Issue 15.3: June/July 2012

Bright Wings

Story by Alan D. McNarie

Photos by Elyse Butler


At Volcano Art Center’s Niaulani Campus on the Big Island, Marian Berger is washing her hands. She always does that before touching The Book. The Book is The Living Endemic Birds of Hawai‘i: Mea Makamae, limited edition, copy no. 1. It’s enormous: forty by twenty-six inches—a “double elephant folio” large enough that Berger’s thirty-three art-quality prints can show the birds life-size. There are 250 full-size sets of Endemic Birds, and they retail for $4,500 each unbound—but The Book, hand-bound by Hilo master bookbinder Jésus Sanchez, sells for $6,000. Berger, a slender, 50-something woman with brown hair and striking green eyes, had already earned a reputation as one of Hawai‘i’s most respected wildlife artists when in 2007 a benefactor (who prefers to remain anonymous) offered to sponsor Endemic Birds, the project that would occupy the next three years of her life.


While Berger washes her hands, a Volcano Art Center staffer brings the book, swaddled in black cloth, to a special podium in Niaulani’s Great Room. Berger gently pulls the cloth aside, opens the tooled leather cover and pulls a sheet of tissue paper away from the first plate to reveal an incredibly detailed watercolor portrait of two ‘alala. They are large, black birds; in Berger’s portrait one dangles upside down so it’s eye to eye with the other perched on a lower branch.


‘Alala are commonly called Hawaiian crows. But recent DNA tests, Berger notes, say otherwise: “These are considered ravens now. They’re playful and very smart.” Mainland ravens, she points out, are among the few animals known to make and use tools. She’d love to observe and paint a tool-using ‘alala, but chances to observe an ‘alala—as well as many of the other endemic birds Berger paints—are rare. In fact, these prints might be the closest most people will ever come to seeing a real ‘alala. They’re believed extinct in the wild, done in by habitat destruction, disease and introduced predators. Berger based these two playful ‘alala on a pair at the San Diego Zoo Foundation’s Keauhou Ranch facility. All eighty-four surviving ‘alala live in the foundation’s various facilities (sales of Endemic Birds support the foundation, which runs captive breeding centers for endangered birds in Volcano and in Makawao on Maui). The foundation is also selling individual prints, some of which line the art center’s halls. Berger pauses by a print of an ‘io, a Hawaiian hawk, swooping down on an alarmed ‘i‘iwi, a scarlet bird with a curved, salmon-colored beak.


“I must admit, I had problems with it. It was my editor’s idea,” she says of the predatory moment caught in paint. “I had to tell myself the ‘i‘iwi escaped.”



Berger is sometimes compared to James Audubon— apt because she modeled Endemic Birds after Audubon’s pioneering Birds of America, which first appeared in the early nineteenth century also as a limited edition, double elephant folio. Like Audubon, Berger is both artist and scientist—she has a degree in wildlife management—and her paintings are painstakingly accurate. Her primary medium, watercolor, is known more for its broad washes of color than for fine detail; she achieves that detail by applying layer upon layer of paint and by using a fine brush for delicate lines. “Sometimes I use a magnifying glass,” she says. But Audubon, working in the days before photography, shot his subjects with a musket before painting them, so his birds’ poses sometimes seem stiff. Berger’s birds appear very much alive. She’s studied not just what they look like but how they live, eat, court and nest. She’s frequented Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for some of Hawai‘i’s most endangered birds. She’s surfed the web for photographs and combed through classic ornithological tomes such as Hawaiian Bird Life by Andrew J. Berger (no relation).


The results are images packed with visual information: not just a bird accurate to the number of wing feathers, but depictions of its mate and young (if their coloration differs), all engaged in real-life behavior. Berger’s akeke‘e, for example, shares an insect with a prospective mate. Her ‘alae ke‘oke‘o (Hawaiian coot) flaps its wings and uses the lobes on its feet to “walk on water.” A Laysan duck snaps at brine flies at dusk. “There will be a thick cloud of brine flies,” says Berger. “The duck just opens its beak and runs through it. I put that sunset in because that’s the time they feed that way.”


Many of Hawai‘i’s rare forest birds probably descended from a single species of honeycreeper and adapted to their new niches by developing specialized bills, sometimes with bizarre designs. Take the ‘akiapola‘au, which lives only in upland koa and ‘ohi‘a forests on the Big Island: “Some people call it a pocketknife bird because its beak is both a chisel and a probe,” Berger says. It uses its short, sharp lower bill for drilling holes and its long, curved upper bill to hook larvae. Berger’s treatment shows a bird in chiseling position with its mouth open so wide that the lower beak points down at a right angle to its head.


The uniqueness and strangeness of birds like the ‘akiapola‘au were an inspiration for Berger. “I never liked or cared for birds before I moved to Hawai‘i,” she says. “I was into mammals, especially bears. When I moved to the Big Island and hiked into the endemic forests, I was introduced to Hawai‘i’s delicate and fragile avian beauty. When drawing the birds for study, I found myself introduced to avian art — especially from the 1800s and early 1900s. I began my practice then and have been doing it ever since.” The birds’ bright colors and fine detail are “perfect,” she says, for watercolor style. And the birds, most of which flutter on the edge of extinction, can use an ally with her talent.


