10" x 20" Art Deco Owl by Julie Leidel. Artwork and words (illuminated verse) by Julie Leidel, 2023. Frame by Rob Bennett.
US Postcard with the wise old owl motif created by R. L. Wells in 1906.
A 1905 postcard showing the popularity of wise owls of the era.
This illustration is from John Martin's 1917 Book. Prints of this colorized version (with added text) are for sale on ETSY by jdayminis who scanned an old version of the book.
A Canadian IWM (Imperial War Museum) poster depicting the Owl motif to encourage monetary support and to sell war bonds during World War I.
A fruit crate label from the 1930s.
A 1943 version of this poem used in World War II to try to convince the soldiers of keeping quite for security reasons during the war.
For my Art Deco Owl, I wanted to capture the intrinsic connection between stillness and wisdom through the popular motif of an owl. When we slow down (and stop even) the answers to life's questions can present themselves on a deeper, more intuitive level.
The Barred Owl's contrasting feathered-beauty was a natural choice for my artwork, I wanted to blend in with the snowy environment where even more patience and wisdom is required from the owl to survive the lean meals of winter. I wanted to give an actionable presence to you, as the observer of the owl, to look out and connect through direct eye contact to the wisdom of the owl with your heart and mind.
Much of my bird series is inspired by Art Nouveau specifically, but with this painting, I wanted the viewer to see the owl through a FLW-inspired stained glass border. The bottom of the border is intentionally a highly abstracted Art Deco owl with its wings spread wide to give lift and support to our invitation in finding the stillness. I wanted my painting to be a reminder to pause and look deeper within ourselves, while living in our busy modern world.
As I create new paintings, I really love researching common symbolism, and I like to trace it back to see some of the origins.
The motif of "the wise old owl" dates back centuries in many cultures around the world. Many of us can turn to to Greek Mythology where Athena, goddess of wisdom, found Princess Nyctimene fleeing the island of Lesbos because and her father the king had raped her. It is said that Athena turned Nyctimene into an owl and that she became her animal companion to Athena's blind side. The owl gave Athena the ability to see through dark or blind spots to know and speak the full truth. The owl in Greek mythology represents both an intellectual, and soulful wisdom. Below, we see Athena with her wise little owl carved into this Greek terracotta lekythos (oil flask) from 490-480 B.C. which is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The wise owl motif in modern-day print goes back to at least 1875, in the British magazine Punch with this poem, author unknown.
"A wise old owl
Sat on an oak.
The more he saw,
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke,
The more he heard.
Why can’t we be
Like that wise old bird?"
A 1904 version of this popular poem, illustrator unknown.
John D. Rockefeller was fond of the poem, and quoted it in 1909 which garnered wider popularity across the United States. The poem is frequently misattributed to Edward Hersey Richards or William R. Cubbage, but earlier versions of the same poem existed.
World War I brough the owl back in print to depict the wisdom behind supporting the war effort through purchasing buying war bonds in Canada, while usage of this motif in World War II spoke to the dangers of sharing secrets at home and abroad in America. In 1943, the United States used this rhyme on a poster with the new ending, "Soldier.... be like that old bird!" captioned with "Silence means security." The old adage "Loose Lips Sink Ships" was another common saying of the war years for homeland security.
Since the early 1900s, artists have depicted the owl as teachers, graduate students, and librarians on everything from cakes and t-shirts. Many different styles of art have utilized this symbolism, and I'm sure they will continue well into the future.
My goal was to connect the wisdom of the ages to something we can relate to needing more of today: a quite escape from the ever-knocking steam of online information, mis- and dis- included. I wanted my little owl to invite the wisdom of stillness into our lives through meditation, prayer, contemplation, and critical thinking.
Prints of my artwork can be purchased here.