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Yellow-breasted Chats

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Next, New-York Historical Society's Curator of Drawings Roberta Olson pulled out the yellow-breasted chats. Oh, how did she know how I loved that painting? It was exquisite—the depth and delicacy of the nest in particular.  Not to question the master, but I’m not sure he’s got the proportions right—the female chat seems to be buried in her nest. Chats do build a big, bulky nest but she looks quite swallowed up by this construction. Nevertheless…look at the ring of rosies around that exquisite nest. Nests are very difficult to do well. This one, aside from the proportions, is irreproachable.

Here's a photo by my patient friends Richard and Susan Day that shows chats with their nest. It's a big, deep nest, but not perhaps quite as big around or deep as Audubon showed it. 
Photo courtesy of Richard and Susan Day, Daybreak Imagery
Roberta said that this work is one of her favorites, too, for the way that Audubon tells the whole story of courtship and nesting in one painting. Of course male chats would not be displaying right over an occupied nest, but she said she thinks of it more in a comic-strip way, that Audubon is telling the story of the male’s courtship, which culminates in a nest with the male feeding his mate as she incubates their eggs. You’ll see that in another painting, coming up.

Roberta pointed out that the belly-up male chat does not appear in the final print. Audubon got a lot of flak from ornithologists of the day for his exuberant poses, which he got from the living birds, as well as from the birds he wired to his drawing board. Having lived with breeding chats around our yard for 18 years, I can attest that they do fling themselves up into the air when they start their butterfly display flight. How frustrating it must have been for Audubon to have to tone down what he knew to be right and true, in order to satisfy an audience that was both more conservative and less experienced than he.

 I had a lovely ink drawing of an American redstart, flinging itself up into the air after a leafhopper, that was rejected by the ornithologist for whose species account I drew it, because “redstarts never do that.” Oh. How odd that an ornithologist would employ the word “never” when referring to the movements of our most acrobatic and agile warbler. I’ve seen redstarts fling themselves straight up, straight down in a flurry of wings and tail, turning themselves inside out—whatever it takes to catch the insect. But however much the artist grumbles, the client is always right, so I did another drawing.

Original Audubon Watercolors

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Our guide at the New-York Historical Society would be curator Roberta Olson, whose enthusiasm for and knowledge of the art of Audubon is unequaled. She's been over every print and painting with a magnifying glass, and in speaking of Audubon, brings him to glorious life.

First to come was a double elephant folio of Audubon prints, carefully opened by the curator to the flamingo page. Now these are not original watercolors, but engravings that were done from Audubon's original watercolors and hand-colored in a limited edition for collectors.  I couldn’t believe how vivid the colors were, how huge the image was. Audubon painted every bird life-size, so putting an American flamingo on even a double elephant folio sized page was a challenge. He folded and crimped the bird, and yet gave it life and motion. The back foot is lifted as if it’s in mid-step. Across the top of the page are some line drawing studies of the bill structure. And behind the bird range some other flamingos. Looking at them, it was clear to me that Audubon did not draw them. Their proportions were badly off, as were their stances--in sharp contrast to the exquisite foreground bird. Perhaps they were added by engraver Robert Havell, who, though he was terrific at what he did, was nobody's  bird artist.    (My mom used to describe certain people, the kind whose elevator doesn't go all the way to the top, as "nobody's brain.")

I was curious about why the Picturing America project chose Audubon’s flamingo as its iconic American image. (The filmmaker wasn’t consulted about the selection). Audubon observed flamingos in the Florida Keys in 1832, and was wild to paint them. He badgered his friend Bachman (he of Bachman’s warbler fame) to send him specimens, but didn’t get his wish until 1838. What torture, to hold onto that vision for six years! He had to have the specimen shipped from Cuba, and painted it in London. From the way the primaries fold beneath the secondaries, and the way the wing stands outside the body plumage rather than tucking into it, it appears to me that he was forced to work from a dried skin, but he nevertheless imbued it with life. Compare the way the wings are almost hidden by the ornamental scapular feathers of these living birds, and how you can't see the black primaries, with the stiff, dried-looking wing on Audubon's painting. He'd certainly have gotten that right if he'd been able to see a live flamingo up close.

