Bird lovers and environmentalists around the world hold the name John James Audubon (1785-1851) in high esteem. Others find their admiration reduced by the knowledge that Audubon, like many influential figures in American history, also periodically bought and sold a small number of slaves.
In contrast to the legacies of some slave-owners who invested a lot of energy and resources into maintaining that “peculiar institution,” Audubon at least appears to have been more interested in his pursuits as an artist and naturalist. In this regard, his gifts to the world continue to prove valuable to descendants of those who lived in freedom and those who survived as slaves during his lifetime.
When we look at the treasured body of his work, including numerous paintings and drawings of birds found in America, it’s easy to see why Audubon is remembered in a mostly favorable light. His classic, The Birds of America , from Drawings Made In The United States And Their Territories, was published in 1838. The pages contained 435 hand-colored engravings of 1,065 birds from 489 species. He is, arguably, more celebrated today as a naturalist, ornithologist, and painter, than he is reviled as a slave-holder. That is particularly important for this creative and the art series subject of this post: Birds of a Bronzed Audubon Feather.
New Visual Interpretations
Because Audubon’s original works still stand well enough on their own, I wanted to create modern visual interpretations which pay tribute to his visionary artistry. The online “Birds of a Bronzed Audubon Feather” series posted at Fine Art America so far consists of the following 4 canvases:
A Strange Kind of Paradox
Many consider the artist and naturalist’s legacy exceptionally significant in our modern times as we battle against levels of environmental injustice and climate change he likely could never have imagined. Ironically, he disagreed with the choice to make the eagle America’s national emblem, or “standard,” because of what he described as the bird’s tendency to steal prey captured by other birds. Different varieties were plentiful in his lifetime but have gone on and off endangered species lists over the last few decades.
Any number of Americans thought the turkey a better candidate to serve as the country’s national symbol. Interestingly enough, given the presence of turkey’s on dinner tables during contemporary holiday observances, in some ways it has become the preferred national fowl.
Audubon’s sensitivity to the issue might strike some as a strange kind of paradox given his apparent lack of worries when it came to maintaining human livestock as investment properties. It must be admitted, however, that he was then, and is now, far from being alone in any perceived failure to reconcile ethical misbehavior with passionate creative pursuits.
Creator of Authentic Silk-Featherbrush Artstyle
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
Co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
In his November 12, 2021, essay for England’s The Guardian newspaper, Booker Prize-winning author Ben Oki urged creative artists around the globe to dedicate their inspired labors to the production of works addressing the catastrophic crises of the current era. In his words:
“I propose existential creativity, to serve the unavoidable truth of our times, and a visionary existentialism, to serve the future that we must bring about from the brink of our environmental catastrophe.”
It just so happens that many creative artists already advocate not only for environmental justice, but also for economic justice, gender equality, and antiracism. That Okri declined in his op-ed/essay to comment on the last in this year when the verdict for the trial of the death of George Floyd made headlines around the world, and the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was moving toward a similar outcome, is a little baffling. After all, ending death by racism and xenophobia is no less a global crisis than preventing mass destruction from human-induced climate change. Neither, for that matter, is a coronavirus capable of masking itself and attacking our species in different mutated guises: such as Delta and Omicron.
Does any of that mean Okri’s call for more mindful considerations of climate change should be ignored? Not at all. But how any given creative chooses to respond to it is up to them. My own compulsion to address climate change is apparent in the article, “The Art of Reversing Climate Change Denial,” in artwork currently on exhibit in the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport Art Gallery, and in the book, Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah.
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.