BIRDS are wondrous global travellers, flying between hemispheres on journeys that defy the imagination.
More precisely, they link one land mass to another, island-hopping.
Islands have a special significance and fascination for Hobart artist Katherine Cooper. Not only did she grow up on KingIsland but her ancestors come from an island community in the northern hemisphere, from Shetland off the west coast of Scotland. Islands are in her DNA.
Cooper first visited Shetland three years ago after what she describes as a life-time of yearning to go there and the pull of the island was so strong, she decided soon afterwards to take up an art residency in the region.
The artist might be renown for her paintings of Tasmanian birds – she was a finalist in the BBC Wildlife Artist of the Year awards in 2011 – but the Shetland trip would allow Cooper to extend her horizons. Cooper’s own journey of discovery would embrace people living in remote island communities and the birds and animals that share a harsh and storm-tossed environment with them.
“I wanted to observe the similarities that exist within island life regardless of hemisphere, the links between resilient, remote fishing and farming communities and the special wildlife that unites them,” she said when he met for coffee one recent summer afternoon.
After her original plans for an art residency fell through because of sickness, Shetland Arts helped Cooper secure a place at the Tamara Workshop in the tiny port of Cunninsburgh, where she spent six months.
The residency resulted in an exhibition called “Birdland – Birds of Shetland”, at the Old Haa of Brough at Burravoe on the Isle of Yell, Shetland. The Old Haa was built in 1672!
She may have been an “unkan”, or stranger in Shetland, but she was soon accepted by the locals. She actually received a certain notoriety for while there Cooper learned she had been short-listed for the BBC award for 2012.
“I found so many similarities between my home of King Island and Shetland – they are both resilient fishing and farming communities and the challenges involved with living an island life are almost identical,” she said.
There was one distressing aspect of her trip, however. Cooper was staggered to find many of the rocky coves and beaches of far-flung Shetland – situated between the North Atlantic Ocean and North Sea – awash with plastic pollution.
“I was somewhat aware of the ocean plastic waste dumping prior to visiting Shetland which prompted me to attend a talk given by BBC photographer Raymond Bessant from the neighbouring Orkney islands,” Cooper said.
The talk was accompanied by a video Bessant had made about the northern fulmar called “The Flying Dustbin”.
“The video was designed to highlight a problem facing the fulmar,” she said. “Bessant was amazed to find it eats plastic rubbish from the surface of the ocean and thought as many people as possible should know about its plight.”
Copper said that, speaking with staff from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, she also became aware of the enormity of the plastic problem – plastic has also been found in the stomachs of puffins and other auks. They were shallow feeders so this ‘food’ source’’ appeared very attractive.
“Sadly ocean dumping and plastic waste is impacting considerably upon seabirds including the puffins. It’s a universal and disturbing problem,” she said.
Cooper has been invited to exhibit in Shetland this year with the ShetlandMuseum and Archives. The exhibition will be called “The Hemisphere Travellers” based upon southern and northern hemisphere pelagic and shore-based seabirds whose existence is now threatened. The work will include birds from 60 degrees north to 58 degrees south and will include the islands of Tasmania, including King and the Flinders and Kent Group, along with MacquarieIsland.