If you watched KDKA-TV on May 27, 2020, you may have seen a short segment in “On a Positive Note” about how a Pitt freshman challenged herself to draw a different migratory bird every day that month and post them to instagram. Well that student, Hannah Jones, is a Mt. Lebanon native, a Class of 2019 graduate, and her family lives on Roycroft Avenue.
In the segment, her grandma, Melinda Koujales, who is also a Mt. Lebanon resident and originally pitched the story to the news network, talks with the reporter from her balcony about how this project gave her a reason to wake up in the morning throughout the stress of COVID-19.
We’ve written about Jones plenty of times in the past. She was a 2019 Mt. Lebanon Artists’ Market Scholarship recipient, a 2018 Handmade Arcade Scholarship recipient, the 2018 Ohio River Sweep Poster Contest grand prize, one of Mt. Lebanon’s 2017 Unity in the Community art contest winners, and she also took home the Pearl Award for her submission in the 2017 Ocean Awareness Student Contest, for her piece inspired by the Great Barrier Reef.
So we decided to catch up with Jones, and hopefully learn a thing or two about migratory birds. Scroll down for a Q&A with one of our youngest and most-awarded artists.
When did you know you wanted to become an artist?
I’ve loved art for as long as I can remember … My parents like to tell this story. When I was in pre-school, 2 or 3 [years old], my teachers were freaking out one day. They came to my parents [with something I drew] and were like “oh my God!” So when you’re 2 years old and given paint, you usually make blobs. But mine was obviously a cat. It was a rectangle with legs and a tail and a circle. It wasn’t high art, but I was very interested, even then.
Tell us how the art program at Mt. Lebanon influenced you.
My teachers have always been super supportive. In elementary school [at Foster], one time I was doing a doodle in class. I used to make little popup books. My teacher took me to the principal’s office, and I was really freaked out. But they just wanted to show it to the principal. The Lebo school system has always been nothing but supportive.
I would also like to mention Mrs. Rodriguez … I had her in middle school and also in high school. She did a really great job transforming the AP high school experience and is a great advocate for the students. She was very supportive of me. Actually, when I found out about the interview with KDKA, she called me and wanted to talk about it.
I also want to give a shoutout to Mr. Hessler at Mellon School. He was very supportive, too. That’s where I first used acrylic paint!
How was your freshman year at Pitt?
I really enjoy Pitt. It’s not an art school, but I really like to spend time with students and faculty interested in interdisciplinary things. The arts department, though small, is awesome and strong. It’s a tight-knit community. And as I take more and more classes for majors and minors, it’s going to be a group that I will get to know.
How did you decide to do your migratory bird art challenge?
I was thinking about it in March. I knew the migratory season was coming up, and I was excited about it. If you are a birder, it’s great because all these birds come through that you don’t get to see during a normal time. There’s also a fall migration, but it’s not as big because their breeding plumage has come off. Spring has breeding plumage, the birds are singing, it’s super exciting!
I wanted to do something to celebrate that time. I wanted people to be aware that it’s happening. During one week in May, you can walk down the street and there are warblers in the oak trees! But if you don’t know to look for them, you wont see them.
How did you get into birding?
My dad always had a bird feeder. I grew up with a bird book. I loved learning the names of different birds … my dad would ask me what birds were at the feeder, and I would look at the pictures and match up the birds. I just loved it. It was a fun activity for a young child.
In middle school, I got more into going out and finding more birds. I started learning about the types of birds that eat certain seeds. I started to find indigo buntings, redstarts. I kept getting better at it. Then I joined the Pitt birding club, and with coronavirus I had a ton of free time, so I’ve grown as a birder. I wouldn’t say I knew the birdsongs or calls before, but now I’m at least decent at it now. There are always going to be people who are incredible at it, but I can at least recognize the common birds or investigate the uncommon ones.
Why did you choose the month of May?
It’s peak migration time! The second week, Cornell University has this big day where the team goes out and fundraises and birds for 24 hours, because the second week is the biggest time. Some birds come here in April, though. The rest come in May, and then they are all gone, and you could miss them if you don’t know where to find them. So many warblers go into more specialized habitats to breed. Others are in the national and state parks.
How did you decide what birds to draw?
Starting out in early March, I contacted some of the people in the birding club [at Pitt], and said “Hey, I want to do this thing. What are your favorite migratory birds?” I took notes. I didn’t make a list or schedule at all.
I knew I wanted to do the timberdoodle first … In the month of April, I was spending a lot of time with my dad, going around the Upper St. Clair rec center at Boyce Mayview Park. We would go at dusk and listen for the timberdoodle doing its peace noise, and watch it doing its aerial dance. So I was excited about that one. Then from there, I did whatever bird inspired me that day. I was often working off photos from birds I saw during the day.
What was your process like?
On May 5, I woke up and there was a rare bird alert. It’s a GroupMe chat for birders. It said that the prothonotary warbler was at Nine Mile Run [in the East End] …Other birders were there, all masked and staying far apart. They are very nice people, birders. They’ll tell you what to look for, or where they saw the bird last. I met a lot of people who were interested in birds, who I had not seen before … So I went there with my dad, saw it, then came home and downloaded the photos. I worked off those photos.
What medium do you use?
Mixed media. I used some markers, pens, colored pencils, paint, a little of everything. I basically used up all my COPIC markers on this project. I also used water colors.
Was it difficult to draw a different bird every day?
It was tiring after a while, but I wanted to do the whole month. I don’t think I even drew all the birds that are exciting to me. There are endless migratory birds that would be fun to draw.
What was it like for you being on the news?
My grandma contacted KDKA. I was very surprised. It was exciting. I loved that my grandma appreciated the drawings enough to do that. I was really touched.
I did not think this was going to be a big thing at all. I was like, “I’ll make a bunch of birds and maybe sell the originals.” But people were interested … I did not expect that reaction at all, I just wanted a fun personal daily art project.
Will you do another Instagram art challenge anytime soon?
Should I? [laughs] I do have another ongoing project. Every month, I collect trash—whatever I find on the ground—and I try to arrange it in a way that is beautiful or interesting. It started in September at Pitt. I was just picking up rusty bits of metal and leaves and stuff in my dorm. I would hoard all this stuff and photograph it. The first couple months are nothing super amazing. Then the November arrangement I was really proud of. It had a black velvet background and all these bird skulls I found. It’s been a little more difficult doing this at home, because I don’t have access to as many intersting things on the ground.
But basically I laid low [after May]. May was a lot. I’m planning to post art more frequently soon.