teardrop-shaped nests; three swans float on a tranquil pond. There’s a yellow warbler, raven, grey jay, chickadee; it seems as if most of the Yukon’s avian residents have come out to play.

The birds, all made out of gently glued-together, linoleum-print-decorated paper, are part of a new exhibit at Whitehorse’s Arts Underground, a calming paper forest that’s the latest offering from Haines Junction artist Martha Jane Ritchie.

Spring is for the Birds isn’t Ritchie’s first show at Arts Underground; it’s not even the first one that’s centred around feathered subjects.

“I really like birds,” she said in an interview March 3, explaining that from her home’s living room, she has a canopy-level view of the nearby forests and gets to observe the “constant activity” in the branches.

“I’m really fascinated … they’re just so pretty and light and free and amazing because they’re so resilient,” she said. “Like, we live in this environment that’s really harsh sometimes and they just are so tiny, I don’t know how they survive actually but … it’s amazing to me.”

Spring is for the Birds is a bit of a departure from Ritchie’s usual form. She’s primarily a linoleum printer, used to her work being confined to frames or walls. While the birds and aspen trunks are also printed, though, they’ve made the leap into 3D — not quite sculpture or origami, but not flat like a typical print, either.

The trunks are tall cylinders of paper, some of them stretching to the ceiling, with small, dark, wispy branches sticking out of them. There’s about a dozen swallows mounted on a mobile, “flying” freely as the mobile’s metal arms spin around each other. The cliff swallow’s nests are made of papier-mâché, some birds stuffed inside, others perched near the openings. A double-sided chickadee sits on a branch that itself is attached to a cylindrical “trunk.”

While most of the birds only have two “sides” — left and right, top and bottom — it adds an element to the normally “flat” nature of print shows.

Ritchie said she was inspired to begin “unframing” her work after watching her bird feeder.

“All these birds (were) jumping around and flying away and everything and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want my prints to do, is fly away from the wall,’” she said.

“… It’s a puzzle, kind of, you know? A brain-bender in a way because I have to build a three-dimensional thing and deconstruct it down to two dimensions and then create the image and then print it in two dimensions and then cut it and fold it and bring it back out to three dimensions. It all has to fit, and yeah, so it’s kind of a fun challenge for me and birds and work really well with that.”

The project originally started with just three test birds and grew from there, with Ritchie adding to the collection over the course of about a year. The final show will feature about 70 birds, although Ritchie said she tends to add to her exhibits until the last minute, and all are species that can be found living, seasonally or permanently, in Haines Junction.

“I tried to pick things that would be recognizable and familiar to the Yukon,” adding that she really wanted to create a hummingbird as a nod to her mother, but ultimately decided she couldn’t as they’re hardly ever seen in Haines Junction. Another factor was how well certain birds would translate into a print; an all-brown bird with no distinctive feathering, for example, wouldn’t be an ideal candidate.

One of Ritchie’s favourite things about the show is something that audiences might not pick up on right away, if at all: the contrast between the process of printmaking and the result. Linoleum printing, she explained, is a very physical process, requiring her to chisel and carve out her prints, resulting in callouses forming on her hands, and then press them onto the paper. The result, however, is something that looks airy, almost weightless.

“I kind of like this idea that I know I worked physically hard and working to create something with lightness, you know?” she said. “A bird is really light.”

“I just want people to have a joyful experience, you know?” she said of the show. “That’s really the main thing. But also, maybe if people look and pay a little closer attention when they’re out in the world and enjoy a little bird when they see it and go, ‘Oh, hey!’”

“(But) I think my main goal in creating all this stuff is really to just create a pleasant escape for a little while.”

Spring is for the Birds opens at Arts Underground’s Edge Gallery on March 6, with an opening reception from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. It’s opening alongside a show by Leslie Long, Stix and Stones, which will be in the Focus Gallery. Entry is free.

Contact Jackie Hong at

A paper chickadee sits on the branch attached to a paper tree trunk, with a kingfisher and cliff swallows’ nests visible in the background. (Jackie Hong/Yukon News)