Searching for the Birds in Art

A small Wisconsin museum celebrates its 25th anniversary as the world’s mecca for wildlife artists

06-01-2001 // George H. Harrison

AMONG THE THOUSANDS of millennium-year celebrations that took place around the world, by far the most significant, at least to artists who paint, draw or sculpt birds, happened in the small central Wisconsin city of Wausau.

Wausau? Home to "Birds in Art," an internationally acclaimed annual exhibition at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, this city attracts thousands of wildlife artists and art lovers every year. According to Canadian artist Robert Bateman, one of the genre’s preeminent masters, the show "has been the one great catalyst for improving the quality and awareness of wildlife art in the world today." Last fall, the renowned exhibition launched its 25th-anniversary celebration, which continues through this September.

When the Woodson museum first opened its doors in 1976, no one could have predicted the exhibition’s remarkable growth nor its phenomenal success over a span of just two and a half decades. The show began as a modest "invitation to a few friends" from Wisconsin wildlife artist Owen J. Gromme, who had been asked by museum founders John and Alice Woodson Forester to help out with the fledgling institution’s inaugural exhibit. Gromme selected some of his own works, as well as those of about two dozen artist friends. Intended as a one-time-only event, the show was a runaway success, attracting more than 7,000 visitors. Museum officials decided to make "Birds in Art" an annual event.

Today Wausau (population 39,000) remains an unlikely venue for a world-class art exhibition. The city "is not exactly the center of the universe, even when planes are flying," jokes museum board member Alice Smith. But flock to Wausau they do—some 20,000 artists, collectors, dealers and museum-goers every year. The city "is Mecca for wildlife artists," says Bateman.

The show is particularly valuable to wildlife painters and sculptors who want to keep in touch with colleagues and their work. "For me, getting together for discussions with other artists is as important as the exhibition itself," says Swedish artist Lars Jonsson. To date, 550 artists from 22 countries have participated in the exhibition—from the likes of Gromme, Roger Tory Peterson and Don Richard Eckelberry in the early years to more recent masters including Jonsson, Bateman, Maynard Reece, George McLean and Dino Paravano.

With each passing year, the exhibition’s content has broadened. At first, virtually all paintings selected for the show were "characterized by extreme attention to detail, reminiscent of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century naturalists’ studies," says museum director Kathy Kelsey Foley. But today nearly anything goes, provided it is judged to be top quality by the exhibit’s highly respected panel of jurors.

"While the inclusion or depiction of a bird remains essential to the exhibition’s theme, it is the artwork in its totality that is scrutinized," says Foley. "Fully developed landscapes, impressionistic treatments, abstractions and even bird habitats minus the bird now comprise the exhibition."

One thing that has not changed over the past 25 years is the intense competition for a coveted spot in the exhibition. Each spring, more than 500 hopeful painters and sculptors submit their entries, from which jurors choose only about a fifth of the most accomplished and imaginative works. Says Wisconsin wildlife artist Betsy Popp, one of the lucky few who has been selected, "´Birds in Art´ is to an artist what an Oscar is to an actor."

URBAN WARRIOR: More accustomed to depicting life in the rain forest, Richard Sloan found that "eliminating green from my palette . . . was a change of pace as was taking on such a structured composition" in this painting of a peregrine falcon and a rock dove.

LONG-TAILED SKUA: "Among the cliffs of the northern shores, cold seas often have reflection stripped by the dark surroundings," says painter Julian Friers. "The water’s surface scatters light going in and coming out, distorting objects below. The effects created by water are fascinating."

GREEN HERON: "I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors looking at birds, and I’ve never seen one on a hand-rubbed walnut base," says sculptor Larry Barth. "To make this heron seem as real as possible, I left out everything that would suggest otherwise. He is simply there—just as a real bird would be."

Royal Flush, Ice and Snow Petrel, A King´s Platter

ROYAL FLUSH: Of royal terns like these, artist Robert E. Brinks says: "I’m amused by their appearance — a classic definition of a ´bad hair day´ — while attracted to their tonal qualities. When I combined the birds with the atmospheric qualities of a foggy day at the beach, Royal Flush evolved."

ICE AND SNOW PETREL: "I suppose I can look at an abstract canvas and really enjoy good color or balance or structure," says Keith Shackleton. "But I think it’s best to seek out abstraction in reality. That’s one reason why I like painting icebergs, which can be more or less any shape I want them to be."

A KING’S PLATTER: Jerry Gadamus, who painted this belted kingfisher, says that when he depicts snow, "I try to make it look like the kind of winter day that tempts you to venture outdoors . . . heavy, wet snow with strong light and a bit of sparkle combined with a few warm-colored fall leaves creates the right effect."

FRONTIER MEMORY: Daniel Smith painted a kestrel atop this old bear trap "to counterbalance the massive trap and complement its rusty patina." But he also points to "the irony of a delicate bird perched on an archaic contraption designed to take the life of North America’s largest carnivore."

MOTION OF FLIGHT: "How to capture blurred wings in flight?" asks artist Mark Boyle. "I used a dark background to ensure that the blackbird’s bright yellow head would pop out. At the finish, I added a few spots of red and orange color just for fun and to liven things up."

ABOUT TO LIVE ON: Jan Wessels came across this dead song thrush—"a victim of traffic"—on the road one day. "I laid the bird on a few sheets of paper," he says. "The composition suggests a drawing is about to be made, but it became an oil painting instead."

An award-winning nature writer and photographer, National Wildlife field editor George H. Harrison consulted for the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum for its first 13 years.

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