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Mass Audubon's Visual Arts Center

Sunday, December 4, 2011

 Believe it or don't, I was in Massachusetts to do other things than photograph gravestones and owls and twigs. I'd been invited by the Mass Audubon Visual Arts Center in Canton to come give a talk in honor of their retrospective of Robert Verity Clem's stunning art, now on display. Bob was a mentor to me; he steered me toward working from living birds (and those freshly dead, too). He showed me how the feathers lay and stack on their wings and taught me how to get it right. He even sent me a stack of watercolor paper when he found me working on junk.

So I spoke of that, and of what happened after that, of a life led among birds, taking care of them and helping them when I can.

And a whole bunch of my friends showed up.

 from left, back, VAC Curator Gigi Hopkins; field sketch artist and author Clare Walker Leslie; painter and museum exhibit creator Sean Murtha; hopeful collegian and linguist Emily Barth; former Mass Audubon Director of Natural History Services Jim Baird; artist, carver and writer Rob Braunfield.
  Front row, from left: Sculptor, carver, and painter Larry Barth; painter and field sketcher Barry Van Dusen; painter and newly minted Master Wildlife Artist Jim Coe; pastel painter Cindy House; painter and explorer Lucia de Leiris; and a very wide-angled and agog JZ.  Darn it, VAC Director Amy Montague shoulda been in this picture but she was taking it!

You would not want to drop a bomb on this room. The world of birds in art would never be the same.

I'm still amazed at the gathering that took place, and deeply grateful to Amy Montague and Cindy House for corralling a flighty aviary of artists into one place for such a joyful reunion. Most brought things to show and tell. It's so inspiring to see the beautiful work my friends are doing, and to be able to talk with them about it. These people are going out and painting in oils and watercolors and pastels en plein air; they're sketching birds and animals from life; they're living proof of the legacy Bob Clem left.

Amy took us downstairs to poke through some early work by Bob Clem. What a treat that was, to view his working drawings and early paintings close up!

A moody northern shrike watercolor.

As we gasped and exclaimed, we joked about which piece we'd like to slip under our jackets and walk home with...this page of falcon drawings was at the top of my heap.

The immediate recognition I felt upon viewing this fine, fine sharpshin was akin to looking out the window and seeing one fetched up in the birch, watching the feeders. Bob's work is so true to the bird that not for a second do you have to wonder if it's a sharpie or a Cooper's. Every stroke of the brush says sharpie. He knew his birds so very, very well. If you go see the show, don't miss the life studies of a perched Cooper's hawk in the stairwell. Another slip-under-the-jacket painting for me. 

The VAC show is awesome, and well worth a trip down to see this master artist's rarely-reproduced work firsthand. I'm a watercolorist and despite heavy-duty staring there were passages in his paintings I couldn't figure out; sunlight hitting off algae mats and that kind of thing. He had a patience and an ability to plan his paintings that I lack. Most of all, they're true, to light, to landscape, to bird, and I'm deeply grateful to Bob for imparting that all-important search for truth to me when I was a baby bird painter.

Read Connecticut painter Sean Murtha's blogpost about Bob Clem, and how he felt seeing this show, here.

I gave a talk at 2 on Saturday November 12, and another at 11 on Sunday the 13th. We had great attendance for both. There were so many people I knew in the room on Saturday that it truly felt like an episode of "This is Your Life." The combined expertise in art and ornithology in that room was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I was nervous as a kingfisher right up until I grabbed the podium and launched, and then it went just fine. 

It sure helped to have family there.

And the dearest of friends. This is Rob Braunfield, who taught me everything about bluebirds and the art of seeing, too.


What a wonderful event! I loved the paintings you shared. I know how it must have moved you all to be there in the presence of his work, when he has been such an inspiration to you all!

Congratulations. The drawings are amazing. What a treasure. I'm sure you'll have many more speaking opportunities to keep you heart racing. Good luck

Posted by Anonymous December 5, 2011 at 11:26 PM

Thanks for bringing joy to others with these drawings and other posts. I was born in Ohio and graduated from OSU with an engineering degree. Now I am retired and teaching art to 5th-graders and seniors, including some who are dealing with dementia. I also belong to my local art alliance, which may inspire me to get back into painting in acrylic, pastels, and watercolor. See Thanks again for blogging from your heart!

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