 Caribbean flamingos, Columbus Zoo, November 2009

 When I think of Audubon, many other images spring to mind—his lively ivory-billed woodpeckers; his Carolina parakeets in cocklebur.  His yellow-breasted chats, his wood ducks. Ah well, They’re all magnificent. The selection process may have been simple: The flamingo, though it barely and accidentally incurs into southernmost Florida every once in a blue moon, is big, impressive, and bright pink.
 Wild flamingos, Celestun, Yucatan, Mexico.

And now, curator Roberta Olson revealed what was in the tantalizing black portfolios on the tables in the viewing room. She pulled out Audubon’s original watercolor for the American flamingo. Innocent of background, the bird stood alone on the off-white paper. Audubon had painted egg white over the salmon- pink (quite a different and truer plumage color than shown in the elephant folio print), and over time that glaze had bubbled up and oxidized into brownish drips and crackles. This is one of the few originals that doesn’t look as nice as the print.

But there were more original watercolors. My heart started to race. Roberta, with flourish and an air of a magician, pulled out the house wrens next. There they were, nesting in their felt hat. Roberta showed me where Audubon had let the watercolors mingle and leave little tidelines with water to create texture on the hat. The wrens’ droppings were doubtless once bright white, but the lead in the white paint had oxidized to bluish gray. I’d always wondered about that.  At this point I was still very shy about pulling out my camera. I was almost afraid to breathe on the paintings. I couldn’t believe I was looking at the watercolor paper (Whatman, still made today) that Audubon painted on; that the heel of his hand had rested on it as he moved the brush.

Death Mask Interlude

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


 From the videotaped interview, it was on to the New-York Historical Society, repository of so many amazing and fascinating objects and works of art that it made me gasp, just walking through a back hallway. Familiar paintings—a Childe Hassam streetscape of NYC—just hanging there, not behind glass or anything…ga-aaw-lee! Great big cases of heads! Oh!

I stopped, riveted as I always am by death masks. Far left, Houdon’s idealized sculpture of a handsome George Washington. Next, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s death mask. Agggh! It was like having him right there in front of me, with his crooked nose and scraggly beard and weary eyes. Well, I’m assuming it’s a death mask, since it was done the year he died, and he doesn’t look particularly alert. 
Sherman served as General under Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War, and was notorious for his "scorched earth" approach to conquering Confederate strongholds.

Two over from that, the death mask of Seminole leader Osceola who, but for his high cheekbones, didn’t look much like a Native American to me. (His is the death mask on the left in the photo below). So I did a little reading. Osceola, who claimed to be a full-blooded Muscogee, was born Billy Powell in Alabama to a mixed Muscogee and Scottish mother and an English trader. Nevertheless, he rose in the Seminole ranks, leading a small band of warriors during the Second Seminole War when the US Army tried to kick the Seminoles off their lands. He was captured by being tricked into thinking he was arriving for treaty negotiations, and died of malaria shortly thereafter. So even though he had scant Native American blood, Osceola still got the dubious benefit of being treated like one.

And next to that, to the right of Osceola, the extremely creepy death mask of a dentureless Aaron Burr, vice president with Thomas Jefferson, war hero, brilliant lawyer; killer in a duel of his arch-rival Alexander Hamilton. Burr wanted to establish his own duchy in northern Mexico, the “Burr Conspiracy,” which was funded in part by Harman Blennerhassett, an expat Irish aristocrat who lived on an island in the Ohio River now named for him. My favorite Burr quote: "In the past even I was afraid of my own greatness, therefore I could not stand in front of mirrors." (Oh, yeah, me too, only I don't like mirrors because they make me look fat.)

Poor Burr had been immobilized by a stroke for two years before this mask was made. What a life he led! And somehow it is all written on that weary face.

I peeked around a corner and saw the sculptor’s maquette for Lincoln’s head in the Lincoln Memorial. Did not have my camera. The head alone was taller than me. My jaw simply dropped. They have a little of everything at the New-York Historical Society.  A lot of everything. Just turn me loose there for a month. I could have so much fun! Oh, there’s Napoleon’s writing desk. Of course. 

I felt like a three-year-old in a candy store. But there were Audubons awaiting!

John James Audubon and Me

Sunday, October 24, 2010


 It’s hard to express the depth and breadth of John James Audubon’s influence on my bird paintings. Thanks to my parents, Audubon was the first painter whose work I studied, quickly followed by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. I can’t imagine a better introduction to bird painting, for each of these peerless artists turned to the living bird itself for inspiration and information. 

