Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Fuertes Library

The old Lab of Ornithology was a humble block building which subsequently grew to include a string of offices housed in mobile homes in the woods. I doubt that anyone who worked in the old buildings misses the good old days, when the organization’s needs and staff outgrew the original structure. I was eager to see the new building, and it didn’t disappoint. One of the things I was most impressed with was the loving, careful reconstruction of the jewel of the old Lab: the wood-paneled library, adorned with Fuertes paintings. The paintings all appear as they originally did, though it seemed to me the ceiling might have been raised considerably. It’s still warm and intimate and exquisite, and a local artisan contributed handmade chairs with a nodding heron design to finish it off.

Here are some of the panels in the library. I adore this old man turkey, and the winter pastels of the landscape around him. There’s such a mood in this piece. And there's a victorious peregrine with bufflehead buffet. Fuertes did terrific upside-down dead birds, probably because he had one right in front of him to draw from.
A magnificent tryptich of snowy owl, king eider, and Canada goose.

The same owl, with scaup and scoters.

An autumnal gem: a strutting ruffed grouse in glowing sugar maple and white pine woodland. Don’t’ you want to walk with him? Look at the perspective and handling of his tail. I love this piece. I can hear his soft footfalls in the leaves and smell the curing forest litter, hear the calls of migrating jays and feel the melancholy of autumn seeping in.

More panels, these of puddle ducks and a red-shouldered hawk, in situ. You can see a little peek through to the fabulous Wild Birds Unlimited shop just beyond. They sold quite a few copies of Letters from Eden during the show and talks!

The whole works. What a room.

Half of my show, spitting distance from Louis’ work. Happy sigh.

When I was a baby bird artist in the mid-80’s, I gave a talk in the old Fuertes Library, awed that I was surrounded by my hero’s work. I was no less humbled this time, especially by hanging my simple watercolors in a room immediately adjoining the library. Though the Letters from Eden show comprises over 60 paintings (with another bunch still waiting to be framed), we had to cherry-pick the ones we most wanted to hang, and in the end had room for about half of them. In hanging the show, Charles Eldermire and I had to balance our desire to show all the work with the realities of the space. The system involves clips and wires, such that the paintings are suspended from molding near the ceiling, so there was a lot of scurrying up and down a ladder on Charles’ part; it was like a two-day Stairmaster marathon for him. My role was mostly that of fussy arbiter. We were in sync, though, and the hanging went smoothly, even though it took a lot longer than either of us anticipated. There was an international symposium of migration biologists meeting at the same time, so we could work only at night, after the meetings were over. Here's one wall of paintings.
And the second one. We struggled to get the important things up, without overcrowding things. It makes me happy to think that, at least until mid-July, the same air molecules will be circulating over Fuertes' work and mine; that people will be able, perhaps, to see the influence of the master in a student he never knew. If staring holes in book plates can teach a kid how to paint birds, I learned. Here's my favorite plate from Forbush and May's A Natural History of Birds Of Eastern and Central North America. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for that first Fuertes book. It was $3.95 well spent. I remember trying so hard to write straight as I made it all mine.
Come see me at the Scioto Bird Club's one-day bird festival on Saturday, May 3, from 7-noon at the Mound City Group Visitor's Center in Chillicothe, Ohio. I'll be giving my Letters from Eden talk at 10:30 AM and leading a bird walk at 9 AM, as well as signing books. I know at least one blogreader who's coming!

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