Barry Kent MacKay is a native to Markham, Ontario, where he now lives. But he has travelled the world and painted birds and some other wildlife he has seen, with perhaps somewhat of a special emphasis North, Central and South America. “I don’t restrict myself just to species I have seen, not entirely, and I don’t entirely restrict myself to birds,” he has said “At one time or another I’ve done abstracts, portraits, still-life, horses, landscapes, nudes, cartoons and so on, plus other wildlife species, but I have always been mostly focused on birds and frustrated that a lifetime only provides enough time to scrape the surface of what I want to learn and to do. I feel it is like trying to do justice to Mount Everest by focusing on a single pebble or two from one of its ledges.”
His late mother was a pioneer in wildlife rehabilitation, and Barry grew up in a house that was filled with wildlife. He also assisted his mother and other adults in banding many thousands of birds, and learned to become skilled at preserving bird specimens of value to science and necessary in much of his artwork, since art was of equal interest and importance to him, also for as long as he can remember. He devoted his life and career to the study of natural history, and the protection of wildlife and welfare of animals.
He has maintained a thirty plus year relationship with the Animal Protection Institute, which recently became Born Free USA, doing animal protection work. He is also a founding director of Zoocheck-Canada; a founding director of the Animal Alliance of Canada; a founding member of Species Survival Network, a member and former executive officer of the Toronto Ornithological Club; a member and former director of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, now Ontario Nature; a former director of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies; a former director of the Toronto Humane Society; a former director of the Canadian Society for Endangered Birds; a life member of the Wilson Ornithological Society; a member of the Ontario Field Ornithologists; an honorary life member of the Second Marsh Defense Association, an honorary life member of the Pickering Naturalists and a member of the Southern Ontario Nature and Science Illustrators and a member of Artists for Conservation. He is a co-founder of Cormorant Defenders International and an advisor to Coyote Watch.
Barry has participated in numerous activities related to bird and nature study and conservation. As a fast sketch artist he promoted interest in wildlife during 16 years of appearances on a nationally syndicated children’s television show. He did field work for the Royal Ontario Museum and for the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Costa Rica; illustrated the reptiles and amphibians of the Toronto Zoo; illustrates various scientific covers and papers in various technical journals. He was well known and respected for his Nature Trail column, published weekly in the Toronto Star for a period of 25 years. His writings and articles have appeared in numerous magazines such as Birds of the Wild; Defenders; BirdWatchers’ Digest; Seasons; Mainstream; and Animal Issues; and as feature articles in The Toronto Star and various other publications, large and small. He now regularly blogs for Born Free USA and other animal protection organizations.
Barry’s fine art has graced the pages of many popular magazines such as City; Defenders; Bird Watchers Digest; Ontario Naturalist; Seasons; Mainstream; National Audubon; and journals such as The Living Bird and Ontario Birds and The Journal of Raptor Research.
He was named the year’s artist for 2013 by Environment for the Americas’ International Migratory Bird Day, and the 2013 artist of the year by Bird Studies Canada.
The first book he wrote and illustrated, was started in his teens, and was called 80 More Land Birds to Know, published in 1968. “It wasn’t very good,” says Barry, “but in 1963, when I started it, I was too young to appreciate my limitations and anxious to get into print. The odd title derives from it being from a planned series with 80 Land Birds to Know published earlier, but then the author died.
Since then Barry’s work has appeared in numerous books, journals, magazines and other publications.
Some of the books featuring his art are:
A Field Guide to the Birds of the Galapagos (by M.P. Harris, Collins, 1974)
Birds of the Oshawa – Lake Scugog Region, by Ronald G. Tozer and James M. Richards (1974)
Birdwatcher’s Companion ( Key Porter, 1994), which he also wrote.
Songbirds: Celebrating Nature’s Voices (by Ronald I. Orenstein, Key Porter, 1997)
Wrens, Mockingbirds and Dippers of the World (by A. D. Brewer, Pica Press, U.K., 2001)
Bird Sounds: How and Why Birds Sing Call Chatter and Screech, Stakpole Books, 2001) which he also wrote
Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti (Steven Latta., et al., Princeton University Press, 2006)
Birds of Toronto Guide (City of Toronto, co-illustrated by R. Bateman. 2009)
The Double-crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah (Linda R. Wires, Yale Univ Press 2014)
He has done cover art for a book on newly discovered bird species, by A.D. Brewer, not yet published.
“If I had my choice, I’d like to paint,” remarks Barry. At the same time, he feels he has to direct his time towards his extensive advocacy work on behalf of animals and the environment. Lately, he has challenged wildlife management policies that demonize individual animal species, such as Double-crested Cormorants, often on specious grounds, thus justifying massive kills. “So often,” he says, “the science employed is faulty, and leads to illogical conclusions that are predetermined by political, not ecological, considerations.” He is currently writing a series of essays, as yet unpublished, on the issue of wildlife culling. He has previously worked extensively on the international trade in wildlife species, trying to help provide protection for species in decline because of that threat. He has often challenged pro wildlife use dogma, especially within the Canadian context. “Canadians are fine,” he says, “but Canadian governments have been generally reluctant to face, let alone correct, the numerous forces working to reduce populations of a suite of species.”
Barry delights in how his art has improved steadily over the decades, years, and even day to day. “Even though my childhood drawings are better than the average drawing of a kid that age, I was no prodigy and I had, and always will have, a lot to learn, like anyone else. You learn in part through repetition and in part through maturation, just growing up and having more depth to the way you approach things. As well I am and always have been inspired by better work by superior artists. After four or five decades, I’m just starting to think that, occasionally, I almost get it right. I’m coming close to where I want to be.” He does not like to have his work sold in limited edition signed and numbered “print” series that are mechanical reproductions, and he is constantly trying new ideas that are not necessarily “tried and true” styles of commercial viability. “What I try to do does not always work,” he says, “but I like to try.” He works in various media and mixed media, but the bulk of his work is in acrylics.