Listen to his WFIU interview
I am delighted to learn of your interest in our summer institute, Picturing John James Audubon, which will bring 25 teachers and graduate students from the across the country to meet with experts on Audubon, American art, and natural history for four weeks of intense reading and discussion. The institute takes place from Wednesday, July 6 through Friday, July 30, 2011, on the beautiful campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, close to some of the sites where Audubon began his lifelong journey to paint and describe American birds and animals.
John James Audubon was, arguably, America’s first painter of international stature. He was also one of America’s first important nature writers and most accomplished travelers, crisscrossing the continent, from Labrador to New Orleans, from the Hudson to the Missouri River. No one had seen quite as much, and no one was equally talented as a writer and as a visual artist. Audubon’s life-sized paintings of Birds of America not only changed the tradition of natural history illustration, but they also had a lasting impact on the development of ornithology and bird conservation. As a nature writer, Audubon deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with writers more securely anchored in the canon of American nature writing such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson.
The purpose of the Institute is to give interested participants an opportunity to study Audubon’s art and writing in juxtaposition and in their historical context. Our primary goals for the Institute are to inspire teachers from a variety of backgrounds (English, History, Art, the Life Sciences) as well as librarians and graduate students to incorporate American art into their curricula, to stimulate them to pursue research on their own, and to further their career goals. Bloomington is an ideal location for the Institute. Indiana University’s Lilly Library, one of the foremost repositories of rare books and manuscripts in the world, has unparalleled Audubon resources, among them a pristine set of Audubon’s Double Elephant Folio of Birds of America and an early, paper-wrapped edition of the Royal Octavo edition of the same work, as well as other material germane to the studies we will pursue in the Institute. Since Bloomington is also close to many of the sites that shaped Audubon’s early career (among them Henderson, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio), the location of the Institute will allow us the rare opportunity to combine a chronological look at Audubon’s career with first-hand evidence.
At the same time, we will also stress that Audubon’s story transcends national boundaries. Audubon is so fascinating because he doesn’t fit any of the established categories—he loved birds and he killed them, by the thousands; he wanted to rob and preserve nature. Perhaps only an artist of his stature could sustain (and sometimes resolve) such a dilemma, as the poet Robert Penn Warren, one of Audubon’s many fans, realized. Audubon, who bent the rules whenever and wherever he could, was obsessed, crazy, drunk with the beauty of nature and his own need for success.
In the last two years, a flurry of recent books (Richard Rhodes’s John James Audubon, William Souders’s Under a Wild Sky, and Duff Hart-Davis’s Audubon’s Elephant) as well as two PBS documentaries, “Drawn from Nature” and the Emmy-nominated “A Summer of Birds,” have reinvigorated interest in Audubon’s art. But the contours of the story have remained virtually unchanged—in the hands of his biographers, Audubon again and again is made to rise from inauspicious beginnings (hampered as he was by his illegitimate birth, his foreignness, and the lack of formal artistic training) to the glory of international fame, entrepreneurial success, and—especially in the more recent treatments—growing environmental awareness. In the imagination of his biographers, the trajectory of Audubon’s life and career has regularly been equated with the “making of America.” This Institute seeks to tell the story a little differently—in a way that is more complex but also, as we believe, more interesting. Born in colonial Haiti, raised in France, trained in the great American outdoors, Audubon easily shuttled between different national traditions and languages. It is hard to think of a more compelling subject for contemporary classrooms in America.
We will also leave ample time for participants to hone their own writing skills. Three writers are members of our institute faculty: the world-renowned writer Scott Sanders, author of A Private History of Awe and The Conservationist Manifesto; the poet Dave Smith, Chairman of the Hopkins Writing Seminar; and the Canadian novelist Katherine Govier, author of a novel about Audubon, Creation and, most recently, a novel about Hokusai’s daughter, The Ghost Brush.
This is an intellectually challenging institute, calling for close reading, intense analysis of artwork, and engaged discussion of pictures and texts with top-notch artists and scholars. At the same time, I anticipate that this will be an enjoyable, collegial experience for everyone involved, a time for making new friends and professional contacts.