April 15, 2022 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Taryn Klanot | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
On Saturday, April 9, I attended the gallery discussion of the new Fine Arts Center exhibition, “Reframing ‘Birds of America:’ Conversations on Audubon.” The exhibition displays a small selection of John James Audubon’s original prints from “Birds of America,” produced between 1827 and 1838.
As a member of Tiger Audubon Club and an admirer of Audubon’s legendary contributions to the world of science and art, I was deeply moved by this exhibition. Not only because I enjoyed studying the beautiful prints, but also because the nine student curators of this exhibition challenged my knowledge of John James Audubon by exposing the problematic history of his practices.
Curators Sarah Bedell ’24, Clay Bessire ’22, Kate Brush ’23, Jeremy Cashion ’24, Adrianna Gautreaux ’23, Calaya Hudnut ’22, Madeline Perigaut ’22, Kira Smith ’24, and Daya Stanley ’22 led a large crowd through the gallery, describing the processes they underwent in the two semesters of preparing this exhibition. Bessire noted that they made a lot of difficult decisions regarding the arrangement of the exhibition, but they stressed that the group all agreed on one overarching goal: to reframe the conversations regarding Audubon and his prints.
At the entrance of the exhibition, there is an empty frame that is labeled “Portrait of John James Audubon.” The description of the exhibition, located on the wall opposite of this empty frame, explains the curators’ choices to bring light to some of Audubon’s harmful ideas and actions, in hopes that visitors will be encouraged to decenter Audubon from his work.
The descriptions of the prints reveal the difficult truths surrounding Audubon: that he killed every bird he painted, that he failed to acknowledge his collaborators, that he owned slaves, that he perpetuated a culture of sexist expectations in his work, and more.
Many of these prints and their descriptions continue to linger in my mind days after visiting the exhibition. The “Golden Eye Duck” depicts an injured duck that was most likely shot by Audubon himself. The “Great American Sea Eagle” is a painting of a bird that never existed but was rather created by Audubon for the purpose of gaining popularity and financial support for his prints. And, the “Nuttall’s Lesser-marsh Wren” is a reminder that Audubon often used his privilege as a white naturalist to rename familiar species after himself and his friends, neglecting Indigenous knowledge and asserting claim to scientific authority.
The exhibition also addresses the loss of biodiversity since the publication of these prints. The “Ivory-billed Woodpecker” and the “Rathbone Warbler” prints are hung in memory of the two species, which were both declared extinct during this academic year. I find the “Rathbone Warbler” print especially beautiful, with two small, pale-yellow birds perched among bright red flowers.
Before leaving the gallery, there is an interactive mural that encourages visitors to reflect on how Audubon engaged with nature, as well as how you, yourself, engage with nature. On only its second day open to the public, this wall was already filled with insightful answers. The common theme among these answers seemed to center around an urge to protect the natural wonders that we love. Audubon may have educated the world about birds, but he left out a vital part of this education: the importance of protecting them.