Much like I’ve used boats and houses as metaphor for humanity, I’ve come to include seagulls as well. If you watch a large flock, you start to see how their society is arranged with its own hierarchies. You’ll notice the greedy squabbles, the games they play on a breezy summer day, and the clear – sometimes vicious – pecking order there is within the flock.

"Amputee", 2011, Acrylics on Canvas, 18 x 24 in., by David Jay Spyker

Amputee is a portrait of one particular gull I saw regularly at the north beach in South Haven. It had lost a foot to fishing line but in spite of the difficulty of landings and take-offs, it kept on going.

When I’d feed the flock there, this one was always at the front, and the others would give it a wide berth. It had a bit of a cantankerous spirit. People don’t always notice the missing foot right away, but when they read the title it clicks. There is a real expression of the tenacity of life here, and I’ve tried to capture that in the way the gull stares back with directness and defiance.

"Self-Portrait in the Morning as a Gull", 2012, Acrylic on Hardboard, 5 x 7 in., by David Jay Spyker

“Self-Portrait in the Morning as a Gull”

I’m a night owl, and to me the gull in this small piece (only 5 x 7 inches) looks like how I feel if I get up early in the morning, so I titled it “Self-Portrait in the Morning as a Gull”.

It’s amazing how quickly a hundred or more gulls will show up if you start tossing out bread or french fries. In “Compass” I wanted to record that experience. When you feed them, you’ll end up with two groups: one with the more timid gulls on the ground, the shyest standing farther away, and the second group flying in to catch thrown food mid-air.

"Compass", 2012, Acrylic on Canvas, 24 x 36 in., by David Jay Spyker


The fliers have this regular routine where they form a sort of queue and work their way to within about a foot, then they hover there as long as possible. Occasionally the second gull in line will give the first an impatient peck in the back. They’ll look you right in the eye; it’s an intense, piercing sort of stare.

You can toss them food and the lead gull will catch it. If you hold up a fry, one will snatch it right from your fingers – their instinct to keep a safe distance gets put aside for their greed for food. Then it will veer off to eat mid-air while it circles around to the back of the line. They’ll just keep this up, cycling around and around, until you run out of food.

The title refers to the regular circling pattern, as well as the keen sense of direction that birds possess. I suppose it also speaks to the circular patterns of life.

"Baroque Self-Portrait as a Seagull", 2013, Acrylic on Hardboard, 6 x 8 in., by David Jay Spyker

“Baroque Self-Portrait as a Seagull”

To the right is another small one – 8 x 6 inches. I wanted to capture a particular quiet stare, and when it was finished I felt an odd personal connection, so it ended up getting the title “Baroque Self-Portrait as a Seagull”. The dark background and the lighting help reinforce the sense of a traditional baroque portrait.

"Startled Gull", 2011, Graphite on Paper, 23 x 29 in., by David Jay Spyker

“Startled Gull” (Study for “Sudden Flight”)

In “Startled Gull”, I wanted to capture a sense of movement along the wings while retaining a stillness around the head and body, so I used quick finger smudges along the back edge of the lower wing.

“Sudden Flight” depicts the same seagull startled by waves of water jetting up along a soaked pier in South Haven, Michigan. There is something fleeting and fragile about life with the chaotic frenzy of the water crashing up behind the gull. It seemed so small and at the mercy of the greater power of nature – so transitory.

"Sudden Flight", 2013, Acrylics on Canvas, 36 x 60 in., by David Jay Spyker

“Sudden Flight”, 2013, Acrylics on Canvas, 36 x 60 in., by David Jay Spyker

Click here to read a previous article about “Sudden Flight”.

Sudden Flight

I was in South Haven, Michigan, out on the north pier watching jets of water shoot up in the recesses along the steel side as the waves rolled in. This gull had been standing there on the soaked concrete, looking at me instead of the water behind, when it was startled into flight.

