"Dreyfus once wrote from Devil's Island that he would see the most glorious birds. Many years later in Brittany he realized they had only been seagulls... For me they will always be glorious birds."
This quote comes from the 1971 film "Harold and Maude," where the two main characters are watching the sun set and seagulls flying overhead. When Harold looks down and notices the concentration camp tattoo on Maude's arm, she proceeds to say the above quote, speaking of Dreyfus' imprisonment and using the seagulls as a symbol for freedom (further enhanced by the Cat Stevens song playing in the background about being free).
I was reminded of this scene after reading "A Bird Tapestry" by David S. Rubin, an article that details the use of birds as metaphors and expressions of conceptual impulses in art. Rubin describes several artists who use birds in their art pieces as a means of understanding people's relationship to their flying counterparts. After reading the article, I noticed there was no mention of art that specifically dealt with birds from the gull family. A few artists worked exclusively with pigeons, but what of the seagull? I decided to take my inquiries to the next step.
To me, it only makes sense that artists gather inspiration from seagulls since they have many characteristics similar to that of humans. For example, seagulls are an omnipresent bird, found on the shores of most every continent around the world, easily able to adapt to any given environment, especially environments containing humans. I would also label humans as omnipresent, widespread and able to thrive and adapt anywhere on earth, but generally found near bodies of water. Secondly, seagulls are omnivores, able to eat most anything they are presented with, from Tangy Cheese Doritos to insects and small rodents. Humans are also omnivores, able to consume most any variety of food and food products. Thirdly, Gulls mimic the behavior of their fellow gulls, sleeping with one eye open in order to assess if the surrounding group is agitated and ready to take flight, like an alert system. Humans also pay attention to their peers, perhaps not because of potential predators, but to assess their social and physical interactions. Even more so than the literal similarities, I love seagulls for the nostalgic feeling I get when I hear their high pitched squawking calls, immediately reminding me of being at the ocean, a naturalistic emotion found in many humans.
So why all the seagull hate? Probably because gulls are scavengers and will go "klepto" on your beach food. They slowly creep in, then suddenly they are swarming and there's a horrid flapping above your head and before you know it your fish n' chips are gone. There's even an Internet game When Seagulls Attack, where the objective is to dodge the dive-bombing gulls. Gulls are so often despised and thought of as a nuisance pest, akin to a rat or a pigeon. In the animated film "Finding Nemo," the seagulls are portrayed as greedy little annoyances, further emphasized by their wailing call that, when applied to the English language, is interpreted as "mine mine mine mine." At one point a pelican even refers to them as "rats with wings."
Seagulls from "Finding Nemo"
American Artist Mark Dion recognizes this widespread seagull hate and strives to correct these adverse feelings with his Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit. This giant seagull-shaped booth on wheels was a part of the 2008 Folkestone Triennial in England. This unwieldy vehicle is a nature-awareness station as much as it is an artwork, dispensing information about the local Folkestone gull, seeking to foster a greater love for the misunderstood bird. Dion's Gull moved throughout town during the course of the exhibition.
Mark Dion's Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit 2008
In a 2009 exhibition at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology called "Gulls, Terns, and Skinners," painter Ben Shattuch portrays the birds he observed while working at Cornell's Shoals Marine Laboratory in Maine. He uses thick expressive strokes of oil paint that portray the birds in mid motion behaviors.
Ben Shattuch Herring Gull 2008
In another 2009 exhibition at the University of Rhode Island Library Gallery called "Gulls Gone Wild," Jon Campbell uses paintings from famous artists in history and replaces the humans in the image with gulls. He is humanizing the seagulls, not only making their status equal to that of humans but also calling into question the validity of these famous art paintings.
Gull with a Pearl Earring
Block Island Gothic
Another example of humanizing gulls can be seen in Derek Doublin's video piece entitled "The Seagull."
This piece first shows two young men joking about how dumb seagulls are and imitating seagull bird behavior. In the end, for one of the men, the human and seagull behaviors merge and the man unexpectedly flies into the sky the way a real seagull would.
I am relieved I was able to find art pieces that concentrate on the positive aspects of seagulls instead of the popular bird-brain mentality so affluent in our culture and perpetuated in "Finding Nemo." In fact, according to Wikipedia, gulls are "resourceful, inquisitive, and highly intelligent birds, demonstrating complex methods of communication and a highly developed social structure." I was even surprised to find a few artists that humanized them (or better yet birdified us), emphasizing that there are deep connections between us and our flying gull counterparts.