Lynne Parks explores loss of migratory songbirds in BMA exhibit

At dawn in the spring and fall, Lynne Parks walks through the streets downtown, gathering the bodies of birds.

Hermit thrushes. Common yellowthroats. Rose-breasted grosbeaks whose markings give them the appearance of being streaked with blood.

Parks and her fellow birders find as many as 18 small bodies each morning during the peak of migration — a fraction of the as many as 1 billion birds ecologists say die annually after hitting buildings.

Guided by constellations, the birds are confused by the city lights, which appear to be a second web of stars. They dip down, strike glass and are injured or killed.

An artist, Parks began to wonder how to raise awareness of the birds' plight and pay tribute to their brief lives.

"How can I honor this life that's dying in my hand?" said Parks. "How can I show the importance of these individual lives?"

Parks, delicate and birdlike herself, began to photograph the birds in the spring of 2012. Her portraits capture details of the birds' bodies that few have the chance to see: wisps of feathers along their bellies, curled feet pink as new buds.

The evocative series garnered Parks a 2013 Baker Artist Award. A show of her photos, as well as works by the other two Baker winners, sculptor Jonathan Latiano and cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski, opens Wednesday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"They capture such a wonderful sense of fragility," BMA director Doreen Bolger said of Parks' work. "How delicate a balance we have in nature and the world. How important it is to remember, as we populate cities and build buildings, that animals and plants are all around us. It's a real reminder of the care we have to take of the world we live in."

Parks, at 46, has long found inspiration in the brittle and broken. She explores the streets and alleys near her Charles Village home, photographing piles of graying twine, frayed fabrics, layers of paint and insulation on old buildings.

These photographic forays also serve as a meditation on Parks' own body. Since she was 14 years old, she has been afflicted with a rare form of cancer that causes tumors to appear all over her body. She has undergone 30 surgeries and two rounds of radiation. She is now seven months into her second course of chemotherapy.

"They know very little about it," said Parks. "There is no cure, and treatments are uncertain."

The cancer and subsequent surgeries have left their mark on Parks' face. Beneath warm, bright eyes, her mouth appears slightly blurred.

Her experiences have caused Parks to question the nature of beauty. For years, after the 1995 surgery that altered her face, she was angry, she said. But she eventually realized that she could learn from — and teach others — through her suffering.

"Our society is so preoccupied with beauty, especially facial beauty," she said. "I want people to know in terms of my abilities and accomplishments, it is not important. There are other definitions of beauty."

Jeannie Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, which manages the Baker Artist Awards, praised Parks' work as "unique, passionate and very, very deep."

"She has such an authentic vision and a real empathy for the world," said Howe.

Nature and illness are twin themes woven through Parks' life.

The youngest of five children, Parks spent much of childhood in the outdoors near their home in Annandale, Va. Her father was a landscape gardener who often brought home injured animals to nurse back to health.

While her siblings pursued careers in the sciences, Parks was drawn to the arts. She majored in creative writing at Hollins College, then moved home after graduation to receive cancer treatment and to care for her mother, who was suffering from dementia.