Rigel Stuhmiller’s vibrant bird prints have an unlikely genesis… the sidelines of a soccer field.
Rigel, a Berkeley printmaker who will be the guest artist Saturday, May 13, at Golden Gate Audubon Society’s annual awards celebration, spent a lot of time on the bench as a college soccer player at MIT. Bored, she started watching flocks moving over the open field.
“Not a great era for my soccer development, but it was the first time I had spent much time thinking about birds and observing their behavior,” said Rigel, now 39.
Rigel produces various kinds of prints – block prints, letterpress, and screen prints. Her products include wall art, note cards, tote bags, and tea towels. While her subjects range from fish and flowers to dinosaurs and cabbages, birds clearly occupy a central place in her artistic imagination.
One of Rigel’s own favorite works is her small desktop letterpress bird calendar, featuring one bird each month. Her birds are simple and colorful, often perched on flowers of a contrasting color.
“I find birds happy, beautiful, and fascinating,” she said. “I love the little thrill of finding them, I feel relaxed watching them hop around and eat things and sing, I like watching them live their lives. I like learning their different personalities. I feel like there’s nothing bad about a bird, they’re just inherently cheerful and interesting creatures.”
Growing up in San Diego, Rigel didn’t set out to be an artist. But ultimately she realized that art was the only work that made her happy. She first started sketching birds around the time of those college soccer games, but it was a bumpy start.
“I didn’t know anything about bird anatomy so maybe I should call them ‘birds,’ ” she said. “It took me a long time to understand their different anatomy. I tend to make them too human, because I have a lot more experience drawing people.”
Her understanding of birds took a big leap when she met her husband, a wetlands restoration ecologist.
“He was the first person I had met who walked around with binoculars on hikes,” she said. “He was always very interested in looking at hawks, which at first I found strange because hawks were so commonplace in San Diego that I never had given them much thought. They had been just shapes that sat on top of telephone poles. But his excitement was very infectious and, once I started to learn more about them, I started to realize that hawks were cooler than I gave them credit for.”
Rigel became fascinated by the wildlife, plants, and mushrooms in the field guides that her husband routinely carried with him. “I started drawing more accurate birds as I started learning more about them,” she said.
Today she works from photos. She typically starts with a sketch on paper, and then does a version on her electronic tablet. Using the tablet is similar to sketching in a notebook, but it allows her to easily make changes and experiment with line weights, colors, and compositions.
“My goal is to capture the bird’s personality and be accurate enough while still retaining some style and liveliness and suggestion,” she said. “I also want to make sure the composition and colors of each image are harmonious.”
She prints some of her images digitally. But for others, she uses the computer to separate the colors and create printing plates for each color. Rigel does her own block printing. For letterpress projects like her calendar, she turns to Berkeley master printer Richard Seibert. Screen prints like her tea towels and tote bags are also done by outside printers.
Rigel’s products are sold at venues ranging from local spots like Mrs. Dalloway’s, Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, and the Ecology Center to distant institutions like the American Museum of Natural History in New York. While she feels fortunate to make a living from her art, she finds herself spending less time actually creating art than she’d like.
“In my ideal world, I’d be doing artwork 100% of the time and do no marketing or administration,” she said. “In reality, I currently do artwork about 5 percent of the time, and the rest I spend on administration/marketing.
“I get the feeling this is a common paradox for many small businesses: To continue supporting yourself in order to do the work you love, you find you need to spend most of your time doing something completely different. I’m working on ways to shift the balance so I can focus more time on art in the future.”
Ilana DeBare, a former newspaper reporter, is communications director for Golden Gate Audubon Society.