The very specializations that once made these birds so successful have made it difficult for them to adapt to change. The ‘akiapola‘au, for example, is endangered; only about a thousand are left. Of more than 140 endemic bird species here when humans arrived, some thirty-seven survive, and thirty of those are on the federal endangered species list. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is about to add yet another species: the ‘i‘iwi. These brilliant birds have become something of an emblem for Hawai‘i’s birds—Berger has gotten more commissions to paint them than she has for than any other bird—but they’re crowded into a few shrinking upland forests, and disease-bearing mosquitoes are moving uphill as the climate warms. San Diego Zoo programs are trying to buy the birds time. The Keauhou Bird Conservation Center hatched eight more ‘alala in the spring of 2011. Its programs have released more than 400 nene (Hawaiian geese) as well as puaiohi (Kaua‘i thrushes), palila and Maui parrotbills back into the wild.



The path Berger took to become spokespainter for these birds hasn’t been an easy one, but she at least started with a hereditary advantage: Her father, John Berger, was a scientist, a US government meteorologist; her mother, Jewel, was an artist whose paintings appeared in juried exhibitions and sold to private collectors. Berger was born in Limerick, Ireland, where her father was setting up a weather station for the US government. When she was a toddler, her father’s work took the family to Wake Atoll, whose four square miles of dry land sat a few inches above sea level. When she was 7 the family moved again—to Anchorage, Alaska, in the midst of a blizzard. “My sister didn’t like it because she had to wear shoes for the first time in her life,” Berger recalls. But it was a great place for a future nature artist to grow up. Camping trips among moose and grizzlies were a short drive away, and her mother’s art studio was in the next room.


“My mom—she painted abstract and impressionistic, so I watched her all my life. I grew up with the smell of turpentine,” Berger says. She herself began by painting abstracts and pursued a degree in wildlife management at Humboldt State University in California, returning to Alaska’s Denali National Park to study red foxes as part of her coursework. Then one summer, a course called Representational Drawing brought her two passions together. Her first realistic painting was of a wandering Jew, a weedy vine with blue flowers known in Hawai‘i as honohono. “It blew me away,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, it works!’ It was the first time I’d done something like that.”


The same week she graduated, she married another wildlife biologist and moved to a remote fire tower in Northern California: “I was the lookout, and Mark had an all-woman fire crew,” she says. Her husband eventually got a job with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the Big Island, where Berger found work with the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association. She didn’t much care for the job, which involved trapping and dissecting rats, but the very-early-morning rat-catching hours gave her time to paint in the afternoons.


Then tragedy struck. “Our first baby died, and our marriage ended shortly after,” she recalls. Berger later remarried and had two more children, but her second husband died in a car crash shortly after their second child’s birth. “I was just in survival mode. I was raising two kids on my own,” she remembers. She got a job as a veterinarian’s assistant but also turned to her painting to help make ends meet. She found an appreciative clientele and sold so many paintings that she doesn’t even remember many of them now. Eventually she went back to school, got a nursing degree and found work at a local clinic, then as an overnight nurse in the psychiatric ward at Hilo Medical Center. “The job consumed me—I was exhausted all the time,” she remembers.


Then one day, “this guy called me up out of the blue.” He wanted her to paint “all the living native birds [of Hawai‘i] and to do it like Audubon. I did not take him seriously at first; I didn’t know him.” But she did some checking and found out that “he travels around the world helping conservation efforts.” And he paid her in advance.


She quit nursing to work exclusively on Endemic Birds, and she continues to work as a full-time artist today. “I’m poorer, but I have a life,” she says, “and I’m doing what I love.”



With Endemic Birds behind her, Berger has returned to her first love: abstract art. One of her abstract pastels, which recently sold at the Volcano Garden Arts gallery, also shows an ‘alala—but a very different ‘alala from those in Endemic Birds. This one is a bold, fierce bolt of black, as if the spirit of the ‘alala has been released from its body. “I put the birds in the abstracts now, which I never used to do,” she says. “It’s a euphoric experience, especially with pastel, because pastel is more instantaneous—it’s so fast. I don’t have to dwell on it, whereas with watercolor I have to put all the layers on it in order to get that rich color.”


Last November Berger entered an abstract pastel called “Searching for Alternatives” in the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center’s annual Fall Arts Festival. The State Foundation for Culture and the Arts purchased it, which “kind of gave me my license to continue with [abstract art],” she says. “I’m so glad, because that’s really what I like to do.”


Though her style has changed, her message hasn’t. “‘Searching for Alternatives,’” Berger says, “involves two ‘i‘iwi and three small, white eggs. One ‘i‘iwi is confronting a black ball of squiggly lines that equal confusion in a changing environment.”