Here's an Audubon of northern mockingbirds attacking a rattlesnake at their nest. Audubon got criticized for having the rattler in a tree, but they do climb, and he knew that, and he stuck to his guns, creating an incredibly vibrant work of art. Just look at the bird facing down the snake's fangs. That's a mockingbird for you--fearless, full of vinegar, and (by the way) perfect in every detail.

 Understand that in the early 19th century, John James Audubon was painting birds much better than anybody, anywhere, anytime, had ever done. He drew and painted them so well that his images still stand head and shoulders above most of the bird paintings being done today, even with the benefit of all the insanely good reference we have. And he had no photographs to refer to. He didn't even have a pair of binoculars! All he had was his sharp eyes, his gun, and the bird. Which, in a way, is why his stuff is so purely, amazingly good. Here's an example of the best American bird art at the time: a little plate by Alexander Wilson (1766-1813). This is one of the plates for his nine-volume tour de force, American Ornithology, published between 1808 and 1814.

 I'm not saying Wilson's birds were bad--that female summer tanager in the lower right corner is pretty righteous--but there were some stylization issues in drawings of the time that got in the way of a true representation of the bird as it appeared in life. Some of the static poses in fashion at the time make them look  a bit more like fish than birds. Again, I grant all due respect to Alexander Wilson, who was an amazing ornithologist and artistic talent. He met Audubon in Louisville in 1810. And probably immediately felt he'd been born at the wrong time.

Because along comes this long-haired woodsman with the strange French name and the buckskin jacket, and he starts throwing down stuff like this:

And I'm sorry, but looking at that image, everybody else trying to paint birds out there might as well pick up their toys and go home. Because Audubon has It; he is a comet among minor stars. He's got this juvenile red-shouldered hawk blundering into a covey of bobwhite quail, and it's so dazzled by the potential of the flock that it has no idea whatsoever what it's doing, and it probably winds up crash-landing and missing them all. Its eye is wild (and exactly the right color); it's got the pale wing windows of immature hawks; it's got live crazy talons and it's striking in two directions at once. John James has watched young hawks and he knows the kind of stupid things they do, and he gets the whole "safety in numbers" thing that flocking birds exploit (If we all stick together, maybe the hawk will get YOU instead of me!) He's got those quail in every frantic, wild pose you can imagine and then some; he's bagged immatures and females and males of all ages to paint from; they're probably rotting right in front of him as he works. And he's not afraid to paint a whole flock, which, take it from me, is a royal pain in the butt, because you're trying to make sure they all come out looking like bobwhites and that you haven't thrown a rogue coturnix or ruffed grouse lookalike in there because you got bored of drawing bobwhites and lost your focus.

That apparently didn't happen to Audubon. He kept his passion through each painting.

So when I got an email from a film producer named Richard Hendrick, asking me if I’d be willing to participate in the making of a segment on Audubon for the “Picturing America” project, it took me about thirty seconds to say Hayull Yeah!

New York’s public television channel WNET Thirteen and the National Endowment for the Humanities have gotten together to choose fifty iconic paintings that they feel represent America. And they want to bring those paintings to classrooms all over the country, via laminated images, the Web and video. One of those chosen is an Audubon painting (yaaay!) They wanted me to appear in the video, giving my perspective on the image as a lifelong painter of birds. (My thanks to my pals Alan Poole and Katy Payne in Ithaca for coming up with my name when Richard asked whom they might interview!)  They’d show me the painting they chose (Audubon’s American flamingo), and I’d, uh, expound on it. Or something. I wasn’t sure. All I knew is that I’d get to see a real live hand-colored Elephant Folio of Audubon prints, and I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to do that.

Oh, but what I didn’t know I’d get to do was so much more delicious even than that. Maybe I figured it would be fabulous, no matter what. Maybe I was listening to the little voice of my late mentor, Erma (Jonnie) Fisk, whispering, "Just say YES!"  So I set out figuring out the formidable logistics of getting myself from Ohio to Boston to Providence to New York and back to Ohio, while Bill was (whoops) away in Papua New Guinea for three weeks. His parents, Bill and Elsa, were troopers, really came through for us and the kids. Thanks to them, for everything.

