Last weekend, Noah's own Corey Rubin opened his solo show featuring paintings and photographs at the visitor center within the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Not only were we lucky enough to go on a guided bird walk after the opening, but we sat down with Corey to talk about his work and about birding in New York City.
The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, established in 1951, is nestled in the marshes between the far reaches of the Rockaway Beach peninsula and JFK Airport. Since its founding, more than 300 species of birds have been spotted in the parklands, making it a popular destination for birdwatchers. The park is also the native home to more than 60 species of butterflies. The park’s saltwater marshes are a popular egg-laying spot for both diamondback terrapin turtles and horseshoe crabs. While the park was originally characterized by its two manmade freshwater ponds, the West Pond was overflowed and breached during Hurricane Sandy back in 2012. Today, the park’s visitor center offers free permits as well as guided walking tours for birdwatchers, hikers, and anyone else looking to escape the city for a little while.
NOAH: So how long have you been birding?
COREY: I have been taking birding more seriously in past two years.
NOAH: And before that?
COREY: Well, ever since I was a kid I had an interest in birds. My grandma, who I was lucky enough to hang out with quite a bit, always took me to the Chesapeake Bay, and she had a profound love for waterfowl in that area and I kind of adopted that. She used to take bird carving classes with the Ward brothers. Also my brothers, they are duck hunters, so I used to love going scouting with them, which is basically hunting without the guns, so basically you’re just going to set up decoys and try and see what ducks you see, but I could never really hunt them.
NOAH: You’ve never hunted ducks?
COREY: I could never shoot them. All those years of scouting was basically bird watching.
NOAH: I was going to ask you who or what got you into it, it sounds like it was your grandmother, but bird watching as the thing itself?
COREY: I would bird watch with my grandmother.
NOAH: With binoculars and everything?
COREY: With binoculars and we would have an old Peterson's guide. But in the past two or three years I’ve been fortunate enough to gain a lot of knowledge and spend a lot of time doing it, and that’s thanks to my girlfriend Molly, when she bought me a pair of binoculars.
So the name of your show, chance encounters to molly. Can you explain that a little bit more?
I just wanted the show to be a bit of an abstracted love note to her. For the most part, only she would understand the context to some hyper personal titles of the photos and paintings. But in addition to that, the titles still allow for engagement in the audience, in more of a one-on-one way, which I also really enjoy. I also think she’s one of the best young birders in the city and especially on Long Island. She’s a really serious birder, and she’s very good.
Can you quickly define what a ‘good birder’ is?
Yeah it’s someone that just knows what and where to look, knows the calls, can identify birds, respects the birds—
So it’s a lot of experience?
Sometimes, but its not even experience, because there’s people that have been doing this for years and years, like you see all these older people that are into it and a lot of them have been doing it their whole life. She just has this incredible knack for it, and on top of that she’s extremely dedicated to it and she grew up being outside like me. She was near the beach and I grew up by the bay, the Chesapeake Bay.
How did it happen that you were able to team up with the National Parks Services for this one?
The NPS visitor center has the space to show photography and other things linking to the wildlife refuge at Jamaica Bay, so that was already in existence. I wanted to take a less conventional approach to the idea of a wildlife exhibition, so that’s when I had the idea to also including my paintings within the same context of the photographs. They’re basically multi-layered monochromes with etched words in the layers, and the words are hyper personal statements that become so hyper personal that they become abstracted, the same way abstraction exists through certain types of imagery. Through that thought process, I wanted to link the way I title those paintings to the way I title the photos of the birds, I’m not personifying the animals, I’m not giving them something to say, it’s more like I am the vehicle to connecting both things.
Did you think of doing it anywhere else?
Well actually the location came up through my studio mate from school, Chris Villagio. He wanted to organize the exhibition there, because he had talked to Charles, the Park Ranger, who is in charge of the refuges’ display. I'm very thankful to Chris for thinking of me.
And he knew of your work, of this work in particular, when he mentioned it to that guy?
Yeah, he thought of me in his application to the park, and they were down, and it was really pretty smooth sailing, they (NPS) let me do pretty much exactly what I wanted. There was nothing too shocking about what I wanted to do, it was really just possibly a bit more peculiar than anything they might be used to. That being said I’m sure there were lots of weird exhibits there before me. Anything I try and make in the studio, it needs to do two things at once, it needs to have a thing power and it needs to be talking to or questioning something of importance to me. That makes it worthwhile being a maker in today’s day and age.
New York 1, a local new channel here, Aired a quick video piece on your show saying that “The exhibit started off as a social media campaign when [you] documented your wildlife sightings and posted them to Instagram. When you were posting these images to Instagram, did you have it in your head that you wanted to do a show for this body of work in particular?
That news segment was kind of weird, they didn’t talk about the paintings or anything. I just posted them on Instagram because I thought it would be nice for them to exist somewhere other than on my camera, and I thought it was a nice way maybe for one of my friends that follows me on Instagram to just get a trip out of a weird photo of a bird.
