Arts & Culture

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers

Artist and birder Isaiah Scott finds beauty in the field and on the canvas

Photo: Gately Williams

Isaiah Scott on the lookout for birds in South Carolina’s Congaree National Park.

The first bird that captured Isaiah Scott’s imagination doesn’t show up in any field guide. “It’s an extinct bird known as a ‘terror bird,’” he says, a prehistoric flightless carnivore, terrifying more for its bone-crushing beak and gargantuan size than its laughably small wings. While his teachers lectured, he sketched the creature and imagined long-gone landscapes. “Dinosaurs and prehistoric stuff really fascinated me,” he says. “Over the years, I taught myself how to draw and paint, and I experimented with different mediums like watercolor and pastels.”

When he was thirteen, Scott visited the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on a college visit with his older brother. He bought his first pair of binoculars in the gift shop. Through the lenses, he came to appreciate the terror bird’s tiny descendants—the warblers and shorebirds of his native Georgia. A sense of exploration pushed him outside, and the rush of spotting new species kept him coming back. “That excitement kept me in the field,” he says, “with my eyes toward the trees, the skies, the water.”

photo: Gately Williams
Scott in the field.

Scott’s pastimes eventually merged. The result is an environmental and aesthetic sensibility in the tradition of self-taught artist-naturalists like John James Audubon—but also deliberately unlike Audubon. The namesake of hundreds of birding groups, the nineteenth-century painter has come under scrutiny for his legacy of slavery and white supremacist views. In 2020, the National Audubon Society began to reassess its history and map an antiracist future. That summer, the inaugural Black Birders Week drew attention to the challenges that face Black birders like Scott. 

The South Carolina author and naturalist J. Drew Lanham illustrated the obstacles in his “Nine Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.” Rule No. 2: “Carry your binoculars—and three forms of identification—at all times.” Rule No. 3: “Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.” (In 2020, Lanham wrote a follow-up list with “Nine Rules for the Woke Birdwatcher”: “John James Audubon didn’t care about Black human lives. Harriet Tubman knew the woods and wetlands well—she even used an owl call to identify herself to freedom-seeking souls. Let her be your wild-bird liberty-loving hero.”) 

illustration: Courtesy of Isaiah Scott
Scott’s illustration of an ibis.

When Scott was a young teenager and an anomaly in Savannah’s bird hotspots, he looked to Lanham for motivation to pursue what he’s called his “fiery passion.” (Garden & Gun featured a conversation between Lanham and Scott this spring.) Despite more visibility and attention to Black birders, especially after 2020’s infamous Central Park incident, their trailblazing work is far from finished. Whether he wants to or not, Scott carries a heavy torch, but his dual pursuits, art and birding, justify the uphill battle. The ultimate goal isn’t just inclusion—it’s the right to this beauty, this joy.

Now wrapping up his freshman year at Cornell, Scott believes his passion for art and ecology will be lifelong. In 2021, with funding from Drexel University’s Eckelberry Fellowship, he began a project to document the Gullah-Geechee people’s relationship to the coastal landscape. (For example, they historically referred to bobolinks, which migrate through the South, as “rice birds.”) His findings and their ancestral knowledge will inform a field guide that Scott plans to write and illustrate as he pursues his major in environment and sustainability. 

Scott also paints birds and sells prints via his website and the Charleston Art Market. He learned how to draw and paint anatomically accurate birds about two years ago, following YouTube tutorials with his sketchpad. Inspired by the artists John Muir Laws and David Allen Sibley, he practiced scientific illustration techniques, and Sibley, whom Scott admires for his simple yet intricate style, has become a mentor for the field guide project. After a year of refining his craft, Scott landed on a medium he liked. “I mainly use gouache,” he says, referring to an opaque watercolor paint. “I just love the rich colors.”

illustration: Courtesy of Isaiah Scott
A warbler.

The colors are key. Scott chooses birds to paint based on the seasons. In winter, when Arctic migrants arrive, he paints the visiting waterfowl. In spring, he may opt for a multicolored painted bunting or a vivid prothonotary warbler. (In the wild, the bird’s hallmark dark wings are a gray blur; Scott renders the feathers in delicate blues and greens.) But Scott isn’t hemmed in by the time of year. Sometimes he simply paints whatever he wants.

He searches images online to find a bird in the right pose, sometimes studying various photographs to develop an angle of his own, but he hopes to eventually use his own photos for reference. Painting is indoor work. It requires attention to detail and focus in a different way than birding does, but both give him a “sense of freedom.”  

Scott knows that his source of inspiration is in peril. A 2019 investigation in Science found that North America had lost 30 percent of its birds—nearly 3 billion individuals—since the 1970s. That same year, Audubon reported that climate change threatened 389 bird species. Habitat loss is ongoing, and the warming world has wrought havoc on migration and feeding patterns. Birds arrive at their breeding grounds before the insects they eat have emerged, which puts mothers and nestlings at risk of starvation. 

illustration: Courtesy of Isaiah Scott
A Steller’s jay.

“We live around and share these natural spaces with birds, and it’s up to us, to people, to have stewardship with them and help conserve and protect them for the next generation,” Scott says. His art, along with his social media presence and the birding trips he leads, serves that mission. Birds are indicators of change in the environment, he says, and we have a lot to learn from the ways they’ve learned to survive, a resilience honed since the days of the terror bird. In response to the world’s stressors, taking notes from nature can be therapeutic for individuals—and vital for our species.

For generations of people who have grappled with injustice, art and nature have provided solace and motivation. They can be an escape from the fray and reasons to return to the fight. Birds have symbolized freedom for centuries. They still do. “Look at the life and the beauty that is in these birds and nature,” Scott says. “It can be a reminder that everything is going to be okay.”