The busiest artist in Texas has little to say when we meet, but she lets out a brief whistle.
She quivers slightly as she sizes me up, gazing at me through intelligent eyes the color of fresh-churned butter. She is wary around strangers because in some respects, she might as well be a chicken; pretty much anybody she encounters might want to eat her.
This spring, a lot of folks will want to meet Hannah, sculptor Joseph Havel’s African gray parrot. She’s not likely to appear in public, but her work will. Hannah is Havel’s star collaborator for an exhibition at the nonprofit art space Dallas Contemporary, where “Parrot Architecture” will be on view April 16–August 21, plus smaller shows at Dallas’s Talley Dunn Gallery (“Flight Paths and Floor Plans,” May 7–June 18) and New Orleans’s Arthur Roger Gallery (“Birdsongs,” May 7–July 16). The shows stacked up because they were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This would be a pretty big deal for any bird. Havel’s works are in the collections of major museums around the world. A few days before handlers arrive to haul away the art, the huge downstairs studio of his compound in northeast Houston looks like a museum itself. Several years’ worth of new work fills much of the space, including precariously totemic, ten-foot-tall sculptures the artist thinks of as “clumsy humans” and similar but smaller pieces on pedestals. Frank Gehry, who is famous for designing wobbly-looking buildings, might envy the architecture of these works built from stacks of cardboard boxes Hannah has pecked to pieces. Also on display are single boxes that are “pure Hannah,” cast in bronze and hung on walls, and a series of monumental collages that are more “almost pure Havel,” incorporating pecked boxes Havel has flattened and affixed to wood canvases.
The concept may sound gimmicky, but these are the most existential sculptures Havel has yet produced. They look as if they could collapse at any moment, an evocative metaphor for the chaos of the past two years and the demise of our planet’s ecosystems.
“She brings her instinct, I bring mine, and somewhere in the middle we meet,” Havel says. He provides the formal aesthetics and structural engineering, piling and assembling Hannah’s carved pieces into sculptures. After they’re glued, the stacked pieces are pulled apart to be bronzed, then reassembled. Havel loves the marvelous details the casting reveals—including marks from tape and glue drips on the boxes. But to balance that preciousness and create a visual discourse, he’s cast the newest stacked works in clear plastic, an equally laborious but different process.
When she’s not on his shoulder during our visit, Hannah perches on one of Havel’s index fingers. She likes it when he playfully flips her upside down, but as we walk through the studio, she looks slightly bored. He lifts her toward finished pieces, encouraging her to show me she recognizes them. But like any good artist, she knows when she’s done. She has also figured out that once her handiwork has been cast, she can no longer change it.
Hannah’s layers of breast feathers are a soft gray, with white edges that make them look a tad fluffed even when they’re not, like the ruffled mushrooms that grow on tree trunks. Bright red tail feathers add a slightly sassy sensibility to her chill stance. “She’s not super nervous,” Havel says. “She just pooped on me, though. That’s one of the things you have to get used to with a bird.”
Hannah, who came into his life as a surprise from a former wife, bonded to him as a fledgling and is now 24 years old, which is about middle age for her species. Their working relationship began about six years ago, after Havel started offering her wood to chew as a cheap alternative to store-bought toys. He discovered she preferred soft balsa wood to basswood. She didn’t completely shred it; even better, Hannah’s distressed wooden blocks looked like miniature versions of famous modern sculptures. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, my parrot can make Giacomettis,’ ” Havel says.
She only chewed when he was in the room with her, and she’d look up from her work to make sure he approved. He started giving her cardboard boxes after learning that in the wild, African grays nest in tree hollows. Hannah pecks her boxes from the inside out, as if she’s creating a view into the world. And she gets excited whenever she gets a new box. She prefers smallish boxes, but as Havel and his wife, the artist Mary Flanagan, isolated at home during the pandemic, their online orders resulted in a mother lode of larger cardboard containers.
In the past, Havel has utilized shirt labels, shirt collars, flags, curtains, Asian joss paper, and shoes as materials for his sculptures. He’s always looking for “something in the everyday that has critical implications about the environment or the economy that work[s] in this place between being personal and being put out in the world,” he says. The loads of pandemic cardboard made him mindful of the Anthropocene epoch and the sixth mass extinction—the whole dismal mess that’s occurring as humans trash the world. And Hannah herself is somewhat emblematic of this era. Although she was bred domestically, which is common, wild African grays are endangered because of habitat loss and pet-industry poaching.
Havel wanted to find some common ground with his beloved bird. “This whole thing about communicating with her takes a great deal of empathy on both sides,” he says. Hannah has a vocabulary of about 25 words, most of which she has absorbed on her own. She also mimics the voices of the compound’s cats, whom she sometimes terrorizes as a kind of defensive measure. (She shows no such animosity to the other house animal, a gregarious four-pound Yorkie named Pixel.) And she calls to the birds outside. “So she’s multilingual,” Havel says.
She also plays jokes on him. She’ll hang upside down in her cage and yell, “Help! Help! Help!,” then right herself and laugh when he comes to check on her. When she’s hungry, she’s specific about what she wants, and he’s taught her to say “share” first, to be polite.
“When they say an African gray has the intelligence of a three-year-old, people are referring to a three-year-old human, right?” Havel says. He believes, along with some pioneering animal researchers, that parrots are capable of abstract or creative thoughts. “She probably understands me better than I understand her,” he says. “We’re so human-centric we don’t allow ourselves this understanding that animals might have a way of thinking that’s different.”
Hannah has cages all over the compound: one in Havel’s studio, one in the living room where she sleeps, and another in her own studio (she prefers to perch atop that one to carve). She is currently at work demolishing a Topo Chico box. Nearby she also has a glass worktable piled with a mess of partially pecked boxes and blocks of wood where she sometimes works on multiple pieces at once. Havel doesn’t know how long he’ll continue the collaboration after this run of shows, but the parrot obviously isn’t tired of it yet.
An hour into our visit, Hannah is still not speaking to me. However, when I leave her studio and tell her goodbye, she begins to sing, letting fly two lilting notes that multiply into a bright song of a few bars. They’re far more mysterious and beautiful than any words a bird could say, even when a bird can speak through her art.
I head back downstairs to leave, then remember to take a few pictures. Havel retrieves the bird and joins me in his studio again. Back on his hand, Hannah sees me waiting, and in a surprisingly low-octave, droll voice, she finally says, “Hullo.”