Today (April 27) is the birthday of Roger Tory Peterson, the American artist who created the first field guide for easy identification of living birds in the field (as opposed to shooting first and examining at leisure, as had been previously done). He utterly transformed how people perceived birds and was a catalyst in making birdwatching popular, a factor that helped us understand our environment and take steps toward better protection and stewardship. The Peterson Field Guides also helped people learn about trees, flowers, and all sorts of living creatures in addition to birds. My mother’s old battered copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds was my childhood bible. My own copy, now superseded by newer field guides, nonetheless retains its place as the first of my many field guides.
With Peterson, art was his means of perceiving, understanding, and analyzing birds and bird behaviour, AND his means of communicating his understanding to the world. His life story, particularly his early years is very interesting, and is just one example of how and why the arts need not, nor should not, be partitioned from other fields of study or endeavors.
The Peterson bird guides include pages of silhouettes, a useful aid for those learning to ID birds at a distance. Currently at the New Britain (CT) Museum of American Art is Wondrous Strange, an exhibit of works by James Prosek in which the artist includes Peterson-style silhouettes as part of his commentary on how we perceive nature. From the museum website:
James Prosek’s work takes its inspiration from the long tradition of natural history painting; from animal depictions on cave walls to the works of Albrecht Dürer, William Blake, and John James Audubon. His contemporary influences are wide-ranging, from Lee Bontecou and Mark Dion to Martin Puryear and Eero Saarinen. In particular, Prosek’s work is conceptually focused on how we name and order nature, including the limitations of language in describing biological diversity. His art challenges us to reflect on how our culture, our priorities, and our values are manifested in systems we use to classify and harness nature. The paintings, monumental watercolors, and sculptures in the exhibition range from realistic to fanciful, though all are rendered with meticulous precision and detail. Many are the result of extensive travel, collecting trips and biological expeditions to places as distant and diverse as Suriname and Kyrgyzstan. Ultimately, it’s the realms that science cannot quantify or solve and the power of personal experience that are Prosek’s fertile ground.
It’s a very interesting exhibit, provocative and beautiful at the same time. Well worth a vist. The exhibit closes June 8.