Len Rusin: Wildlife Artist

(This column was first published in the December 18, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    Portraits of family assemblages like those John Singer Sargent painted early in the last century have gone out of style. The closest we come to them today, I think, are those group photographs in which at least one of the subjects -- like me -- appears with mouth agape or eyes squinting.

    But we still do have family portraits. It is just that the ones painted today are families of birds and animals. This type of portraiture has become a popular artistic genre, but one I believe that few master. Among those who have achieved excellence in wildlife art is North Tonawanda artist Len Rusin.

    As I write this column I have before me copies of two paintings: Sargent's "The Daughters of Edward D. Boit" and Rusin's "Tonight We Ride." There are, it seems to me, striking similarities and equally striking differences between these two fine portraits.

    In Sargent's work four children are arrayed quite naturally in a room where they pose in various ways. As backdrops there are two huge vases as well as a large patterned rug. The youngest child holds a doll.

    Rusin's portrait is of five chickadees. The prop in their world is a riding saddle left out on a wooden rail. Three of the tiny birds explore various parts of the saddle while the other two alertly watch them from the fence. Two horses, one evidently now freed from its burden, stand in the far background.

    Both of these realistic paintings are indeed family portraits. Like most human families chickadee families too stay together -- if only until fall migration. But there is an important difference between the paintings as well. Although he doesn't appear, Sargent is a central character in his portrait. Each of the children is reacting to him. I don't think that this is unique to this particular human portrait or to this portrait artist. In most human portraits -- photographs as well as paintings -- the subjects react to the artist. They simper, adopt serious demeanors and, as my mother would order me, sit up straight. In effect, they seek to look their best for the portraitist.

    Not so the birds. They simply go about their business. There is very little self-consciousness in the animal world. And Rusin has captured that absence of ego perfectly. The birds not only don't look at the artist, they pay him no attention whatsoever.

    Of course, we can get the attention of some chickadees by holding out a handful of sunflower seeds. But even then, the focus is not on us; it is on the proffered snack. We could equally well be scarecrows. This wonderful independence, this freedom, this wildness -- a quality we must respect in all wild birds and animals -- is a feature of all good animal art.

    Rusin's "Dancing Loon," seems at first to contradict this. It shows two canoers watching a loon marching erect across the water -- a remarkable gavotte I've seen danced by courting pairs of western grebes. The bird does appear to be showing off to them, but that is exactly the conceit of the painting. With apologies to wives smart enough at least to stay at home, even a loon is not dumb enough to court a canoeist.

    Len Rusin is a Niagara Falls High School art teacher. Students there are most fortunate to have his kind of guidance. (One of them, Lee Murray, recently won a state competition. His blue-winged teal appears in the current Conservationist.) Several of the paintings of this highly honored teacher-artist, including those described here, appear on the web on his site.-- Gerry Rising