At the beginning of the first pandemic lockdown in the UK, March 2020, British wildlife TV presenters Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin took the opportunity to reach out and connect people who were suddenly lonely, alone, worried for the world and needing solace in nature.
Recognising the love that many people had for the natural world and the boost it would receive from a sudden cessation of human activity, they created the Self Isolating Bird Club on Facebook.
Here was a forum where bird lovers could connect, picking up ID, feeding and photography tips, as well as creating a supportive community of over 30,000 people. The Club encouraged members to share positive experiences, photos and art inspired by the natural world.
It was there that Paul Harfleet found a new lease of life when the previous world he knew ceased to be.
The transformative power of pansies
But first, we go back to the early 2000s, and consider the pansy.
Despite their delicate appearance, the pansy is a hardy plant able to withstand harsh elements because of a defense mechanism it uses to protect its flower parts, drooping its head.
This is said to resemble someone deep in thought: ‘pansy’ is a corruption of the French verb penser, to think. It is also known as heartsease by herbalists, and Shakespeare used the flower to convey desire and love. “Pansy” is also an offensive term directed towards gay men.
Homophobic abuse is still a common occurrence, and on one particular day in 2005 as Paul was walking through his then home of Manchester, UK, he was harassed not once, or twice, but three separate times in the space of a few hours. Whilst the abuse was nothing new, there was something different this time, and Paul became very aware that the streets now harbored dark memories.
Already intrigued by the thought processes evoked when people see roadside memorials, he found the perfect solution to rectify his own psychological harm.
Unlike the well-meaning but dead flowers left at accident spots, Paul acknowledged that, as he was still living, the flower should be, too.
After research and finally choosing the pansy, Paul elected to plant a single flower in the soil closest to the places where he was attacked, and photograph it. This simple and peaceful act instantly changed the way he felt about the site.
Realizing the scope of this transformative effect, and hearing similar reactions from people he talked to about it, Paul pledged to seek out the places of abuse perpetrated on other people, and plant a pansy there: The Pansy Project was born, and you can read more about his work and the sites he has visited here.
Traveling all over the world and garnering media attention as he went, Paul’s actions both memorialized and highlighted the incident, turning a place of hate and hurt into one of love and remedy; retaining the reason but presenting a panacea.
“What people don't realize is that if you get shouted at in the street for being your sexuality, it's not the same experience every time. One day, I could be like, Oh, whatever. Other days, I burst into tears. Another day, tell them to eff off. Every day it’s different, depending on what's going on in your life at that time. The ritual of planting the pansy is really special for me, and to capture the photograph. But the focus is bringing communities together to combat this frankly boring but persistent issue.”
For the next 15 years, this work would be the focus of Paul’s life. Along comes March 2020, and all travel stops: the pansies can no longer be planted.
Looking out the high-rise window of his London apartment when lockdown came along, like so many of us, Paul was struck with this awful disquiet and uncertainty. His flatmate had only recently moved out so he was now indeed all alone, self-isolating with his thoughts and very little else.
It was whilst he was wondering what to do for work that he saw flocks of birds pass by his window, as he did every day. It struck him that, whilst humans were now cooped up inside, wings suddenly clipped, birds were oblivious, going about their lives as normal – birds can fly, he thought.
He felt a reconnection to his younger years: for as long as he can remember, Paul has loved birds.
“My mum used to tell me that my first sentence was, ‘why can't I fly?’ I’m not sure if that’s true, but I've always been interested in birds, and I've always drawn them; I can't remember a time I didn't draw. My dad tells a story where he said ‘Let’s draw this cup’. He drew a rectangle with a handle, but I first drew the ellipse of the cup. I just somehow had this understanding of how one draws.”
Growing up, Paul acknowledges his education took a downward turn when his family moved from England to Scotland. His family have always taken Paul’s sexuality as just who he is, but school was not easy. In another interview he states that being a gay schoolboy in the early ‘80s was already a bad situation; combine that with being English in a Scottish school, and it doesn’t get much worse –his grades suffered as a result.
He did eventually go to art school at the age of 27, completing a degree in Foundation Art and an MA in Fine Art, but when he left school as soon as he could, he spent a few years in and out of odd-jobs, also putting his artistic skills to great effect as a drag queen. This wasn’t a success as he had hoped, despite appearing on TV and in music videos.
