Throughout lockdown, artist Paul Harfleet refocused his practice to explore social media, ornithology, fashion, make-up and portraiture. His usual work, The Pansy Project*, is a politically and socially engaged project marking the experience of homophobia by the LGBTQ+ community in our cities.
Housebound, Harfleet began to consider what work would be relevant to a changed world. As he overlooked the London skyline from his apartment, his childhood passion for birds came to the fore, and the artist began drawing the birds he could see from his window. Comforted by the process, he asked his social media followers if there was a bird they’d like him to draw. A disparate selection of ornithological favourites, drawn in pen by Harfleet, accumulated and was distributed online, creating a burgeoning network of bird lovers sharing stories of the birds they love in an unexpected context.
He called the project Birds Can Fly, a symbolic title for a collection that addresses the potential for flight the birds depicted summon. Their wings closed, the birds are perched, waiting to escape, in a metaphor for a population temporarily caged. Setting up an online shop was the next step, and to promote it, Harfleet began creating a series of portraits that gently referenced birds he’d drawn in lockdown. As he continued to explore these portraits, they became ever more exuberant and a body of work arose.
The work has evolved into an exploration of the symbolism of birds and our relationship with the natural world, a subject widely covered by the media throughout lockdown. The extravagant and playful portraits have inadvertently come to explore notions of gender, fashion and beauty, and combine the Harfleet’s history as childhood ornithologist, latterly as a professional drag queen, and most recently a queer visual artist, writer and illustrator. As lockdown eases the frequency of the portraits wane, though he continues. To date he has drawn 40 birds and created 12 bird-referencing portraits.
*Harfleet discusses The Pansy Project in Trebuchet 5: Art and Crime.
Image: Paul Harfleet, Lilac Breasted Roller, 2020