Leverett man puts artistic spin on nature’s wonders

  • Macaylla Silver of Leverett works on painting his most recent work, a portrait of two sanderlings. Contributed Photo

  • Leverett resident Macaylla Silver paints portraits of birds, including this barn owl, using a combination of oil and acrylic paints. Contributed Image

  • Leverett resident Macaylla Silver’s paintings are based on photographs of birds. Contributed Image

  • Leverett resident Macaylla Silver’s first painting in his series on birds is of a blue heron, based on a photo he took. Contributed Image

  • The largest of Macaylla Silver’s paintings is one of a great horned owl, at 8 feet wide, which he said he was inspired to create by Janis Joplin. Contributed Image

  • “I could do a photographic painting, but it’s about the bird, not the photo, and the photo shouldn’t be the painting,” Leverett artist Macaylla Silver says of his work. “Each step away you get from the first initial encounter is more subjective — that’s art.” Staff Photo/Melina Bourdeau

Staff Writer
Published: 2/20/2019 6:03:02 PM

As majestic as the feathered creatures they depict, Leverett resident Macaylla Silver’s paintings draw the viewer to stare into the eyes of birds.

Since 2015, Silver has watched, photographed and painted various breeds of birds, with each painting standing at 4 feet tall. His 10 painting series have been featured at the Leverett Library and will return in the spring.

From photos to art

Silver said he’s always loved to make art, though it hasn’t always been in the traditional sense of the word. He worked in Orlando, Fla., in the early 1980s doing repair work for animatronics for Disney. He also got involved with Gary Gygax of Dungeons & Dragons and the budding computer gaming industry.

“Art to me was like having a pick-up truck; it was always useful, you can help a lot of people do a lot of things. I never stopped doing it,” Silver said. “In basic training for the National Guard, I designed the platoon T-shirts. For other jobs, I did the cover illustrations for newsletters. For a business I created called ‘Arts Eggs,’ I did 48 different illustrations for covers. I have a whole children’s book that I did, but never bothered to publish. Art for me has always been there. Always.”

With a background in illustration and other arts, Silver said the bird paintings came from a moment when he became “thunderstruck” looking through a pair of binoculars.

“I really heavily got into birdwatching and I wanted to start painting again,” Silver said. “A friend let me use his binoculars and I could not only see the birds, which were ospreys, but I could see its face, its iris, nostrils. I saw every part of every feather.”

Silver said he instantly became interested because he had never seen that much detail in his life.

Around the same time, there was an art show by Chuck Close at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Silver said he knew of Close and went to the show to see his work.

Close’s work involved hyperrealistic portraits of people with “passport expressions,” Silver said. When looking at his own photos of birds in comparison to Close’s paintings of people, Silver said he saw no difference in the subjects’ expressions.

“There was a look, not cold. They were looking through you,” Silver said. “They weren’t concerned, they were unemotional.”

As an illustrator, Silver said painting came easy. He said he recalls asking himself, “What would it look like if Chuck Close does birding?”

In the beginning, Silver would go on Facebook and ask photographers if he could paint their photographs. Then he got in touch with fellow Leverett resident Julie Collier, a licensed falconer, then a raptor rehabilitator.

He said she saw a few of his paintings and allowed him to access some of her birds to photograph them.

However, unlike Close, Silver said his focus is the bird rather than hyperrealism.

“I could do a photographic painting, but it’s about the bird, not the photo, and the photo shouldn’t be the painting,” Silver said. “Each step away you get from the first initial encounter is more subjective — that’s art.”

Silver said the challenging aspect of doing his paintings is self-promotion.

“It’s the self-promotion that is difficult; the paintings are not unobtrusive,” Silver said. “They command a space emotionally because they are not a passive subject, and they are big. I may get around to painting smaller, but at this stage, it’s difficult. It would be (like drinking a) decaf latte when I am used to strong espresso.”

A mental explosion

Each painting features one bird, most of which are birds of prey, photographed by Silver. He also uses paint to mimic photographic elements like bokeh, the out-of-focus background effect created by a camera with a wide aperture.

Each painting is on a panel, rather than canvas, and includes combinations of oil and acrylic paint.

Currently, he is working on a painting of sanderlings and rocks, which Silver said will take months to complete, but “hopefully will be ready in April.”

Silver said he has quite the list of birds he would like to paint.

“I am in love with shorebirds, puffins and murres,” Silver said. “They live here, yet most are never seen up close.”

His first painting, of a flying blue heron, is one he treasures.

“I was in Florida and the bird flew by,” Silver said. “I just panned my camera across and pressed the button. What you see on the canvas was what I caught of it as it flew by.”

He said in the moment of capturing the image, he knew he had found something he was passionate about.

“That photo represented to me the moment when people have something explode in their mind and they realize, ‘That’s it, that’s the thing,’” Silver said. “That became my ‘thing.’”

The background of the first painting, which is a series of dots varying in color, inspired him to continue to imitate bokeh throughout the series.

“In the first one I made, (the background) was too dark for the bird, and I lightened it with dots,” Silver said. “The more I did it, the more it began to look like bokeh or stars.”

He said he was inspired to make large works not only because of Close’s work, but because he wanted them to stand out.

“I wanted the paintings to be impactful,” Silver said. “I wanted to convey my own sudden fascination with them.”

His great-horned owl painting is his widest example, at 8 feet by 4 feet tall. Silver said the painting was inspired by Janis Joplin, noting that the owl — which was one of Collier’s — was attached to a leash.

“It reminded me of the song ‘Ball and Chain,’ by Janis Joplin,” Silver said. “When people see it, they feel that punch that both the bird and Joplin had.”

In addition to displaying his work at the Leverett Library, Silver has also had exhibits at the nearby Leverett Crafts & Arts gallery.

“When I first started, the Leverett Crafts & Arts center allowed me to display the first ones I had made, along with about 10 amazingly talented bird photographers from the valley,” Silver said. “It was a big hit, and I may do it again.”

In particular, Silver likes the reactions his paintings can inspire in others, as well as the connections they indirectly foster. Silver recalled the first time the paintings were on display in the library, when a young girl was fascinated with “the bird room.”

“When the paintings came back a year later, the same girl came to be in the room, and she saw the owl and it scared her,” Silver said with a laugh.

He said he would love for the paintings to be on display in elementary schools so younger children can become interested in birds.

“The place to hit and influence is that age,” Silver said. “The correlations between the arts and birds is that they’re something that are all over the world. It gives us an excuse to connect with something and with people we otherwise wouldn’t.”

Staff reporter Melina Bourdeau started working at the Greenfield Recorder in 2018. Her beat includes Montague, Erving and Gill. She can be reached at: mbourdeau@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 263.


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