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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.


Wow - what a cool opportunity. Did they/can you tell us why the Flamingo was chosen?

Due to an amazing amount of 19th Century foresight, the state of North Carolina purchased not one, but two(!!!) first edition double elephant folios of Audubon's book in 1846 and they're going to display them at the NC Museum of Art starting in two weeks. They'll be turning a page every couple weeks.

Info here:

I'm very much looking forward to it.

Speaking of N. Carolina, a NC artist who I presume you must know JZ, is Sally Middleton who somewhat reminds me of Audubon (although I'm really more of a Fuertes fan!). Sally has the wonderful quirky habit of placing a lone blue jay feather into most of her paintings (sometimes hidden).

Good grief Julie! There is more than a passing resemblance to Phoebe in this pic of you and your Dad. At first I thought it WAS her as I always look at the pics first in your articles. What a lovely experience this must have been for you. When does it air or have we already missed it?

I was one of those awarded the Picturing American portfolio for my school. It is fabulous and I loved being able to show the pictures to students, tell them the details and history behind the picture, and let them then look at the picture in the library. I have had the flamingo on display several times! The art teacher is now using the portfolio as, alas, I have retired.
Delighted to know you had a small hand in making it so wonderful!

Now I understand why I like your blog so much!!

Now I know why I like your blog so much!!

Hey Zick, Your writing always bring a smile to my face. In the photo, you look like my older sister Ilene at about the same age. You could not be any more different than her. She is loud, crude, and unappreciative. And she would not turn her head to look at anything having to do with nature. And those are her good points :) You gotta love it. Hope that you and Billy and the kids are fine. later and love, artie

What a heartwarming photo of you and your dad. It says SO much.

And congratulations on your terrific opportunity and honor.

Wow, what an awesome opportunity! Congrats! And thanks for sharing the two Audubon paintings, neither of which I'd seen before. It's really incredible to see the liveliness of his work juxtaposed with Wilson's--really shows how revolutionary his work was.

It might be naive of me to ask, but have you read the biography "John James Audubon: The Making of an American," by Richard Rhodes? I picked it up recently and, being fairly ignorant of the subject beforehand, was really interested to hear of his manifold adventures.

Tai haku, even the filmmakers weren't given to know why a particular painting was chosen. I'll talk about the selection of the flamingo in a later post. It's a head-scratcher on ornithological grounds, but fairly obvious on visual grounds.

Cyberthrush, I don't know how I escaped knowing about Sallie Middleton's art, but having Googled her, find she passed away in 2009. Lovely stuff, very detailed and decorative, hearkening back to Victorian times. Her style evokes that of Glenn Loates and Fen Lansdowne, both of whom flourished during the fascination with extreme detail that characterized the wildlife print market of the 1970's.

Linda, you can imagine how Phoebe felt about that comment--I crowed! and she didn't. :-) This isn't a program that airs on TV, I don't think--it's for classrooms. As you can see I didn't get all the details. A visit to the Picturing America web site doesn't do much to clear it up, either.

Candace, the project must be an ongoing and evolving thing, because we just did the session. Maybe they add to it as years go by? Duh? (I know nussing)...

Artie, be nice to Iline.

Claire, you're never naive. I haven't read it! and must. I do recommend my friends Michael Harwood and Mary Durrant's "On the Road with John James Audubon," which shone a light on a lot of fascinating stuff about how he really worked.

And with one little JZ post, I have more of an appreciation for Audubon's talent even if I'm not overly fond of his style...

I immediately thought "Liam!" when the photo of you came up. *lol* I can see Phoebe, too. Love love love your dad's bare feet.

Congrats on a marvelous opportunity!

Audubon's wonderfully alive renderings stem from his practice of using freshly killed birds which he wired into the poses he wanted. He had tried using a model made out of wood and wire at one point, but decided that using the real thing worked much better.

So many great things about this post, and the picture of you with your father is wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing all of this.

Nick from Ottawa

I could look at Audubon paintings all day long. It was if he could express the spirit of the bird as well as its form. Really liked this post.

What everybody else said, and also I happen to know you could zip off to New England and walk into a room and in front of a camera and wing it. So to speak.

There's something about your photograph, too, that's like looking in a way-back mirror. And it isn't the features on father or daughter. It's...something else.

What a great post about a wonderful experience! A number of years ago I went to a fine exhibit at the beautiful Francine and Sterling Clark Gallery at Williams College called Audubon: His Family and His Associates. A framed poster from that exhibit hangs here in our WNC mountain house. Nate's comment is of interest to me. James Thurber was a favorite around my childhood house as well. The photo of you and your father? Priceless.

So much here about what parents give to their children, I think without even knowing it sometimes.

My introduction to Audubon was when I was in 3rd grade. I was fresh from Africa, a missionary kid whose parents were home for a year. Thrown in with a class of U.S. raised kids, I was quite adrift, until we did a little class play about Audubon.
Of course, I was not in it in any major way--but I had never heard of this man before. I was entranced. As I recall, the play centered on his falling ill, and his wife Lucy nursing him back to health.
You brought back a flood of memories here.

That your dad took the paintings as insurance premium speaks volumes about his charachter. I wanna hear that story.

Awesome, Julie!

My folks had that same set of prints also acquired from an insurance company. I can't remember which one, but I sure can remember those intriguing prints.

Thanks, Julie, for another excellent post, and so glad you were chosen for the interview.


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