I felt this was a great image, and revisited it on and off for months. It started out as a thought about how life is fragile, and tied in with how I’ve been seeing gulls as metaphors for people. Here was this bird with all the world crashing around, and it seemed so small and at the mercy of the greater power of nature – so transitory.

"Startled Gull", 2011, Graphite on Paper, 23 x 29 in., by David Jay Spyker

“Startled Gull” (Study for Sudden Flight), 2011
Graphite on Paper, 23 x 29 in., by David Jay Spyker~click to enlarge~

It took some time for the deeper personal connection to percolate up, and motivate me to actually get started on the painting:

When the phone rang the second time, I had a feeling something was wrong. Mom’s in the hospital; she had a massive stroke and might not live more than a day. That’s not something you want to hear.

I was on a plane bound for Florida early the next morning, a sudden flight filled with fears and barely restrained, intense sadness.

In spite of the reality of the situation – knowing that this wasn’t going to end with a miracle – hope would come and go throughout each day as I sat in the hospital room, traveled with family to a second hospital that had neurology specialists, and watched mom hooked up to tubes, machines, and monitors.

When you’re sitting there, and hope is not with you at the moment, a vacant numbness takes its place. These two things trade off, back and forth, and mix in with other powerful emotions to make a thick stew.

She never woke up. Her sudden flight had already happened about a week before she finally passed away.

Losing a parent changes something deep inside of you, way down in your core. The truth of your own mortality is never more clear. If you’re fortunate, you come away with the beginning of a more profound understanding of your own heart, and of the things that give meaning to your life.

The thing about life is we never know how much time we have. There is a glass-like fragility to life, to being out there in it all and experiencing the world through this gift we’ve been given.

Get out there and do something meaningful. Live with purpose. Try to be a better human being, be kinder, be more understanding, and especially be more open. That’s how I want to live.

"Sudden Flight" (Detail), 2013, Acrylics on Canvas, by David Jay Spyker

“Sudden Flight” (Detail), 2013, Acrylics on Canvas, by David Jay Spyker
~click to enlarge~

"Startled Gull", 2011, Watercolor and Acrylics on Paper (Lanaquarelle 140 lb. Cold Pressed), 10 5/8 x 11 1/2 in., by David Jay Spyker

“Startled Gull” (Study for Sudden Flight), 2011
Watercolor and Acrylics on Paper (Lanaquarelle 140 lb. Cold Pressed)
10 5/8 x 11 1/2 in., by David Jay Spyker
~click to enlarge~

Study for Sudden Flight, 2012, Graphite on Paper (Stonehenge 100% Cotton), 11 x 14 in., by David Jay Spyker

Study for Sudden Flight, 2012, Graphite on Paper (Stonehenge 100% Cotton)
11 x 14 in., by David Jay Spyker
~click to enlarge~

Sudden Flight is displayed in ArtPrize from September 18 – October 6, 2013 at St. Cecilia Music Center, 24 Ransom Ave. NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49503. If you’ll be visiting ArtPrize, please stop by St. Cecilia’s to see the painting.

ArtPrize 2013 Vote Code: 54406

Small Website Update

The Tree, Graphite on Paper, by David Jay Spyker

The Tree, Graphite on Paper, by David Jay Spyker

I finally put some drawings in the drawings section on my website; it’s only a handful, but it’s better than nothing.

I’ve also been playing with a new, clean color scheme, and updating some links. I wanted something more simple so I used whites and very pale greys for the background, and shades of grey for all text and borders. There is still a complete remake of the site in the works one day, which will include some things to make it easier to update, and a clean-up of some other issues that still exist. It will be some time yet before that happens, and maybe someday I will also get around to adding some more paintings.

My other project has been setting up this blog at its new sub-domain. Writings have been transferred over from my original blog, from the news section of (that section no longer exists), and from notebooks and various loose sheets of paper covered in my chicken-scratchings.

The drawings are here.

Addendum: My main website went through a major overhaul in May, 2010, and all drawings have moved to their new listings at

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