By Barbara Curtin
MONMOUTH — Long before modern photographers could stop a hummingbird’s wing in mid-beat, John James Audubon’s engravings helped viewers appreciate the wonder of birds.
Now a rare original copperplate engraving from the first edition of Audubon’s “Birds of America” (1827-39) is on display at Western Oregon University’s Hamersly Library. It’s the centerpiece of a show called “Avian Art: Birds in Image and Word.”
The print, a gift to the university from Alfred Maurice, is from the giant “double elephant folio” of Audubon’s famous book. It was printed in black, then hand-tinted under his supervision.
“Having a showpiece like that brings things together,” said Henry Hughes, the associate professor of English who curated the exhibit and contributed poems to it.
The show also includes a selection of second-edition Audubon prints from the 1856 edition of “The Birds of America.” They, too, are hand-tinted but smaller than the originals from which they were adapted. They’re part of a 2000 donation by Wayne and Lynn Hamersly.
“It’s exciting when you think of the democratization of knowledge,” said Hughes, who appeared for a tour with a stuffed blackbird on his shoulder. “This was a book that families and local libraries could afford.”
“Cowpen Bird,” the centerpiece of the show, depicts a pair of what are now known as cowbirds. Audubon’s hand-tinted engraving shows that the female’s feathers are shades of brown and the male’s brown, blue-black and steel blue. The pair perch on a mossy rock, with pale-green shoots in the background and blue-green ones in the foreground.
Audubon could depict this level of detail because he shot, skinned and stuffed the birds that were his models. That shocks some people who know him only as a lover of birds.
Being a practical frontiersman, Audubon probably ate the meat that was left, Hughes added.
Still, Audubon’s prints had the wider effect of showing his public the complexity and beauty of birds’ world.
“For his time, he was a conservation-minded man,” Hughes said.
Audubon never made it to the West, but WOU’s show fills this gap by including contemporary artworks, poems and other contributions.
For instance, Hughes and artist Richard Bunse of Monmouth collaborated on poems and mixed-media collages and paintings about Mid-Valley birds.
The Jensen Arctic Museum loaned several stuffed birds that greet visitors from cases on the library’s first floor.
A poem by student Lindsay Pirelli conjures a great blue heron swallowing a squirrel. When her professor questioned whether such a thing was possible, Pirelli located a video that’s included in the show. It follows a heron that patiently stalks its prey, then strikes, kills the struggling animal and gulps it down whole.
“I wanted to depict that birds aren’t just pretty little things in a tree,” said Hughes, to defend the video’s inclusion. “They’re predators.”
That’s right in line with Audubon’s work, he added: beautiful but honest about the ealities of life in the natural world.
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At a glance
What: “Avian Art: Birds in Image and Word”
Where: Second floor of Western Oregon University’s Hamersly Library, 345 N Monmouth Ave., Monmouth
Featuring: Prints by John James Audubon; contemporary art by Richard Bunse, Paul Gentry, Jodie Garrison and Kim Hoffman; and poetry by Paulann Petersen, Oregon’s
poet laureate, and Donna Henderson, Charles Goodrich, John Campbell, Henry Hughes, Konner Knudsen and Lindsay Pirelli.
Library hours: 7:30 a.m. to midnight Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and noon to midnight Sundays
Oh, the weight they lift — kick-flapping their long takeoff when dogs run barking to the bank.
Before Greece and America, before art and myth, a waterland tundra, a reed pillowed nest.
The fox-watching pair nudging their dingy cygnets water-ward, tipping for celery and snails.
And when those young wings fill out, it’s south before the ice.
Time does a lot for beauty, despite its reputation.
Hear that? my daughter says as we sip coffee on the red deck of an October morning. She tilts her head like a woman, smiles, and whispers Swans.
We always hear them long before their white letters write the sky, before we think of something more to make of them.