“I was quite a bad drag queen. I wasn't a very good dancer or could sing; I could be funny, but I wasn't confident. But I looked brilliant! I looked gorgeous, and had lots of fun, but I knew that there was something that wasn't being satisfied in my curiosity. I felt that going into art school would confirm whether I was as clever as I thought I could be. I did well there and that helped me understand that I'm not stupid.
I wanted to avoid queerness in my work, I didn't really want to show my sexuality, thinking my work wouldn't be taken seriously. I was doing landscape art which became more abstracted, almost Rothko-esque. An External Examiner from Chelsea who knew that I had done drag said, it's interesting that you used to be a drag queen, because your paintings are like blended makeup. And I realized - I really can't get away from this, can I! That freed me from that idea of not being political.
I was also drawing birds a lot; I've written and illustrated a book, Pansy Boy, it's basically about me, a boy who loves birds and nature. I drew everything for that book and I find that naturalistic style very calming and soothing. My style comes from when I was a child, my maternal grandparents were really into birds as well, and supported my interest, buying me a subscription to this magazine that was then collated into the Encyclopedia of Birds.
I was very interested in the illustrations, and although they weren’t credited, I can tell by the style that some of them are by Edward Lear, and some of them are by JJ Audubon. A fascinating thing that I've learned relatively recently about Audubon is that his ‘explorer identity’ was almost an affectation. He was in effect dressing up, playing a part, climbing over mountains and projecting this masculine white explorer.”
The sentence “Paul Harfleet dresses up as birds” conveys the same amount of information that the sentence “Margaret Atwood writes books” does. On the face of it, this is exactly what both do; but there is so much more.
When the pandemic came along, Paul turned to his drawing abilities to try and hold on to some sense of calm and reality, and used his Pansy Project social media page to connect with the outside world. He first offered a black and white download of the illustrations in his book so that others could feel the calming effects of coloring in, then shared individual drawings of birds, creating one a day at the beginning; his posts garnered praise and then personal requests to draw favorite birds.
People began to ask if they could purchase prints; realizing this could actually be a source of income during these desperate times, he set up a print shop online. To add a marketing element to the images and “introduce the artist”, Paul used his makeup skills and varied wardrobe to beautiful effect, and became the birds he was drawing. He would then share both images, dubbing these accompanying portraits as “gentle references”.
He is very aware of how this sounds. When questioned about what his work for The Pansy Project involved, he would watch the way his response of “I plant pansies at the site of homophobic hate crime” would work its way through the questioner’s mind – “I plant pansies” – ok, sure, why not; “… homophobic hate crime” – Oh. Oh, I see… A similar thing happens when explaining what gentle references are.
“I would say, ‘I draw birds, and then I gently reference them’. I always say I draw birds, and they go, ‘OK, yes, you're an artist, that's what an artist would do. But wait, what? Then you dress up as them?’ [laughs] I like the weird absurdity of the sentence, but then when they see the actual work, they go wow. Especially with the more recent ones where I'm making hats and dresses and so on.”
It was such an image that he posted in the Self-Isolating Bird Club. His first one was a flamingo, where he just wore a pink jacket and held his pinched hand up to mimic the bill, but then the next one, the kingfisher, used more makeup, and this was the image that really got things going.
Someone made a comment with words to the effect that “I don’t know what you’re doing here, this group is for bird lovers, and men shouldn’t wear makeup”. Knowing he had to respond, Paul kept it reasoned and calm and explained that he was indeed a bird lover and that, actually, there are historical records aplenty just bursting with people in makeup irrespective of gender, and saying that men shouldn’t wear it is a relatively new opinion. Not sure how this would go down, he metaphorically ducked his head and waited; but not for long.
The flood of supporting comments came, including from the Club’s founder, Chris Packham. Packham then proceeded to like, share, and comment on any post Paul put up, and interest in his work took off. Later that summer, Packham contacted Paul personally to ask him to draw and gently reference a hen harrier for Hen Harrier Day, auctioning the print to raise conservation funds.
Paul was soon able to expand his online shop to include t-shirts, bags, jigsaws, jumpers, and so on. The RSPB showed an interest, and Paul appeared a few times on the Club’s Live broadcasts. Fun competitions were held for anyone who wanted to choose a bird and gently reference it themselves (see here from 11 minutes 27 seconds).
