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Traveling exhibit of avian artwok by naturalist John James Audubon to land at Ella Sharp Museum

May 31, 2009

Jackson Citizen Patriot

By Bill Chapin

This summer, the Ella Sharp Museum of Art and History will become Michigan's only nesting ground for a traveling exhibit of avian artwork by famed naturalist
John James Audubon.

Yes, that's the Audubon from which the National Audubon Society takes its name. Audubon created a landmark work of art and natural scientific study with "Birds of America," a volume featuring 435 prints based on Audubon's original
watercolors. Published between 1826 and 1838 as a subscription series, the book depicts almost 500 of the approximately 650 bird species regularly found in North America.

The exhibit features 60 of these original prints, which measure more than 2 feet by 3 feet, as well other prints and paintings, letters, books, and other personal items from the John James Audubon Museum and State Park in Henderson, Ky.

Opening to the public Saturday, "John James Audubon: American Artist
and Naturalist" will take up the museum's Hurst, Pyron and Emmet galleries—the fIrst time that all three have been devoted to a single exhibit.

The museum is the exhibit's only stop in Michigan.

"This is probably the biggest exhibit we've ever had," said Amy Wellington,
director of education at the museum.

The museum also is planning special events, starting with a gala preview party Thursday. There will be special activities every Saturday, including opportunities for children to create their own bird paintings, documentary screenings and guided tours.

For the exhibit's opening day, the museum is teaming up with the Dahlem Environmental Education Center to offer two appearances by storyteller Brian "Fox" Ellis, who will perform as Audubon. In the afternoon, Ellis will lead visitors through the exhibit as if the paintings were real birds in the wild.

"It's going to be like you're outside birding with him," exhibit coordinator Katie Hill said.

Born in Haiti in 1785 and raised in France, Audubon was sent to America when he was 18 to oversee his father's property and investments in Pennsylvania.

"He was a lousy businessman all his life," museum Executive Director Charles Aymond said. "He went out into the woods, and he would hunt and paint."

Audubon continued to draw birds after moving to western Kentucky. He traveled throughout the frontier with a goal of depicting every kind of bird in America, posing birds that he shot to use as models.

"He had the idea of trying to raise money by subscriptions to prints of his paintings," Aymond said. "This is a period when people were fascinated with the discovery of natural objects elsewhere in the world."

The prints were made from hand-painted engravings. Their size allowed for life-size depictions of even the larger birds. His work was unique in that he painted his subjects in natural settings.

"When Audubon died in the late 1850s, he was totally broke," Aymond said, but his work proved highly influential and, eventually, very valuable.

No more than 120 complete sets of "Birds of America" are known to exist today, and certain prints in good condition are valued at more than $150,000.

The exhibit should pair well with the museum's own Andrews Gallery of Wildlife
Art, which contains many bird carvings and decoys. Visitors will be able to view both with a single admission.

"That should be really fun for the Audubon enthusiasts who come this summer," Aymond said.


'John James Audubon: American Artist and Naturalist' Schedule of Events

All events take place at the Ella Sharp Museum of Art and History, 3225 Fourth St., unless otherwise noted. Call 787-2320 for more information.

  • Exhibit, Saturday through Aug. 29, regular hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Special hours 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday during Jackson County Rose Festival Party in the Park. $8 adults, $5 children 5 to 12.
  • Sneak Preview Party, 6 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday. $40 for museum members, $50 for nonmembers.
  • "Night of Wings and Roses," kick-off dance for exhibit and Jackson County Rose Festival, featuring music by Jump Start, raffles and food, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday. $5 plus regular admission'to view exhibit.
  • "A Day with John James Audubon," featuring storyteller and re-enactor Brian "Fox" Ellis. "Audubon's Travels and Travails" performance, 10 a.m. Saturday, Dahlem Environmental Education Center, 7117 S. Jackson Road. "Birding in the Museum" tour of exhibit, 2 p.m. Saturday. $8 adults and $5 children 5 to 12 for individual events, $14 adults and $8 children for combined tickets in advance.
  • Print-making activity, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 20.
  • Curator's tour by Katie Hill, 1 p.m. June 27 and Aug. 29.
  • "Bringing Nature In" house tour by Judy Horn, 1 p.m. July 11.
  • "The Life and Work of John James Audubon," lecture by Audubon expert Joel Oppenheimer, 7 p.m. July 16. Free.
  • Wildlife artist Pauline Pierce Harmon, painting in the galleries, noon to 3 p.m. July 18.
  • Birding with the Jackson Audubon Society, noon July 25.
  • "American Masters -- John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature," documentary screening, shown continuously 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 1 and 22.
  • Journaling activity, 1 p.m. Aug. 8.
  • Children's painting activity, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 15.
  • Birds, Blooms and Butterflies Festival, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 22, Dahlem Center. 782-3453.
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