I traveled to New England for a college reunion, had the most marvelous, if intense, time. Then, an impromptu family reunion. Then I caught a train from Providence to New York, and my Audubon adventure began. My day started at the screech of dawn, with an hour-long videotaped interview in a small hotel room about what Audubon means to me. I was able to show Richard my favorite photo of me with my dad. Me aged 12, Dad about 58 (holy smokes, not that much older than me now!) as we perused a large sheaf of Audubon prints he’d gotten as an insurance premium. 

 photo by Dan Kemp

I loved those prints, memorized them. Dad had framed the ruffed grouse, Harris’ hawk, green-winged teal and wild turkey for our living room. I’m so thankful to have had those excellent prints to study in my formative years. I don’t remember ever copying them, but I know they, and the truth in Audubon's art, influenced my approach to drawing. Later, when I was in college, Dad gave me a volume of reproductions of original Audubon watercolors. They weren't particularly well-reproduced, but they were the best available images at the time, and there was an interesting writeup with each image. I still pore over that book, falling out of its spine as it is. I love my Dad for being the character he was--earthy and funny and wise--and for setting me up with the best art and literature he could get his hands on. 

Today, in the basement, I found my long-misplaced copies of Ernest Thompson Seton's Wild Animals I Have Known and The Thurber Carnival. Both, family heirlooms. Dad read them to my sister and me, and in reading them, made us writers. I held them in my hands, wept, and thanked my lucky stars for being blessed with the parents I had.  (Mom, as a perfect counterpoint, also kept us supplied with MAD Magazine. Which should not surprise anyone who read MAD as a kid, and also reads this blog.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

  A dog's world is made primarily of scent. There are sights, to be sure, and sounds, but scent reigns supreme in the canine sensory array.

 There are stories in the grass: of voles passing, of rabbits and crickets, of droppings and tracks and scent molecules you and I could never perceive. Chet reads them all like you and I read the daily paper.

 He turns the page and answers my call.  Chet Baker, we have something for you to smell.

It's a tuberose, fresh from the garden. (Astute readers will notice that these photos were taken when one could still be outside in shorts; when the Queen Anne's lace was abloom instead of afrazzle; when the tuberoses perfumed the entire yard each evening and early morning with their swoony scent.

 Why, that is delightful, Phoebe! Of course I could smell it as soon as I came out of the house, but it is nice to have it up close, right out of the flower tube.

 May I smell it again?

 Mmmmm. That is delicious. It reminds me I do not have a word for it, but I know I smelled it before. Perhaps last year, in August, and the year before.


Yes, thank you. It is tuberose. The basis for many perfumes. You are not a perfume-wearing woman, but you should know that. Tuberose is in the agave family. It grows from bulbs, which you must pull up every fall and store in the basement.

Yes, I know, Chet Baker, and we need to do that very soon, before it freezes and the leaves wither away and it's hard to find the bulbs.

 I will help you do that. I never tire of the scent. I am a sensual dog. They say that dogs like awful stinky smells, and that is true, but we also appreciate smells you think are beautiful. We have a much wider smell palette than you do.

We may not agree on the loveliness of green coyote poo as a body cream (trust me, it is lovely!)  but we definitely agree on tuberose. Right, Mether?

Right, Chet Baker. You good boy, you. Give us a kiss! Mbwah!

That is the kissingest woman. 

Hit "Like" and his updates will appear in your news feed. Who wouldn't Like that?

Draft Mules

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


It wasn't all horses at the Draft Horse, Pony and Mule Field Day in Adams County, Ohio. There were some charming mules, like Loretta and Lucy.

 Lucy, left, and Loretta.  I was agog at the complexity and beauty of the harness. Every chain, every line means something, but it was all a tangle to me. I saw a lot of people figuring out what went where, fussing with this strap and that. Amazing. And jingly.

 A mule is the long-eared offspring of a male donkey and a mare. You can, in one generation, make any kind of mule you want. If you want a quarter horse mule, you mate a male donkey to a quarter horse mare. If you want a miniature mule, mate a miniature donkey to a miniature horse.  This dark team looked like they may have had a Standardbred, the classic dark Amish buggy horse, as their mom.

 A nice matched team of flea-bitten grays.  Mules have an undeserved reputation for being cantankerous, a holdover from the days when a worthless mare with a nasty disposition would be bred to a donkey in an attempt to get something of value out of her. Mules are more highly valued and carefully bred now, and quality parents get quality offspring.

I loved this muledriver's muttonchop..somethings...

He was driving a splendid team of three mammoth mules, likely the offspring of a mammoth donkey and a Belgian mare. Wow, wow, wow, what magnificent strong animals.

