The softness of a cardinals feather; the arc of a quails head; the stoic glance of a lifeless bird; the position of a wilted petal; the explosive color of a flower after it blooms. Extinction never looked more beautiful than through the eyes of Kate Breakey, whose large scale painted photographs of decaying flowers and lifeless birds pay homage to death and the remaining spirits that persist.

Kate Breakey first conceived of this project in 1995 as a visiting lecturer at the University of Texas, when she tried to rescue a sparrow from the claws of a cat. As she said in a 1999 interview, "I realized I couldn't help the circumstances of its death, but I could memorialize it in a photograph." This realization gave birth to a project which has spanned more than nine years and can be seen in two books, Small Deaths (1997) and Flowers/Birds, her recent 2003 monograph.

Like the early practitioners of nature morte or mementos mori paintings and photographs, Breakey embraces death as part of life, understanding their parallels. She is careful to present these small deaths as they appeared in reality, photographing her subjects and then painstakingly painting each feather and stamen its true natural color. Enlarging them to 32 x 32", Breakey paints back the colors death has absorbed, using oil paint and colored pencils. These larger-than-life portraits act as memorials to the small creatures found within the desert of Tucson (where she now lives) and in packages sent from friends all over the country. The resulting images are both startlingly beautiful and arresting, as small creatures and objects gain a heroic status. Through Breakey's art, we confront our own mortality and the fears or solace it elicits.

As she stated in the afterword in Small Deaths: "I began to pick things up to keep and examine; I collected rocks, shells, feathers, birds' nests, nuts and pods, and with great reverence labeled, ordered, and displayed them in my little glass case. Visits with my father to the natural history museum in Adelaide filled me with awe and envy and the knowledge that the world was brimming with fantastic, mysterious, beautiful things. But there was another lesson to be learned about nature - a more difficult one: nature is as cruel and brutal as it is magnificent. For every miraculous and marvelous event there is also suffering, slaughter and death."

Kate Breakey was born in Adelaide, South Australia and moved to the United States in 1988. Her work is part of numerous private and public collections including the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, TX), Museum of Photographic Arts (San Diego, CA) and Austin Museum of Art (Austin, TX). This is her first solo show in Chicago.