Painted Birds

Word association games can be fun. When we think of the word "Audubon," we associate it with birds. And birds make us think of flying, freedom and nature. The National Audubon Society, dedicated to the conservation of ecosystems, was named after John James Audubon (1785-1851), the naturalist and prolific artist of Birds of America. Audubon's masterpiece consisted of 435 life-size prints—owls, parrots and ivory-billed woodpeckers, to name a few.

Yet Audubon's artistic career did not take flight until he reached the age of 34. At that time, Audubon languished in debtor's prison, his business selling dry goods in the frontier of Kentucky no longer prosperous. Drawing and painting birds—up until then a hobby—became Audubon's best chance for financial freedom. 

Encouraged and supported by Lucy, his wife, Audubon trooped into the woods with little more than a hunting rifle and his artist materials. He brought back a collection of exquisitely detailed bird pictures and sailed to England, where they were published and met with acclaim across Europe. In an age of colonialism and exploration, Audubon brought birds once hidden in undiscovered forests to the public eye.

But Walton Ford, a contemporary American artist, makes more subversive associations with Audubon. He notes that Audubon hunted most of the birds so that he could draw them. The winged innocence of watercolor belies the reality of bloodied birds. For Ford, this becomes a metaphor for how we have confronted and degraded nature.

Ford becomes Audubon's sinister doppelganger, painting just like him but making us feel unsettled. Take "Nila," his life-size watercolor of a staggering Indian elephant. Birds whorl about the beleaguered beast, perch on its tusks and collide against its thick, wrinkled skin. A few birds even get crushed under the elephant's foot—a politically loaded image that never would have appeared in Birds of America and its presentation of an undisturbed natural world.

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