A donkey has 62 chromosomes and a horse has 64. Their mule offspring have an uneven number: 63, which renders them unable to produce offspring. So each mule results from a fresh mating of donkey to horse; there is no mule production from mules. Still, the animals have all their equipment, and males must be gelded lest they cause trouble in the paddock.

Mules are not stubborn. Rather, they examine situations carefully before proceeding. They've carried tourists safely up and down the Grand Canyon walls for over 100 years; they are not prone to panic or flights of fancy. They're smart, sensible, careful animals. Many horses tend otherwise.

I hope you've enjoyed this little blast from the past. I'm grateful to live in Ohio, where the Amish culture spreads its gentle influence and keeps such things as mules, buggies, draft horses and antique equipment in our world. I'm glad for the old guys, Amish or not, who still harness up the horses on a Sunday, still sit on the rattly seats and turn the soil behind the massive haunches of draft animals. I hope there will always be some of those old guys around, some younger ones too.

And glorious manmade mules.

Zick Note:  As of Wednesday, October 20, I'll be a Beat Blogger for the megabirdingblog 10,000 Birds.
I've been trying here for almost five years, and I haven't managed to break out into a larger readership. Make no mistake--I treasure you readers who've stuck with me--you are the best, you fill my heart, and I wouldn't trade you for 10,000 casual readers. But I'm beginning to suspect that the only blogs that can garner a large audience are the team blogs, which have daily and even multiple daily posts. I can't do that by myself and still raise my kids and care for my family.

  I like the folks over at 10,000 Birds, and I can't beat 'em, so I'm joining 'em. There are some messages that need a larger audience--tomorrow morning's post is one of them. (I happen to think that great big beautiful mules need a larger audience, but maybe that's why I'm not getting anywhere...) Nothing will change over here, except maybe a few more readers will come see what I'm serving up. A blogger can hope.

Belgian Horses

Sunday, October 17, 2010


 Everybody likes to trace their lineage way back to a king, oh, let's say Charlemagne. I couldn't do that if you held a gun to my head, wouldn't know where to start. Some Scots-Irish married some Germans, came to southern West Virginia, a bunch of them went to Iowa, and there you have it. Simplified Zick genealogy.  Fans of the Belgian draft horse say they, and all draft breeds, sprang from the "great horse" of medieval times, made heavy to carry knights in full armor into battle. And they doubtless turned some serious soil when there wasn't a battle to charge into.

Gentle giants that can exceed six feet at the withers and weigh more than a ton, Belgians are more popular in the U.S. than all other draft breeds combined.  They can pull prodigious weights; a team of Belgians whose combined weight was 4,200 pounds pulled 17,000 pounds for 7.2 feet. Yikes.

 Pulling an antique cultivator (?) and a man is nothing to these enormous animals. The antique equipment looks so frail and spidery; I look at the potential for getting it all stomped on and twisted and it scares me. But Belgians are steady animals, not the stomping kind.

 Coming about...

 Another team, these with natural, not docked, tails. I've got to guess that the suspension on this old machinery makes for a bone-rattling ride. We are so spoiled with our hydraulic shocks and air-conditioned tractor cabs, sitting high above the dust. Imagine how sore you'd be after a day of riding this.

I knew a Belgian mare named Victoria when I was a college student living in the wilds outside the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts. Her owner, an opera singer and woodswoman, used Victoria to haul the wood with which she heated her cottage in the winter. Yes, it was romantic as it sounds, drowning in climbing roses and backed by sugar maples. Susan used to let me ride Victoria into the town square of Petersham, where I would tie her and go get an ice cream cone at the general store.

When I turned Victoria  for home, she'd finally break into a canter in a slow-motion, Belgiany kind of way. It was like riding an overstuffed sofa, absolutely glorious and exhilarating, to have the ground shaking beneath her great hooves and me bareback astride. I loved that horse.

And so it was pure pleasure to watch this gentleman ready his team (two experienced horses with wide blazes, and a young mare on the left) for the exhibition.

Tucking the forelocks.

Despite the blinders, they keep an ear cocked back to keep track of where he is so they won't step on him.

We thanked him, and apologized for being such paparazzi. He didn't mind. He thinks they're beautiful, too.

Belgians snoozing, scratching

Pulling, whoaing

Champing their bits, waiting for the next request.

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