A Sculpture Captures the Dry Reality for Black-necked Stilts

Artist Sarah Conti situates life-size versions of the shorebirds in a disappearing habitat.
A life-size sculpture of Black-necked Stilts in a cracked, dried up landscape.
Photo: Deborah Hardee

Sarah Conti grew up in a family of birders, so perhaps it’s only natural that birds feature heavily in her work. What’s more, she prefers to sculpt her subjects to scale, like these foot-tall Black-necked Stilts. The lithe, long-legged waders thrive on sunblasted mudflats near Conti’s home in Idaho and around the West. Here, she depicts the hardy birds in one of their key, and most vulnerable, breeding habitats: the Great Salt Lake, which is in danger of drying up entirely in the next five years.

The sculpture’s pieces fit together like a puzzle, a nod to the fracturing landscape. To give the cloudy background a gritty texture like the salt flats it resembles, she used a clay mixed with ground-up ceramics and peppered the surface with ceramic brine flies, a stilt food source in their larval stage. For the cracked earth, she painted overlapping tiles with deep-sea sediment gifted by a geologist friend and left ragged gaps at the bottom to represent climate change claiming the lake. Against this backdrop, the birds’ expressive wings and legs convey stilts bursting with life and frozen in death.

“People who want to just look at beautiful birds struggle with how many dead birds I sculpt,” she says. “I’m sculpting them as a cry for help.” 

Sarah Conti kneeling on the floor placing bird sculptures.
Artist Sarah Conti. Photo: Deborah Hardee

This story originally ran in the Summer 2023 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.