You’ve shown me this website that keeps you updated on bird sightings in the New York area.
That’s eBird. That’s like a citizen science project that’s been put together by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where local birders can document their sightings all over the world. Cornell uses that information for research and different conservation and ornithological studies, which I think is really rad.
So there was one morning where I met you real early before work in Central Park to try to spot, I can’t remember the name of the bird now.
Whip-poor-will. It’s a type of night hawk.
We walked around for a few hours and we saw some cool birds, but we didn’t see the Whip-poor-will, did you ever get a chance to catch a glimpse that bird on another day?
I did, that bird was around. Molly and I go through these phases of chasing birds. There’s times when you’re chasing a bird and you don’t see it and get frustrated. But I’ve never just gone birding and had a bad time.
I remember that week. You would come into work and get on the eBird site and some guy would see the Whip-poor-will at later that day and you’d be upset that you missed it.
There are so many people that are better birders than me, so it’s like there’s a numerous amount of factors to why I didn’t see the bird.
Do you think it could have been there one of the times you went, and maybe you just missed it?
Oh yeah, yeah. I mean it’s a nocturnal bird so we need to get there really early for when it’s still active before falling asleep, and I don’t want to call the bird and wake it up. I feel like thats not nice. So it’s just like, the chase is sometimes fun if you have the right mindset, and I think that week was turning my mindset in a negative way, so I kind of stopped and then in the following couple of days Molly spotted a different type of nighthawk, a common nighthawk, in prospect park, just when we were going birding, and that was like oh man, I need to chill out. That was a sick day.
So what are your favorite places to birdwatch in the city?
I really like prospect park and Central Park, I really like Marine Park Salt Marsh, in Brooklyn, that’s a bit of a drive though. Prospect park and central park, since we’re on this migratory path of birds going north to south and south to north, we get this crazy opportunity in the city to see all these birds from all over the place, like there’s a chance that it will fly through Central Park. Because of eBird you have this amazing opportunity to spot these things while living in NYC. It’s the most unique and beautiful thing and one of the main reasons why I love birding so much in NYC. You don’t have to go anywhere to see these things that come from everywhere and it’s the raddest thing, and I wish more people would realize that.
Here at Noah I feel like it’s so easy for us to back birding because of that and the type of environmental consciousness you described.
Right, it’s consciousness. There’s always something new, because everything is always changing, For better and mostly for the worse. Sometimes a lot of things stay the same, but I just have the feeling that I need to go birding, the same way I need to go skateboarding, same way I need to sleep, I just need it.
We’d asked you in the office earlier this week if you could be any bird what would you be, and you were pretty quick to respond that you would be a wood duck. What’s really good with wood ducks?
I think I would love to be a wood duck, but I don’t think I’m that cool. Wood ducks are just amazing looking. It’s like strictly visual, they’re like smaller than mallards, and they’re this really intricate thing and they’re nesting in prospect park right now so you can see the babies. I don’t know I just like the way they look. There’s also mandarin ducks, which they have at the Central Park Children’s Zoo, they are fucking sick. But I just go for wood duck because it’s a classic thing, but the mandarin duck, everyone should google that because it’s insane looking, it looks fake.
Were all the birds pictured in your show only from around the wildlife refuge?
Yes, so the National Parks Service in New York and part of New Jersey has this thing called the gateway National Park System, and within those you have a few different locations, like there’s a few in Staten Island, there’s a few in Queens, which you know Jamaica Bay, then in Brookyln, Marine Park Salt Marsh and Floyd Bennet field. You have all these cool places that are known for their wildlife, so all those photos were taken within that gateway system.
Directly after your show’s opening we went on a bird walk in the refuge with Molly and she did her tour guide thing with friends, some strangers, visitors from your opening. It was really cool to see a mix of young people, old people, serious birders, and first-timers. Molly’s club, the Feminist Bird Club, does a lot of walks. Do you know what her plans are with the club? What’s the connection of feminism and women’s rights to birds?
I think she wants it to be as big as possible and to donate as much time and money to different organizations like planned parenthood or NY Abortion Fund. She wants to raise awareness for human rights and equality no matter what. I’m really so happy to support her and I respect the hell out of her for seeing a problem and doing something about it rather than just talk, because sometimes talk is cheap, you know. Her and her interests is the connection point. She wants everyone to have a respect for birds. And I know a lot of people that don’t feel safe going out birding by themselves. There’s people that have been killed recently in parks, a woman was jogging and she got killed, that’s a good reason to get together and feel comfortable.
But you don’t need to be a woman to be a part of a feminist bird club?
No, you just have to be a feminist and understand why feminism is important in today’s day and age.
My last question for you. What do you want people to walk away with from viewing your show?
I’d like people to feel a bit more connected with the natural world.