John Pusateri: The Eerie Birds

When searching for inspiration, artists usually encounter some sort of epiphany – sometimes at the hands of Mother Nature. You see free-roaming animals, beautiful lakes and streams or perhaps a couple of kids playing street hockey on the far end of the road. But what few would call inspirational, and probably refer to as a disturbing curse, is hundreds of dead crows lying in your path. Most people would run away in fear or just try to avoid them altogether, but John Pusateri, an extremely talented artist most known for his owl portraits, decided to embrace the doomed crows (not physically) and document them. The pieces that he created after that were strongly inspired by the days that he walked to school and saw the enormous amount of birds that were “freshly dead and looked like they were just sleeping.” His most notable work of the owls, was only accomplished because he decided to use the deceased birds as his new inspiration.

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Even though his portraits of birds, particularly owls, is what he is most recognized for, he didn’t began to paint these animals until 1999, a couple of years before graduating from Syracuse University. Before drawing owls on his canvases, Pusateri dabbled in other works, mainly small portraits for communities around his university. He created beautiful art for inmates to enjoy, and he came to realize that his creativity and his small amount of effort produced positive results in the jailhouses and the areas that he visited.

After earning a BFA with honors from Syracuse, he left for the Elam School of Fine Arts in New Zealand to chase a Master’s. Pusateri developed a strong affection for the country’s culture very quickly, and he felt even stronger feelings towards their ecology. In fact, the country’s culture that centers around the ecology and preservation of animal life affected him so much that in 2005, shortly after earning his Master’s degree, he applied for citizenship so that he could continue his work in a place he felt the most inspiration.

In Juxtapoz Wild, an artistic book by Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine that features known and unknown artists and collectors, Pusateri said, “Owls are probably the most powerful birds that I work with for a few reasons. Their forward-facing eyes give them a presence and gaze that is unmistakeable and, at times, unnerving. They are almost completely silent while flying and can seem to appear out of nowhere. Culturally, they are often messages of death or bad luck, and this also adds to their power.”

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Within Pusateri’s pieces, we can begin to understand how he feels and the reason that he makes these drawings for us. He has a passion for the local ecology in New Zealand, and his work also brings up interesting problems about the conservation of nature. His work targets a number of things, from biodiversity, to the loss of one’s life, and questioning whether there is an afterlife or not. His drawings of owls are meant to represent death in Auckland’s culture, and even though they can serve as a representation of a different idea in a particular culture, Pusateri’s work has caused us to think about the various topics throughout New Zealand’s artistic style.

Through memento mori, or “remember that you can die” in Latin, Pusateri constantly reminds us of our mortality and how fragile human life really is. His style of artwork reflects on dying an. “The Art of Dying,” is the style of art that has been used by Latin Americans and Victorians to seek salvation and forgiveness before death, ever since the 15th century. Centuries ago, the artwork of many scholars focused on people who were not religious, and religious leaders used these paintings of death to persuade them to run from damnation, or their souls would be sent to Hell for all of eternity. While Pusateri may not have the same beliefs as those hundreds of years ago, his work still exhibits death and the afterlife, two things that a lot of people are nervous to talk about. Not only that, but his fine details on the canvas is beautiful, to say the least.

Pusateri is able to create hyper-realistic owls through charcoal, pencils and pastels to apply an extreme amount of detail. While a lot of his work is done with basic drawings with charcoal and pencils, he also practices lithography to detail his piece. Using water and oil on a solid surface, he “prints” the image. With his various processes of detailing, he captures the humongous eyes that seem to stare back into our souls. Not only that, but the feathers on the birds are so illustrative that it’s hard to not question whether the owl is real or not.

Pusateri’s latest piece of art, Dysphagia, or “difficulty swallowing” in the medical field, is consistent work on his part. He takes nothing away from the bright and vivid colors that swarm the canvas. With the colorful bird overlapping the equally colorful background, the picture is the opposite of an eyesore. The large owl with big, bright eyes stares almost lifelessly into the viewer, bringing with it a sense of eeriness.

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The untitled work of Pusateri that features a bird on a branch that was hand printed, seems to be an almost direct opposite of Dysphagia at first glance. On one canvas, you have a luminous owl that pops out from the page, but on this piece, the bird doesn’t even look to be the focus of it. This portrait is black and white, and it doesn’t pop from canvas like others. The picture looks slightly dark and depressing, capturing a bird on a tree branch that is overlooking an empty field. But off to the left, there is a dead bird, possibly foreshadowing the future of the bird perched on the branch.

Pusateri has received recognition around the world for his brilliant art, and he has earned plenty of awards to back up the positive feedback. While most of his notability comes from Auckland, New Zealand, his newfound home, his art has spread to the U.S., as well as other countries like China, Japan and Mexico. The portraits that he creates can differ from bright and beautiful to dark and gloomy, but he always manages to connect with his viewers.

-Te’Ron Adams