The interactive nature appealed, and the results were often hilarious, heart-warming, and quite brilliant – everyone engaged with gusto. Packham purchased a jumper bearing the image of a waxwing emblazoned with the words Bird Lover, Paul’s social media “handle”, opening his posts with the salutatory “Hello bird lovers” phrase.
Sales increased, and this boon, as Paul calls it, saved his sanity, and paid his rent. Despite the existentialist dread, Paul recalls the time with immense fondness.
“This slightly strange fashion meets ornithology aesthetic kept me sane; I needed something to focus on because my other work had just completely dried up. I was actually getting up at six in the morning, drawing the bird, finishing around 11, then doing the image, and the makeup and the look all in one day. It was insane.
But it was great, because it was distracting me from the horrors of what was going on, and it seemed that other people were like, ‘oh my god, this is so silly and funny, it really takes my mind off it’.”
Diving in with the devil
But gentle referencing isn’t just dressing up, of course. Paul practically inhabits the bird he chooses. He will spend time researching, and the drawings are beautifully detailed.
The Natural History Museum at Tring houses specimens of almost every species of bird there is, and given the right circumstances, you can access their collection and handle these birds. Paul is a regular visitor, enabling his drawings to be as accurate as possible.
His latest bird at the time of writing is the Slavonian Grebe, one which Paul references with alluring accuracy. He has inserted pipe cleaners into two fascinator bases to emulate the golden ear tufts, and in a stroke of hilarious genius, a travel pillow for the puffed out dark cheeks.
His research revealed the folk names this bird is also known by, magical and supernatural: Devil Diver, Hell Diver, Water Witch. It is learning these things about the birds he chooses that drives him, and has opened him up to so much more knowledge.
“I want them to be protected and do well, who doesn’t, but for the Slavonian grebe, for example, I found this mention about the name devil diver. I think I'm dyslexic, so I have a slightly strange way of retaining information. Because I'm drawing the bird, and then I'm dressing up as the bird, those visual cues enable me to retain all this information about the bird in a different way. As I learn more about birds, I think I'm more interested in the cultural aspect of them. I can now remember those folk names of the Slavonian Grebe, because I've written about it, and I've got the look of it. I hope that is communicated to others, because the focal aim is to relay the ‘devil diver’ aspect.
I adore reading about the history of birds, and I'm fascinated by the colonialism. I've loved birds all my life, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I've really dug deep into how they're named, the history of ornithology.
The Major Mitchell's Cockatoo was the first time I'd understood the benefits of naming a bird by a common name; in Australia that bird is more known as the pink cockatoo, but it also has loads of indigenous names because of course tribes weren't necessarily communicating with each other. It's the same with Amazonian birds. I find all of that really fascinating… There is a project called Bird Names for Birds, and there's something so fascinating about the whiteness and heteronormativity of so many of the names, like Anna’s hummingbird. But the kookaburra, that is an indigenous name.
When you draw a bird, you're investigating its anatomy. When I was drawing the feet of the grebe, I remembered that I have these shoes, had them for years and forgotten all about them. But there's something very particular about the texture and shape of the grebe’s feet that is so similar to those shoes. And you would never think those shoes look like birds’ feet!
I feel I am connected to each bird I draw. I did a coot recently – the bill is made from a wooden spoon! – but I feel that the coot is a bridge between Pansy Boy and Birds Can Fly.
There’s another saying, as queer a coot. I remember as a child, my mum’s friend saying about someone else, ‘Oh, he's as queer as a coot’, And I felt that like a jolt, a recognition. I'm fascinated by the way things traverse time back and forth.”
Ostensibly, the Birds Can Fly project started out as a fun way to deal with the harrowing repercussions of a pandemic; and it turned out many people recognised that and needed it.
His website is a store, yes, but it is also a fascinating resource full of facts about the chosen bird’s history, conservation status, and a link to Paul’s blog with honest and articulate posts about his life, experiences, and objectives. There is also a highly entertaining video in response to questions about his work, delivered in Paul’s inimitably engaging and friendly style.
By remaining true to his nature and rising above the bullies, this Pansy Boy looks forward to a deserved future of exhibitions, book collaborations, multimedia projects, and who knows what else. Paul feels that Birds Can Fly is a distillation of everything he loves – fashion, makeup, drawing, and birds – into a beautiful creation that brings joy, discovery, and understanding.