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The Art of Birds

Texas bird artists carry on a timeless tradition.

By E. Dan Klepper

Thoughout history, the dreams and aspirations of humankind have been symbolically depicted by one creature above all others – the bird. In fact, artifacts from our ancient past indicate that nature governed all the creative arts, and birds, in particular, played a primary role.

A stylized bird, called a pictogram, can be seen in cuneiform, the earliest known form of writing devised by the Sumerians over 5,000 years ago. Egypt and its cult of the afterlife created the most recognized bird in art - Horus, alternately sky god and sun god, represented by the body of a man with the head of a great falcon. Horus, a name that translates literally from the hieroglyph as "falcon," held the sun in one eye and the moon in the other.

Ancient Egypt, perhaps more than any other known culture, was responsible for securing the bird's power in art and language. Symbols of birds blanket much of the surviving Egyptian hieroglyphic texts. But most remarkable of all is the way the elevation of the bird in art occurred in tandem across the globe, spanning seas and deserts as people all over the planet imbued birds with meaning. As cultures sought ways to transcend the primitive in a world full of birds, the avian creature became their avatar of spiritual growth.

Across the Mediterranean, the Aegeans created some of the greatest known works of early avian art. More than 35 species of birds have been identified in the Cycladic archaeological restorations at Thera alone. Meanwhile, the ancient Armenians placed bird images on their pottery, bronzes and mosaics, while archaic Americans painted a firmament of feathered bodies into their pictographic murals. The Asians forged exquisite sculptures of bronze, jade and ivory depicting the beautifully plumed birds of their primeval world. European tapestries of the Middle Ages portrayed entire aviaries in delicate silken threads, while Africa bewitched the modern world with ebony abstractions of hoopoes and ibis.

The history of birds in art is, moreover, a chronicle of spiritual evolution incarnate, embracing a spectrum of ideology that arcs across the entire human psyche from asceticism to theocracy. In fact, our world of birds has held such sway over the human spirit that the power of the bird and all it represents has yet to diminish, making birds in art a living history as rich in its past as in its promise of a future.

The bird in art has facilitated a practical analysis of the natural world as well. Its representation has informed us about the history of an environment, about changes in migratory flight patterns and the way avian ranges have changed over the centuries. Together with archaeological investigations and forensic ornithology, the study of birds in art can help explain which bird species inhabited specific regions according to seasons and habitats, which were considered sources of food and which were granted special status. Sometimes it can also tell us about which bird species once thrived and when, regrettably, they became extinct.

Science, perhaps as much as art, has helped to elevate the presence of bird images in our lives as well as in our museums. While the bird as symbol continues to reign in the artist's pantheon, much as it has done for thousands of years, the rise of the scientific illustration of birds is a relatively recent event, beginning in earnest with the 18th century.

The works of British naturalists such as George Edwards, Thomas Pennant and Mark Catesby signaled the synthesis of art and science, sparking a movement that has yet to subside. Catesby, although born and trained in England, is considered the primary figure in American ornithology, and his talent, as well as the way he worked, foreshadowed the works of an artist who would ultimately dominate the history of birds in art to date - John James Audubon. Catesby spent many years in America during the early- to mid-1700s, preferring to study and collect his avian subjects himself rather than working from specimens that had been sent back to Europe, as most of his contemporaries did.

Almost a century would pass before Audubon followed, dazzling the scientific and art communities with his stunning publication of 435 plates of bird illustrations, hand-colored and life-size, in a giant portfolio called Birds of America. Upon its release, the appreciation of birds as art would be permanently transformed. Today, over a century after his death, Audubon continues to be one of the most collected fine artists in the world.

As naturalists and ornithologists followed Audubon into the American frontier throughout the 1800s, the presence of more than 500 species of birds in Texas brought many of them to the state. Ornithology and its attendant artists have since flourished here, blending astute observation with creative output. As a result, the state's avian enthusiasts enjoy an ongoing tradition of birds in art and one that many consider distinctly Texan.

