When it comes to decorative and handmade papers, images derived from nature are used in abundance. Some papers are strewn with illustrations of lions and tigers, others with fish. Patterns based on foliage wind their way past sheets sprinkled with seashells. Dogs and cats keep company next to reproductions of 19th century botanicals. But there is one type of animal that finds its way onto papers from around the world: the bird.
In many cultures, birds symbolize freedom and eternal life. Some birds are linked to specific meanings, like the dove, who represents peace, or the stork, who is associated with birth. Carrion eaters, such as ravens and vultures, are often linked to battle, death and war (which could explain why I have yet to see a paper covered in crows).
Symbology can differ depending on the culture; in Alaskan Native American folklore, the raven is considered both a hero and a mischievous trickster who presents many gifts to humans, including light, names for plants and formations of the earth.
Songbirds symbolize spring and are commonly used in paper designs.
This beautiful paper is based on the painted Chinoiserie designs used in wall coverings.
This is another Chinoiserie paper, this time imitating fabric design.
Papers often imitate designs that are usually found on fabric.
In Japanese chiyogami papers, cranes symbolize long life. Flying birds can also suggest imagination and thought.
Owls are unusual in that their status has shifted over time. In early Native American folklore, owls represented wisdom and helpfulness along with powers of prophecy, a theme found in Aesop’s fables and in Greek myth as well. By the Middle Ages in Europe, the owl became associated with witches and dark, lonely places. It became feared. Its appearance at night was linked with the unknown, its call a predictor of death or that evil was at hand. During the 18th century, owls were studied by naturalists, reducing the mystery of these birds. With superstition dying out in the West in the 20th century, the owl regained its place as a symbol of wisdom.
More recently, owls were hijacked by the crafting community, becoming an adorable woodland creature stripped of all majesty. These owls seem to be saying, “How did we come to this?!”
Birds lend themselves well to abstract designs.
They also fit naturally with patterns that employ branches and foliage.
Some papers depict 19th century drawings, like this detail of a Cavellini paper.
Of course, with birds come feathers. And the colors and shapes of feathers lend themselves well to patterns. This is one of my all-time favorite papers, an Italian Rossi sheet.
This is a detail from another Cavallini paper.
Peacock feathers! So lovely.
Feathers work well in simples shapes as well.
In many cultures, birds are seen as linked to the transition between life and death. Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul could leave the body in the form of a bird, usually a hawk. Graves and tombs were built with narrow shafts leading to the open air so the soul could fly out. What a magical idea!
I love papers with birds and work with them often. Here are a few more to spark your imagination.