The Roger Tory Peterson Institute Harper Exhibit


(This 1029th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 12, 2010.)


Harper's Painting of Backyard Birds


The wonderful exhibit, "Charley Harper: I count the Wings, not the Feathers", is being extended through January 12 at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute (RTPI) in Jamestown. Once the roads are cleared of last week's snow, we're sure to have clear days and visiting the Institute and this exhibit will be well worth the trip. I urge you to consider a visit during the upcoming holidays. The Institute is closed on Mondays, but is open from 10 to 4 Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday.


Charley Harper is an unusual artist. I find his portrayals of birds to be extraordinary. They are obviously in the graphic arts tradition and do not illustrate species realistically, but the species are easily identifiable. I suspect that no reader who knows birds will fail to name the red-bellied woodpecker, nuthatch, chickadee and wren in the poster accompanying this column.


Those identifications are not because of, but are rather despite his depictions of figures with sharp angles and geometric rather than natural patterns. In this regard note, for example, the perfect jailbird uniform pattern of the lines on the back of the woodpecker. That's not the way they appear in nature but here they are just right.


I am looking now at some of his other paintings and I find them even more striking. Here is a stylish pileated woodpecker that might well be dressed for the prom but it belies this characterization by sticking out its long tongue after an insect. And here's a barn owl, its heart-shaped facial disk squared toward you as it blasts into a meadow after a mouse. Here's a wood duck with only the head breaking the pattern of strict arcs and lines including a series of circles surrounding a leaf that has fallen into the water. I can imagine no more perfect design for this bird.


Harper obviously loves cardinals. He has one fluttering in a bird bath, its wings simply lines radiating from its teardrop-shaped body. Another approaches its nest carrying a green caterpillar that contrasts with the bird's bright red. Still another shows a cardinal pausing in its feast on an ear of corn. Finally a cardinal pair face in opposite directions in perfect symmetry.


Here's another symmetry: a loon with two young on its back reflected in water with an off-center moon and some twigs adding life to what would otherwise have been simply art. And still another: four vultures, the fourth only slightly breaking the pattern.


Harper paints animals as well as birds and he does so with, if anything, even more charm. A group of seven raccoons around a backyard barbeque at night, their eyes shining in the moonlight. A blackbear finding its way through a birch forest - just the way I once saw one. A mother armadillo forming a perfect circle around its feeding babies.


But my favorite of Harper's paintings is his lithograph, "Mystery of the Missing Migrants", which shows three dozen birds flying in a mixed flock. I can pick out a tanager, cuckoo, sapsucker, wood thrush, redstart and many other warblers. And there among them is even a snowy owl.


It is appropriate for Harper's paintings to be on exhibit at the Peterson Institute for, although Roger Tory Peterson was a trained artist himself, his major contribution to ornithology was his graphic arts presentation of birds and wildflowers.


Each time I visit RTPI I find out more about the ornithologist the institute honors, the man who revolutionized nature identification with his field guides. There are housed 180,000 of Peterson's photographs, over 35 miles of motion picture film, originals of many of his paintings and field guide portraits, 240 linear feet of correspondence files, and over 10,000 natural history books.


As have so many cultural organizations, our own in Buffalo included, RTPI has gone through difficult times recently and its director, Jim Berry, and his board have had to reduce its staff significantly. Despite this, it continues to offer significant programs and to support regional ornithological activities like its annual June weekend census of local warblers, an activity that draws people from all over the northeast.


More information about the Institute and its programs is at the institute website.-- Gerry Rising