St. Croix Artist Subject of Documentary Film

When she's not attending movie premieres, Toni Lance enjoys the company of her chickens. (Susan Ellis photo)
When she’s not attending movie premieres, Toni Lance enjoys the company of her chickens. (Susan Ellis photo)

Not many people have interesting enough lives to become the subject of a documentary, but a high quality, 30-minute film was just released about Toni Lance, artist and founder of the St. Croix Avian Sanctuary.

The film, “Under Her Wing,” premiered Friday at Caribbean Cinema and her paintings and photographs are on display at the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts.

Originally from California, Lance has lived on St. Croix almost 40 years and is known for her lifelike paintings and stunning bird photos. For the last 30 years, she has painted her feathered friends in watercolor, rescued and treated them and created an avian sanctuary on two acres of land on the south shore. She has taken classes in wildlife management, biomedical illustration and is a certified falconer and bird rehabilitator.

Over the years, Lance has given shelter and rehabilitated boobies, egrets, kestrels, pigeons and pelicans – including one who swoops down and lands on her lawn to visit about once a year.

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Elizabeth Herzfeldt-Kamprath was visiting her parents who were on a sabbatical on St. Croix when she met Lance. She had already worked on several films after graduating from college and was in graduate school at American University’s School of Communication. She was looking for a subject for her thesis and decided Lance and the pastoral sanctuary were ideal.

“From start to finish, it’s been almost two years since meeting Toni and seeing that we connected,” Herzfeldt-Kamprath said.

The young, Emmy-nominated filmmaker then spent a full month on St. Croix, following and filming Lance in her daily activities of feeding and caring for the birds. They went net fishing, released a healed bird and visited Dr. Michelle Mehalick, who X-rayed an injured bird.

From left, pianist Jacqueline Schwab, Elizabeth Herzfeldt-Kamprath, filmmaker and Toni Lance at the premier showing of “Under Her Wing.”
From left, pianist Jacqueline Schwab, Elizabeth Herzfeldt-Kamprath, filmmaker and Toni Lance at the premier showing of “Under Her Wing.”

Herzfeldt-Kamprath said she wanted to capture Lance’s passion in caring for birds and how it translates into her art. Then she spent about six months writing the story and another six editing the film.

Lance told the Source she is something of a control freak, but decided to restrain herself and allow Herzfeldt-Kamprath to direct and film the way she wanted. She didn’t critique or even look at the shots, she said.

There are a lot of dramatic close ups of Lance working and those along with the lyrical piano accompaniment make telling the story a work of expressive artistry.

The pianist, Jacqueline Schwab, says she is an improviser – “taking a given melody and dancing around it.” She has worked for the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and commands a wide variety of music. Schwab plays folk music, classical, vintage American music and more.

“Jacqueline Schwab brings more intensity and feeling to music than anyone I know. Her playing is insistent, physical and heartfelt … and unusually moving,” Burns is quoted as saying on Schwab’s website.

Schwab sat at the piano in a recording studio in Cape Cod with Lance and Herzfeldt-Kamprath watching and listening from the second floor. She played from her repertoire of her “highly arranged” music that she thought would fit with the film.

“It’s terrifying – selecting what to play,” Schwab said.

To keep expenses down, she selected music that was in the public domain rather than under copyright. A lot of the pieces were based on English dance music, along with one traditional Spanish number, “La Paloma,” which she played during the fishing scenes. She said since the film is about working with birds, the score is intimate, quiet and has “a lot of lift.”

“I put the music together at the last minute,” Schwab said, because she works well doing things that way.

Lance said she was a little anxious about the project, but not nervous in front of the camera as long as she was active. Her nerves showed up when she was only speaking to the camera, she said.

“I like documentaries. I especially like documentaries on people doing interesting things,” Lance said. That was one of the reasons she agreed to make the film. Another was to leave something behind about her life for the niece and nephew she rarely sees.

One thing Lance said she realized in making the film is, although the sanctuary is grueling work, she has changed her mind about giving it up. Matt and Erica Siverly have lots of experience with birds and are taking over a lot of the work, but Lance isn’t going to leave.

“I’m not a non-profit and I’m lucky to have these people working with me. But, I’m not not ever going to do it,” she said.

Herzfeldt-Kamprath said she is “proud” of the film – her first solo project. She said she will continue making films and her next project is for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Schwab said she was “so happy to be part of this.” She plays concerts around the country and Canada.

“Under Her Wing” has been entered in next month’s D.C. Environmental Film Festival, the American Documentary Film Festival and several others. A second showing on St. Croix is being considered.

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