In June, artist Paola Piglia spent three days in Kalamazoo, Mich., doing research for her illustrations of Bil Gilbert's story about the environmental rescue of the Kalamazoo River (page 76). Since it's not common practice in Kalamazoo for someone to walk for hours along the riverbank taking photographs, Piglia drew puzzled looks. "I was really an odd bird there," she says. The metaphor comes naturally. As Piglia, 34, says this, standing in her New York City loft, she has a parrot, named Birdo, perched on her head.
She also has a pair of doves living in her bookshelves ("They are very literary birds," says Piglia) and a quail waddling around on her floor. A finch transports a twig from a potted ficus tree to a photo enlarger, on which it's building a nest. In all, some 30 birds have the run of Piglia's loft, and she often interrupts conversation with such statements as "Let me get the finches out of the oil paint."
Like the finches, she prefers to work in oil. "I used to do watercolors, and they looked like oils; now I work in oil, and they look like watercolors," she says. The Kalamazoo story is her fourth SI appearance and was perhaps her biggest challenge. "I had never painted trees or water. That was my great fear," she says. "This was a bit experimental for me."
Piglia was also something of a rara avis in Kalamazoo because she's a native of Turin, Italy. She says that during a late dinner at a local restaurant, "Everybody from the staff came out to watch me eat." But Piglia found the people as friendly as they were curious. When she mentioned that she would like to go out on the river, strangers she had met only minutes before began to call friends to find a boat for her.
Piglia came to the United States to study at the University of California in 1978, after brief stints at universities in Turin and Venice. She graduated in 1981 with a degree in visual design and moved to New York to set up shop as a free-lance artist. A year later she got her first assignment, for Esquire. "It was about guns, I think. I was starving, I mean starving," she says. Soon after, Bob Ciano, then an art director at LIFE, saw her work in a show and gave her an assignment. She has worked continually since, in both the U.S. and Europe.
At the moment, however, she's busy bird-watching. "Let me get the quail back in the cage before somebody steps on him," she says.