The Western Tanager of Tomorrow

George Boorujy’s evocative artwork depicts a colorful songbird in a climate-devastated future.
An oil painting of rocky expanse, a blue sky in the background. A barren branch extends from the top left to bottom right side of the image. In the center is a creature with gray legs and a red and yellow head with a beak, carrying a smaller bird whose head, with a splash of yellow, points directly to the right.

The Western Tanager of Tomorrow. Illustration: George Boorujy

This oil on panel painting of a Western Tanager crossing a rocky desert expanse began as a little bit of clay. Artist George Boorujy created this piece as part of series in which he puts himself in the position of future humans and imagines rituals they might enact in a climate-devastated world. He sculpts objects that could be part of these rites of survival and passage, then paints them into apocalyptic landscapes.

“I make them really fast, and then I’ll make them again,” Boorujy says of the sculptures. “I don’t want them to be overly labored. I want it to be this idea of process, like someone’s doing this before they set off. They don’t have a day to sculpt this thing.” 

Here, tanagers’ heads, splashed with bright paint to evoke the birds’ brilliant plumage, rise from a roughly formed golem, as dull-colored as the clay used to sculpt it. The finger strokes of the hand that formed it are evident in the hamstring and the calf, straining to make a difficult ascent. To Boorujy, the dual heads evoke an infant being cradled, but he welcomes interpretations. 

The piece was largely inspired by the idea of migration. “There’s times of the year when it’s safer for people to attempt crossing the Mediterranean, or crossing the desert, or other harsh environments,” says Boorujy. “There’s different times of the year, when you can actually more safely do it, even though it’s so dangerous.” 

He realized the path many migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from Central America take north follows the path of the Western Tanager.

He realized the path many migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from Central America take north follows the path of the Western Tanager, which migrates overland. With its flame coloring, the Western Tanager can also be seen as a guiding light or beacon, Boorujy says. “Birds need to move to survive, people need to move to survive,” he says. “So much of the migration that’s happening already on the planet is really climate-driven.” 

Boorujy’s interests in wildlife and art have always gone hand in hand. He originally planned to study marine biology at the University of Miami, but never took the required courses, opting for art classes instead. “I’m still interested in science and nature and always have been, and instead of using the scientific method, I’m using an artistic method,” he says. 

In recent years his output has become “pretty birdy,” a natural progression as his work has become more activist. “Birding is like the gateway drug to conservation,” he says. If you care about birds in where you live in the United States, he says, you also have to care about what’s happening in Panama, or the Caribbean, or wherever those birds migrate and winter. 

This story originally ran in the Fall 2022 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.