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Letter from Wausau: 100 stunning images of birds, and nary a duck stamp

Painter Wendy Brockman pronounces the Woodson’s “Birds in Art” show “absolutely the best exhibition of avian art in the world.”

Courtesy of the Woodson Art Museum
October Treasure, 2013, by Wendy Brockman of Edina;
watercolor on vellum.

Late last week Sallie and I made our nearly annual trip to the best small art museum I know, for the most remarkable recurring exhibition I’ve ever seen: more than 100 drawings, paintings, woodcuts, sculptures and other images of places where art and nature meet, all over the world, with birds in a starring role.

The place is the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wis., just about three hours east of the Twin Cities along roads that are scenic more often than not.

The show is “Birds in Art,” and it runs through Nov. 10 before going on tour. So hurry (or mark your calendar for next year, when the 2014 show opens on the weekend after Labor Day).

The Woodson has been presenting “Birds in Art” since 1976 and it is surprising to me, still, that in more than three decades of hanging around with art and nature lovers in the Twin Cities I’ve never heard mention of this show that painter Wendy Brockman, whose 2013 entry appears above, pronounces “absolutely the best exhibition of avian art in the world.”

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I first saw the show in 2006, and almost by accident. Sallie was living outside Wausau then, and I was visiting from time to time. Knowing I liked to look at art, she told me there was a little museum downtown that was having a special exhibition called “Birds in Art.” Would I like to go?

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Sure, I said, stifling a sigh and praying she hadn’t seen my eyes roll, then steeled myself for a few dingy rooms hung with duck-stamp and greeting-card-type pictures by members of the local watercolorists’ club. We were going into town for dinner anyway.

But eye-rolling gave way to eye-popping the moment we entered the Woodson. Or perhaps  slightly before, because the museum has a sculpture garden that is worth a visit for its own sake.

Yes, there are pictures of birds in these shows, beautiful pictures, some of them essentially portraits, and each year’s selection includes a few pieces that I suppose are sufficiently pretty, conventional and uncomplicated to meet a Hallmark buyer’s needs.

A hundred others are far too provocative, complex, eccentric and otherwise off the illustrator’s well-trampled path, and the diversity of disciplines — only photography and crafts are excluded — easily matches the matches the quality of the jurors’ seletions.

A crow from tire scraps

Consider, for example, Karen Bondarchuk’s “Corvus Deflatus,” which turned up in the 2008 show: a dead crow, over 6 feet from head to tail, sculpted from tire scraps she had collected along I-94 in Michigan.

Or this year’s “Northern Mockingbird,” in which Alan Woollett makes the bird almost incidental to a composition of paint cans and gravel. Or Don Rambadt’s “Featherweight,” also in this year’s selection, a sculpture that might be as much about steel as about shrikes.

Some artists return year after year; we always look for Andrea Rich’s newest woodcut; Cindy House’s latest pastel painting; Nobuku Kumasaka’s latest woodburning image rendered, with the resolution and palette of a sepia photograph, by scorching basswood; Bondarchuk’s huge, close-up drawings of crows and ravens (imagine if Chuck Close had been into corvids, and painted with a way freer hand).

The show is always rich in corvids, of which I’m especially in awe, and this year my personal favorite, the black-billed magpie, makes a few appearances. But the most engrossing work in “Birds in Art 2013” is, for me, a picture with no bird at all.

Wendy Brockman’s “October Treasure” (above) is a watercolor painting on calfskin vellum that seemed illuminated from within, rendered in detail that got sharper the closer I looked; it moved me to a state of absorption I still can’t describe. After a four-hour visit to the Woodson last Thursday I went back on Friday morning to visit this picture again.

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And after learning more about the process that produced it I considered, briefly, a second trip to Wausau.

An artist finds the Woodson

Brockman happens to live in Edina, and she agreed to talk with me about the picture, the Woodson and the “Birds in Art” show, which has included her work for four years now. Excerpts:

Like you, I didn’t know anything about “Birds in Art” or the Woodson museum. I was driving back and forth to Michigan, taking care of my mother, between 2006 and 2010 and I couldn’t paint at the nursing home, so I started doing these large birds’ nests in graphite, in pencil, on the backs of old watercolor studies.

They turned out quite nicely, and one of my friends said, You should send those images to something called “Birds in Art.” And I did, and I got into the show, and I still had no idea what this was about, till I went over for the opening weekend and found myself among some of the finest artists in the world.

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Vellum is calfskin, and my technique is just watercolor on vellum, the same as medieval manuscripts of the 1600s, the same as calligraphers use today. Mine comes from Great Britain. The skins arrive in the shape of a cow, and I cut them down for paintings.

The paint sits on the surface, so it holds line and detail better than paper ever could. It’s a little tricky to learn to work with, it takes some time, but it’s just a marvelous painting surface. It reflects light much differently than paper does — it kind of glows.  

It’s very much an organic substance. It reacts to heat and humidity, it changes, moves, rolls, so all of your painting techniques are different.

Vellum is a byproduct — cows aren’t killed just to make vellum  — but it’s difficult to get, and it’s expensive, about $45 a square foot. Some artists stretch it, or glue it down to board, but I don’t like to do that. I like the organic qualities of it, the movement.

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I tape mine to a board, with masking tape, and pile books on it overnight while I’m working.

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None of my pieces are exact copies of a real nest, which are illegal to own, and they’re not really from photographs, either. Any photos I use might be for botanical reference, outlined shapes.

Bird nests are so complex, and that’s why I do so many of them. You really are not painting the nest itself — you get a general sense of the shape, and of all the materials the bird used to build the nest, and then you build the nest.

I started doing the nests as metaphor for home, and memory loss — my mother had died of Alzheimer’s — and they’ve been successful because there’s a common bond with people, they just love birds’ nests. Building the nest means there’s part of you in it, too, it’s not mere illustration. I’ve done natural science illustration, too, but that’s telling somebody else’s story.

When you do what I’m doing here, that’s telling your own story, and the story is about finding a nest on a day like today, when the sun was bright and the Virginia creeper was so bright red, and finding this beautiful object was like finding a treasure.

Apart from that, I don’t have a lot of knowledge about the nest, or what kind of bird built it.

I am so not an ornithologist, and there’s precious little material out there on nest identification. When we find nests, the birds are long gone. And if you can locate a photo, it’s usually taken from the top down.

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The Woodson is a world-class museum in the middle of Wisconsin; their collection has that kind of depth. If you go into what they actually own, it really is quite amazing. Part of the museum’s mission is that it is free and you know how rare that is in itself now.

I think the reasons for all this come down to the Woodson family and their active involvement. Each artist gets a Christmas card from them. On “Birds in Art” weekend the artists are all bused to their cottage in northern Wisconsin for a big barbeque on the lake, with boats and swimming and badminton and croquet, and all the family is there to greet you.

The staff is amazing, too. Every six weeks or so I get an envelope from Kathy Foley, the director, and it might just be newspaper clippings she thinks I’d be interested in. Everyone is just so down to earth, especially compared to other museums — most of them you only hear from them when, you know, they want a donation.

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More information about “Birds in Art” and the Woodson is available on the museum’s website.