Reimagining Audubon: Local artists use famous naturalist’s art as starting point for their own    

  • “Blue Jay,” a print from John Audubon’s massive 1838 book “The Birds of America,” in which the naturalist painted hundreds of bird species. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Marsh Wrens” a print by 19th-century artist and naturalist John Audubon, is part of “Reimagining Audubon,” an exhibit at Deerfield Academy. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Cedar Veil,” by Easthampton artist Lyell Castonguay at the Deerfield Academy exhibit “Reimagining Audubon.” At left is a print; at right, the woodblock the print is based on. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “New City,” a print and woodblock by Lyell Castonguay, is the Easthampton artist’s take on John Audubon’s original print “Marsh Wrens.” —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lyell Castonguay says he deliberately made the birds in his “New City” woodblock larger and more confrontational than those in Audubon’s precisely sized paintings. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Reimagining Audubon” at Deerfield Academy juxtaposes prints from John Audubon’s famous 1838 book of birds with avian images created by two Valley artists. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “New City,” a 48-inch-by-24-inch woodblock by Castonguay, is part of the “Reimagining Audubon.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A Hudsonian Godwit, drawn by Greenfield artist Gina Siepel, based on a preserved specimen from Amherst College. Gina Siepel—© Gina SiepelPhoto credit:...

  • “Wood Pewee” by Greenfield artist Gina Siepel is based on a preserved specimen at Amherst College. Gina Siepel

Staff Writer
Thursday, December 01, 2016


He became the foremost expert on America’s birds, spending years studying and cataloging them, painting them in their natural habitats — and shooting them.

John James Audubon’s massive “The Birds of America,” a “double elephant”-sized book with paintings of more than 450 birds, was published in 1838 and is still considered one of the finest works on ornithology ever created. Yet some of the birds Audubon depicted are now extinct, and the populations of many others have dropped due to habitat loss, pollution and other problems humans have introduced to the environment.

That’s the jumping off point for “Reimagining Audubon,” an exhibit at Deerfield Academy that juxtaposes some of Audubon’s paintings with depictions of birds by two area artists, both of whom are concerned with the threats to avian life in the 21st century.

Curated by Northampton artist Elizabeth Stone, the Deerfield exhibit, in the school’s von Auersberg Gallery, features woodcut prints by Easthampton artist Lyell Castonguay and drawings by Gina Siepel, a Greenfield artist who works in several mediums, including painting, sculpture and video.

The show also has a listening station featuring bird calls, as well as a short video Siepel filmed on Cape Cod as she searched for a type of bird she sketched, a Hudsonian Godwit.

It’s a small but engaging exhibit, in which Castonguay has produced oversize woodblock prints of birds to give them a robust presence. Siepel, meanwhile, offers detailed graphite drawings of crumbling bird specimens from Amherst College’s Beneski Museum of Natural History — birds that Audubon killed and stuffed himself.

“The world has changed so much since [Audubon] did his work,” said Stone, a painter and sculptor who also has an interest in birds. “I knew of the work [of Castonguay and Siepel] and I really admired it, and I thought that would make an interesting counterpoint to the original paintings.”

An unexpected treasure

Stone said the origins of the show actually go back several years, when she had an exhibit at an older gallery at Deerfield Academy. While preparing for that show, she discovered “a treasure trove” of old paintings in a storage area at the school, including many prints by Audubon.

“I remember thinking, ‘It would be really interesting to do a show about those [birds], considering some of them are disappearing,’ ” Stone said.

Castonguay, a printmaker and woodcut artist originally from Maine, is also an avid birder and bird owner. His woodcuts regularly feature birds, though they’re often depicted in allegorical, even mythological terms; there’s a bit of Leonard Baskin influence at play.

In “Reimagining Audubon,” Castonguay has created two sizeable woodblocks — the larger one, called “New City,” is four feet by two feet — that are each based on an Audubon print displayed in the exhibit. “New City” is inspired by Audubon’s “Marsh Wrens,” which depicts three small birds by their nest, which is woven into a column of tall, overlapping grasses.

In his woodcut, carved with intricate detail, Castonguay inverts the nest and grass column, gives the wrens narrower tails and bumps up their size substantially. One of them is also shown facing the viewer, its beak open in what seems a defiant way, as if warning off anyone or anything approaching.

“I increased the overall scale of the prints and made my birds more confrontational and less scientific than Audubon,” Castonguay writes in exhibit notes.

In using a basic two-tone format, which gives his birds a somewhat coarse look, he also offers a sharp contrast to the colorful prints Audubon created. Yet Castonguay says he shares the famous naturalist’s ideas about animating his subjects, even if his own concerns are about the loss of birds rather than cataloging them.

“I attempt to convey the sense that every living creature has a distinct personality,” Castonguay writes. “Audubon understood that in order to appreciate nature, the audience must connect with it on a personal level.”

Castonguay’s other woodblock — he also displays prints from each carving, in which the images are reversed — is “Cedar Veil,” in which he depicts a group of Cedar waxwings forming a circle, like an avian wreath, as they perch on branches. It’s his take on Audubon’s painting of two waxwings perched on a branch.

Mixed feelings

Gina Siepel, who’s currently a visiting artist at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, offers detailed pencil drawings of five birds whose preserved specimens she discovered at the Beneski Museum of Natural History. Those examples of Audubon’s own taxidermy are now “fragile … misshapen, faded and falling apart,” she writes in exhibit notes.

Her drawings, on paper reflect some of those conditions. A Spotted Sandpiper has ragged-looking feathers. A Hudsonian Godwit, a shorebird in the sandpiper family, looks a little forlorn as it stands on its own at the left edge of the 15-inch-by-42-inch paper, the blank page rolling to the right.

Siepel says she’s been trying, through these and other drawings she’s made of the Amherst College specimens, to grasp how Audubon approached his work, and the different attitude toward the natural world that prevailed during his lifetime.

“As much as I admire Audubon’s achievements, it is difficult for me to understand his prototypical nineteenth century approach to learning, categorizing, and collecting, involving the subjugation of nature for the sake of advancement of knowledge,” she writes.

The exhibit points out that Audubon, a skilled hunter, shot thousands of birds with fine shot so that he could prop them up in different ways, often with wire, to paint them in their natural settings.

The Audubon print “March Wrens” includes text from the artist in which he describes having “killed Many Individuals of the Marking and Shape of My Drawings — some of them a few miles Above New Orleans ...”

It’s her mixed feelings about the 19th century’s scientific paradigm, along with her fear about the future of many bird species, that draws her to Audubon’s birds, Siepel writes.

“This work considers the poetic and political implications of the current mass extinction, the sixth in the history of the Earth.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Reimagining Audubon” will be on view through Dec. 16 at Deerfield Academy’s von Auersberg Gallery. Hours are Mondays through Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and by appointment on weekends.