Art installation ‘Birds Fly In: A Human Refuge’ opens at Oliver Art Center

Aug 7, 2020

In 2017, artist Ellie Harold was stuck in traffic in Atlanta. There was road rage all around her, and she started feeling it bubble up inside of her too. She asked herself, “Wouldn’t it be great if people could just have a place to go for a time out?”

When she got home, she started hurling globs of black paint at her canvas to channel her anger. It was her timeout. Then she noticed the globs of paint resembled birds, and as she let them fly onto her canvas, she saw them as messengers of hope and healing. 

As she kept painting, she also noticed marks on her canvas that resembled a chain link fence.

“Kind of prescient for what was to happen at the southern border of the United States within the next year and the talk of building a wall,” said Harold. “Then later in that year, when we began to see these images of children in chain-link enclosures, that – to me – looked a lot like cages.”.

A former Unity minister, Harold thought about how her birds could serve humanity. 

“I began to envision an enclosure in which these large-format bird paintings could actually serve as windows through the cage,” she said. “If I’m sitting looking out, then I begin to feel the freedom that exists beyond the cage.”

Her vision for an art installation began to form. From there, Harold solicited help from 20 international artists and collaborators for the art installation called, “Birds Fly In: A Human Refuge.” 

The installation:

The installation stands 9-feet tall at the Oliver Art Center in Frankfort. It’s fenced-in cage serves as the designated time out Harold had envisioned.

“The whole idea was to create a secular sanctuary for contemplation,” Harold says. “A lot of people are understandably afraid and anxious. They’re afraid of the virus, afraid of what’s happening to the economy.”


The 9-foot tall fenced-in cage displays Ellie Harold’s colorful bird paintings plus black banners etched with poetry, worn-out migrant shoes and Mylar blankets that were given to migrant children separated from their parents at the border.
Credit Diane Frederick

Harold’s colorful bird paintings hang from the fence, along with black banners etched with poetry, worn-out migrant shoes and Mylar blankets that were given to migrant children separated from their parents at the border. Music from Mexican composer and violinist David Mendoza plays in the background.

“We want you to come in and sit down and take a few deep breaths and then just look around,” Harold says.

Harold hopes people will let the experience of feeling trapped in a cage wash over them. Then she wants people to contemplate the ways they feel trapped in their lives and begin imagining how to break free. 

“So I would hope that people would come out of this experience with a sense of greater aliveness. That they would look through the window of these paintings and see ... abundant life,” Harold said.

The art installation, “Birds Fly In: A Human Refuge” will be on display at the Oliver Art Center through Sept. 11. Visitors are asked to wear a mask and physically distance.

 Coverage of the arts on Interlochen Public Radio is supported in part by the Michigan Council for Art and Cultural Affairs and the Northwest Michigan Arts and Culture Network.