At dawn in the spring and fall, Lynne Parks walks through the streets downtown, gathering the bodies of birds.
Hermit thrushes. Common yellowthroats. Rose-breasted grosbeaks whose markings give them the appearance of being streaked with blood.
Parks and her fellow birders find as many as 18 small bodies each morning during the peak of migration — a fraction of the as many as 1 billion birds ecologists say die annually after hitting buildings.
Guided by constellations, the birds are confused by the city lights, which appear to be a second web of stars. They dip down, strike glass and are injured or killed.
An artist, Parks began to wonder how to raise awareness of the birds’ plight and pay tribute to their brief lives.
“How can I honor this life that’s dying in my hand?” said Parks. “How can I show the importance of these individual lives?”
Parks, delicate and birdlike herself, began to photograph the birds in the spring of 2012. Her portraits capture details of the birds’ bodies that few have the chance to see: wisps of feathers along their bellies, curled feet pink as new buds.
The evocative series garnered Parks a 2013 Baker Artist Award. A show of her photos, as well as works by the other two Baker winners, sculptor Jonathan Latiano and cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski, opens Wednesday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“They capture such a wonderful sense of fragility,” BMA director Doreen Bolger said of Parks’ work. “How delicate a balance we have in nature and the world. How important it is to remember, as we populate cities and build buildings, that animals and plants are all around us. It’s a real reminder of the care we have to take of the world we live in.”
Parks, at 46, has long found inspiration in the brittle and broken. She explores the streets and alleys near her Charles Village home, photographing piles of graying twine, frayed fabrics, layers of paint and insulation on old buildings.
These photographic forays also serve as a meditation on Parks’ own body. Since she was 14 years old, she has been afflicted with a rare form of cancer that causes tumors to appear all over her body. She has undergone 30 surgeries and two rounds of radiation. She is now seven months into her second course of chemotherapy.
“They know very little about it,” said Parks. “There is no cure, and treatments are uncertain.”
The cancer and subsequent surgeries have left their mark on Parks’ face. Beneath warm, bright eyes, her mouth appears slightly blurred.
Her experiences have caused Parks to question the nature of beauty. For years, after the 1995 surgery that altered her face, she was angry, she said. But she eventually realized that she could learn from — and teach others — through her suffering.
“Our society is so preoccupied with beauty, especially facial beauty,” she said. “I want people to know in terms of my abilities and accomplishments, it is not important. There are other definitions of beauty.”
Jeannie Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, which manages the Baker Artist Awards, praised Parks’ work as “unique, passionate and very, very deep.”
“She has such an authentic vision and a real empathy for the world,” said Howe.
Nature and illness are twin themes woven through Parks’ life.
The youngest of five children, Parks spent much of childhood in the outdoors near their home in Annandale, Va. Her father was a landscape gardener who often brought home injured animals to nurse back to health.
While her siblings pursued careers in the sciences, Parks was drawn to the arts. She majored in creative writing at Hollins College, then moved home after graduation to receive cancer treatment and to care for her mother, who was suffering from dementia.
Parks was introduced to the visual arts by her husband, Chris Siron, also an artist. Much of their courtship consisted of taking photographs or going to art shows.
“Our first date was in the darkroom,” she said.
The couple moved to Baltimore about a decade ago so that she could get treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She works as a librarian at the Light Street branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Parks joined the Baltimore Bird Club and started volunteering with an offshoot group, Lights Out Baltimore. Along with similar organizations nationwide, the Lights Out campaign encourages businesses and homeowners to dim lights during songbird migration season.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, between 100 million and 1 billion birds die each year after crashing into buildings.
“They get drawn into the lights and become very disoriented,” said Parks.
Once down, the birds “get trapped in canyons of invisible barriers,” barreling into glass walls as they attempt to fly toward trees, she said.
“Their eyes are different, and they don’t see glass the same way we do,” she said.
Four of the photographs included in the BMA exhibit are of the lobbies of glass buildings downtown, shot at or slightly above street level. The lines of the buildings appear blurred, the layers of glass creating a dizzying effect. Through the glass, small trees look green and inviting, much as they would for a weary songbird.
Occasionally, as Parks and the other volunteers walk the three-mile loop downtown at dawn, they happen to see the birds just as they are flinging their small bodies against the glass.
“When you hold a dying bird in your hand, it has so much more of an effect than hearing the statistics,” she said.
When the Lights Out volunteers come across a dead bird, the place it in a plastic bag, tag it with the date and location, take it home and store it in the freezer. At the end of the season, the group gives the birds to the Smithsonian to study.
Sometimes, the birds are still alive when Parks finds them.
Parks lifts them gingerly, making a stretcher of sorts with her fingers. They weigh about an ounce. Then she places the bird on a cushion of paper towels in a brown paper bag and brings it to a wildlife rehabilitator.
Six of the portraits in the exhibit are of birds lying on pavement, just as Parks found them. The other six portraits are of frozen birds lying on the porch of a fellow volunteer’s home. Parks’ photos capture the fragile and complex beauty of the birds.
A chipping sparrow has a rust-colored ruff of feathers along its head. A white-throated sparrow has a splash of pollen yellow above its eyes. There is a poignancy to a swirl of feathers around the head of a gray catbird. Its eyes are closed and it appears to be sleeping.
“There’s a wonderful depth to them,” said Benjamin Levy, the exhibit’s curator. “She has this wonderfully sensitive eye.”
Parks said the deaths of her parents and brother at young ages, as well as her own illness, have led her to explore mortality in her work.
She has also long been interested in reflections. For years after her facial surgery, she was keenly aware of the changed face staring back at her. Now she is intrigued by birds’ perceptions of glass.
Despite the fatigue caused by the latest round of chemotherapy, Parks said she cannot stop creating art.
“I don’t have much choice. It’s almost a compulsion,” she said. “There’s a particular perception I’m attuned to, and it’s important I communicate that. What every artist wants to do is open people’s eyes to the world around them, to show them what’s good and what’s bad and what’s important.”
This story originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun on Feb. 26, 2014.