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Kris Kerzman, Published January 24 2014

Birds of a feather flock together for NDSU gallery art exhibition

FARGO – If you’ve seen the “Portlandia” sketch “Put a Bird on It,” you probably had a good laugh at the expense of trendy crafters everywhere who got caught red-handed, well, putting birds on things.

What makes the sketch good satire, though, is the kernel of truth embedded in it, namely, humanity’s close-knit relationship to our feathered friends. Throughout human history, birds have come to symbolize everything from lofty desires like flight to our dark inner core (think Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”).

So when artists Paul Noot and Ali LaRock, longtime friends and co-founders of the Bismarck Downtown Artist Co-op, were looking for a notion to provide a thematic center for their new show, the sketch fit pretty well.

The resulting exhibition, “Put a Bird on It,” has been traveling across the state for the past year, opening in Bismarck and traveling to Minot, Cando and Jamestown before landing in Fargo at North Dakota State University’s Memorial Union Gallery during the month of February.

“When I showed Paul the ‘Portlandia’ sketch, he thought it was hilarious,” LaRock says. “At first we were going to take already existing things and put birds on them, like in the sketch, things bought at an antiques store, but we ended up just going in our own personal direction, using the birds as symbols for our own personal ideas.”

“We’re both bird lovers,” Noot adds. “I’ve taught a class for teachers over the summer on birds of North Dakota, and I’ve always been a bird-watcher. I take care of the birds in my backyard. Then we had this joke that if we wanted to sell art, we can just put a bird on it like in the sketch, and it went from there.”

Noot’s paintings tend toward more realistic renditions of birds, while LaRock’s whimsical paintings add frequent mixed-media elements like paper and fabric and tend to be more impressionistic.

The resulting collection of works have evolved, finch-like, as the exhibition has migrated from one venue to another and pieces have sold, and both artists have hatched new pieces to supplement the show.

NDSU Memorial Union Gallery Director Netha Cloeter says the exhibition has been a popular draw for students, and the combined use of texture in the exhibition has prompted plenty of discussion among her staff. She adds that the exhibition also draws some interesting correlations between fine art and pop culture.

“There’s a painting by Paul that has Grumpy Cat (made famous as an Internet meme) with a goldfinch on its head, and it turns Grumpy Cat into a more thoughtful subject, as something both serious and humorous,” Cloeter says.

At the root of all the work, Cloeter adds, is the idea that birds, which are a crucial part of humanity’s history of communication with one another, are a perfect metaphor for reflection on the human condition.

Both Noot and LaRock agree.

“For me, they are amazing,” LaRock says. “They can fly, for one thing, and I see them as whimsical and playful, and they come in so many different shapes and sizes. They lend themselves well to how I want to portray different interactions and feelings, because it can be easier to use a bird rather than a human and take some of the intensity out of it.”

And birds, who flock together for strength and safety, provide an easy comparison for the partnership between the two artists. Visual art exhibitions often feature groups of artists, but collaborative exhibitions are relatively rare due to logistical and creative hurdles. But for these birds of a feather, the process was pretty painless. LaRock credits their friendship and trust in each other’s talents, to which Noot adds that their distinct styles help make the whole thing fly.

“Our works are opposites in terms of style. I’m a bit more realistic, and she’s a bit more impressionistic. Mixing them together and making it work, though, is a fun chore. It’s a good combination,” he says.

If you go

What: ‘Put a Bird on It’ closing reception

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: NDSU Memorial Union Gallery

Info: Free and open to the public

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo, and its online publication, ARTSpulse. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net/artspulse.