For the Birds Radio Program: Woodson Art Museum

Original Air Date: Oct. 16, 1996

Today Laura Erickson talks about the “Birds in Art” exhibit at the Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin. (4:06) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


My year is made up of many annual traditions. Winter officially begins with the Duluth Christmas Bird Count: I’ve participated in 14 of the past 15 years, missing only in 1983 when the count took place five days after my daughter Katie was born. Every February I make my annual trek up Lake County Highway 2 looking for Spruce Grouse. In March, I head for Nebraska to see Sandhill Cranes gathering along the Platte—I can’t imagine a spring without that magnificent sight. I head for the St. Louis River looking for Tundra Swans in April, Duluth’s annual birdathon takes place in May, and in June I conduct my annual Breeding Bird Survey. I’ve been the August counter at Hawk Ridge, but now that our imported fall counter from New York, Frank Nicoletti, is moving to Duluth, I may be out of that job. I finish up every autumn counting migrants of all types at the Lakewood Pumping Station.

My newest annual tradition began last year at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin, which sponsors an international exhibition titled “Birds in Art” every fall. From early September through the end of October, bird paintings and sculptures of incredible beauty, humor, sadness, power, and richness fill the museum. This year’s featured artist, sculptor John Sharp, uses unpainted hardwoods to conjure birds, living and dead, sometimes juxtaposed against a man-made setting, such as a dead Mallard lying on a table next to a bowl of apples. Last year, John Sharp’s entry was of a roadkill, and this year two others of his sculptures are of dead birds, a cuckoo and a goose. Sharp’s dead birds don’t glorify the hunt. They evoke sadness, but he can also bring birds vividly to life, transforming solid black walnut into a parliament of cormorants, two cranes in love, and two Canvasbacks floating in a living sea.

Another oceanic sculpture is of three golden plovers rising out of the waves. This was done by David and Mary Ahrendt from Hackensack, Minnesota. I coveted that one. My other favorite sculptures this year are a bluebird pair so detailed and realistic that you can almost see them breathing, and two macaws materializing from a maple burl, less intricately detailed but just as vividly alive.

The paintings are wonderfully varied in style and subject. There are traditional bird portraits, evocative habitat scenes, plotted stories such as a Golden Eagle chasing four desperate Canada Geese, and even a luscious abstract. Steffen Wallentowitz of Germany painted a Red-winged Blackbird epaulet—nothing more—yet managed to produce a work that exudes the beauty and vitality of raw masculine passion.

This year’s only Blue Jay was little more than a speck in Cindy House’s luscious landscape, but brought the scene to life. There were four paintings of magpies. My favorite, but Harro Maass of Germany, had them perched in a tree covered with soft new snow. I stared at this delicate black-and-white acrylic for many long minutes.

Most modern wildlife art is exhibited and sold as prints. But even the most well-executed prints are flat and dull compared with original paintings. If you have the opportunity in the next couple of weeks, hightail it over to Wausau and visit this extraordinary art show. The exhibit ends October 27.