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‘A master at storytelling’: Exhibit of original John James Audubon prints, paintings on display at MAC

UPDATED: Sun., May 16, 2021

Tammy Gabbert, assistant museum preparator at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, left, lifts a glass case with J.R. Richardson, facilities manager and preparator, right, and Brooke Shelman Wagner, exhibition manager, second from right, as they work to put the finishing touches on the museum’s new exhibit: “American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon” on Friday in Spokane. The exhibit features original prints, paintings, manuscripts and personal possessions of the famous naturalist.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Tammy Gabbert, assistant museum preparator at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, left, lifts a glass case with J.R. Richardson, facilities manager and preparator, right, and Brooke Shelman Wagner, exhibition manager, second from right, as they work to put the finishing touches on the museum’s new exhibit: “American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon” on Friday in Spokane. The exhibit features original prints, paintings, manuscripts and personal possessions of the famous naturalist. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

In 1827, when John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” first went to print, a copy of the massive book was worth what would amount to $30,000 today.

Subscribers bought special furniture just to display the massive collection of detailed depictions of birds, said Freya Liggett, curator of history at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC).

Today, one of the roughly 120 first-edition “Birds of America” books goes for about $11 million, Liggett said. For about $12, residents of Spokane can see the MAC’s collection of about 60 first -edition prints and hand-made paintings by Audubon in person.

The exhibit traveled from its Kentucky home at the John James Audubon State Park Museum and is displayed interspersed with taxidermy birds from the museum’s own collection. The exhibit tells the story of Audubon’s life, Liggett said.

“He was his own marketer and publicist, so he’s kind of creating this myth around himself to sell books, and he was a master at storytelling,” Liggett said. “He made himself this sort of tough American woodsman.”

Audubon was born in French-ruled Haiti and grew up in France. Despite a humble income, he crossed the Atlantic to and from Europe more than 10 times, Liggett said.

“He’s in this generation right after the founding fathers and he makes up this story about George Washington visiting his home,” Liggett said. “He’s really trying to identify with people he sees as the perfect, quintessential Americans.”

Audubon’s family’s business failed in 1819 and he relied on his wife financially at that time. Liggett said he seemed to push even harder for his ambitious idea of depicting every species of bird in America after that financial collapse.

Ultimately, he funded the project with subscribers who were keen to learn about North American species. Those subscribers included French King Charles X and Queen Victoria of England, according to a news release from the museum.

As Audubon told tall tales about himself, he also managed to walk the line between artist and scientist. “Birds of America” contained 435 engraved images of about 490 species with life size depictions.

His observations of American birds have had lasting impact. Down the hall from the Audubon exhibit, the MAC has on display dozens of pieces by Eastern Washington artist Justin Gibbens, whose whimsy and training in scientific illustration come together in wildlife depictions.

His detailed red-tailed hawk mirrors red-tailed hawks Audubon painted, yet his image has a mythic element, with his hawk being two-headed. His coyote and other animals have multiple legs and heads in varying opacity that imply movement.

In his town of Thorpe, people know he paints roadkill and will bring him roadkill they find, Liggett said. In some works, he combines paint with the blood of the animals he paints, Liggett said.

“The Mac is championing regional contemporary art,” said Wes Jessup, executive director at the MAC. “It’s a different twist on a well-known genre, which is 19th century scientific illustration.”

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