Birds of a Feather: John Costin and John James Audubon

March 24 - June 24, 2012



Wall panel text from the exhibition


A CHARISMATIC YOUNG FRENCHMAN sailed to America in 1803 and became so taken with the North American frontier, he endeavored to observe and draw every species of bird native to this continent. He dedicated his life to traversing the plains, mountains, wetlands, and woodlands of his adopted country. Through drawings and writing, he introduced over half the continent's bird species to a 19th-century public thirsty for knowledge of the natural world.
John James Audubon is still America's most famous ornithologist, nearly 200 years after publishing his monumental Birds of America (1827-1838). His drawings present 497 species (1,065 individual birds) in animated, life-like poses. Working with an engraver in England to print his images for distribution, Audubon insisted upon an oversized print format to properly convey the dramatic splendor of the birds he had drawn in the field.
Audubon's compulsion to share the thrill of seeing these beautiful creatures in the wild is understood by Florida printmaker John Costin. When complete, his Large Florida Birds project will present 20 of the state's most remarkable birds in similarly natural poses and large-scale format. These vibrant specimens confront the viewer unblinkingly. Costin aims to replicate the sensation of suddenly encountering a one bird at home in the lush wetlands of Florida.
The North American frontier has been transformed and largely tamed in the two centuries that separate Audubon and Costin. While some species are now endangered or extinct, most of the birds Audubon recorded can still be found, if in reduced natural habitats and numbers. This exhibition pairs species observed by both Audubon and Costin, and demonstrates two artists' shared appreciation of and concern for this land's natural living wonders.
The Audubon prints are from the historic 1971 reprint of Birds in America, on loan from Kalamazoo College's A. M. Todd Rare Book Collection, gift of Mrs. Merrill Taylor. The Costin portfolio is a recent gift to the KIA from Brent Garback and Linda Tremblay.
The 1971 "Amsterdam Edition" of Birds of America
The Audubon lithographs in this exhibition play a distinguished role in the long tradition of reproducing Audubon's work. As early as 1840 Audubon and his sons published a "miniature" version of Birds of America in Philadelphia. However, not until 1971 was the first full-sized, complete facsimile reproduction undertaken. The "Amsterdam Edition" lithographs were made from an original, complete, engraved edition belonging to the Teyler Museum of Holland.
These selections are on loan from Kalamazoo College's A.M. Todd Rare Book Room Collection, which owns one of only 250 copies of the complete, historic reprint of Birds in America published by the Johnson Reprint Company (New York) and Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Amsterdam) in 1971.

John James Audubon (1785-1851)
At age 18, Audubon was sent to America from France by his father to escape conscription into the Napoleonic wars. Already a budding naturalist, the young man determined to study American birds and illustrate them in a more realistic manner than most artists of the time. He took extensive field notes on bird behavior, conducted the first bird-banding on this continent, and learned taxidermy. Audubon regularly burned early drawings to force continuous improvement of his drawing skills. (left: John Syme (Scottish, 1795-1861), John James Audubon, 1826, oil on canvas. The White House Historical Association)
Despite his obvious dedication, the American ornithological establishment in Philadelphia did not appreciate the self-taught artist's adopted "Daniel Boone" demeanor or his interpretation of birds in life-like poses. So Audubon sailed to England in 1826 to seek a publisher for his drawings. The English embraced this handsome, charming "American woodsman" and Audubon raised sufficient funds to begin printing Birds of America.
Birds of America (1827-1838)
This publication represented years of field observations by Audubon. Completion of his most complex images could take up to 60 hours. Audubon shot, stuffed, wired, and posed the specimen as if caught in motion while feeding or hunting, then drew and colored each bird. He used a compass to ensure accurate proportions of the bill, feet, claws, and feathers. At times, Audubon contorted the largest birds' poses to fit their life-size dimensions onto the page. Finally, various assistants added environmental elements in the background.
Audubon engaged notable animal engraver Robert Havell, Jr. of London to precisely transform the drawings to exquisite etchings. After twelve years, this monumental work would eventually include 435 hand-colored prints of 1,065 individual birds. Audubon selected a larger sheet than any previous ornithology prints in order to present the birds life-sized. The cost of printing was financed in part by 308 advance subscribers in Europe and North America-including King George IV. (right: Audubon's writings about each species, Ornithological Biographies, were published separately in five volumes, 1831-1839)
John Costin (b. 1955)
Like Audubon, John Costin is both an artist and a bird enthusiast. Moving from Detroit in his youth, Costin was struck by the fantastic size and color of Florida's birds. At the University of South Florida, Costin became fascinated by the printmaking process, and in his Large Florida Bird series, he brings together these two passions. Aware of Audubon's formidable print series documenting North American birds, Costin decided to embark upon a smaller suite of 20 large format etchings focusing on Florida's large birds. (left: John Costin and printing press. Photo source:
Like Audubon, Costin must first shoot his subjects -- but using a camera rather than a gun. Though Costin takes thousands of photographs, he composes his images from memory, focusing on each species' unique character. The backgrounds give a sense of the natural habitat, though they are somewhat abstracted to maintain focus on the bird.
To achieve the richness of color in each image, Costin inks from two to five plates with numerous colors. He wipes each plate by hand to blend colors before printing on paper. Finally, Costin hand paints in oil or watercolor (or both) to achieve subtle shadows and additional chromatic intensity. It is a labor-intensive and time-consuming process to produce 250 of each image, but he expects to complete the Large Florida Birds series this year. Costin speaks in support of environmental conservation in Florida and sells his work at art fairs around the country.

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