Contemporary Texas avian artists include an array of wildlife virtuosos who specialize in depicting the birds of Texas in both exacting and highly creative styles. Best known for their Audubon-inspired master works, twin brothers Scott and the late Stuart Gentling lead the state in producing the most ambitious artistic record yet of the birds of Texas. Their book, Of Birds and Texas, includes 40 beautifully detailed bird portraits along with 10 classic Texas landscapes. The work, published in 1986, was printed in limited edition and formatted in an appropriately named "elephant folio" at 23 by 29 1/2 inches. As proof of Audubon's far-reaching prodigy and enduring influence, the Gentling twins were inspired by Audubon's pursuit of art and wildlife and set out to follow in his footsteps, just as many other young artists did over the last century.

Texas bird artists are also often sportsmen as well as artisans, taking the opportunity to study their subjects in the field while filling the game bag. Bubba Wood, Collector's Covey Gallery owner and publisher of images from the Texas Conservation Stamp program, considers Texas artist John P. Cowan the father of the state's sporting arts. "The Texas sporting art market has been great," says Wood, "and that's really thanks to Cowan. He spent the last 50 years capturing the Texas wildlife and outdoor sporting scene. He built all the bridges, and everybody else got to walk across them."

Some contemporary bird artists find themselves picking up the binoculars and camera more often than the shotgun. Texas artist Al Barnes produces his stellar works of art from the heart of the state's birding mecca – the Texas Gulf Coast. "It had become obvious to me a number of years ago that there was more to birding than shooting them, once I realized I was living right in the middle of one of the hot birding areas in the world," recalls Barnes. "Coastal birds are different from inland birds in their shape, size, color and habits, which make them excellent subject matter. It's much more interesting to paint a pink bird with a four-foot wing span than a brown one with a four-inch wing span."

Hill Country artist Ken Carlson attributes the development of his own special style to his study of bird anatomy and feather detail. Once he succeeded in mastering the technicalities, Carlson recalls, he let go of the details in order to develop a more fluid style. "When I started painting birds," Carlson explains, "I did them very exact using gouache paint. Now I use oils with much less detail. I want them to be accurate but try more for the essence of the bird and its habitat."

Intriguingly, bird illustrations tell us as much about the artists who created them as about the birds themselves. "I paint whatever resonates with my heart and soul," reveals Texas painter and printmaker Melanie Fain. Fain, whose multiple-plate etchings are enhanced with pastels and watercolor, cites nature's cruel beauty as one of her muses.

"One afternoon I walked out of my studio and saw a hummingbird caught in an orb weaver's web," Fain says. "She was maybe about 8 to 10 feet off the ground. I photographed the bird and then climbed up and got her. Once I had the hummer down I used a pair of tweezers and a jeweler's loop to remove all the webbing. The bird was covered in spider's web, particularly the wings, and couldn't fly. After I was done, I took the hummer outside, released her, and she flew away. It gave me a great opportunity to study the bird up-close, in hand, and also inspired me to create an etching about the experience. Whatever the subject, it's got to speak to me on some level like that to make the art happen."

Texas' birds in art aren't limited to two-dimensional representation. Sculptor Kent Ullberg creates compelling works of the state's avian class, as well as other wildlife, in bronze and stainless steel. Ullberg's style captures accuracy and authenticity as well as imbuing each bird sculpture with an aura of life that can only be achieved by a master's hand. Ullberg's work is classic in both its materials and subject – nature as art at its best.

But the modern world is not without its modern bird artist. The satiated paintings and mosaics of Billy Hassell may be familiar to Texans who have traveled out of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The enormous and stunning medallion titled Early Morning Flight, a stylized mockingbird against green and violet-blue foliage and a star-studded dawn sky, decorates the floor of Terminal D. Assembled from glass mosaic tiles, the mockingbird is just one of many public works, and bird species, that comprise the Hassell oeuvre.

Hassell considers birds as signs, bridging the natural world with urban life. He believes that birds "share space" with humans differently than other wildlife. Unlike most animals, birds always seem to be present in our lives. "I think that's why people are drawn to birds," says Hassell. "They're wild and accessible all at once."

Birds populate our creative expression in a continuum, from winged shamans in early shelter paintings to flights of aviary fractals in digital imaging. They narrate the story of our magical selves, our enigmatic journeys made manifest in the depiction of the flesh and blood we share, but with an agility that the human intellect can only strive to achieve – the ability to soar.

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