Birds in Art Turns 25

About to Live On by Jan Wessels. painting, southwest art.
About to Live On by Jan Wessels

By Kathy Kelsey Foley

Birds in Art, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum’s flagship exhibition, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with more than 100 works on view at the museum in Wausau, WI, September 9-November 12. Likely no one could have predicted the show’s phenomenal success or its remarkable growth during a span of two and a half decades. Indeed, the exhibition that began as an “invitation to a few friends” extended by Wisconsin artist Owen Gromme has taken on a life of its own and captured the imaginations and attention of thousands of artists, collectors, museum-goers, and dealers around the world.

When the Woodson Art Museum opened its doors in September 1976, visitors were treated to Birds of the Lakes, Fields, and Forests, the precursor to Birds in Art. Gromme, a friend of museum founders John and Alice Woodson Forester, had been called upon to assist with the inaugural exhibition, and he, in turn, called upon two dozen or so artist friends to lend artworks to the fledgling museum. Public response to the exhibition far exceeded expectations, and what had been conceived as a one-time project was restructured to incorporate a juried entry process and has since become the cornerstone of the museum’s annual exhibition schedule.

Tree Sparrows at Dragon Mountain by Adele Earnshaw. painting, southwest art.
Tree Sparrows at Dragon Mountain by Adele Earnshaw

The works in the formative exhibitions were characterized by extreme attention to detail. Many were illustrative works, reminiscent of 18th- and 19th-century naturalist studies that laid the groundwork for many contemporary realist artists. But as the exhibition matured and attracted more international artists, the overarching feel of the works expanded, too. Birds in Art offered an environment for experimentation, and the show increasingly pushes the realism envelope with each passing year.

Though the inclusion or depiction of a bird in the artworks remains essential to the theme, more and more works go beyond that. There are abstract works, paintings of birds in odd surroundings like those perched on the line of Chinese lanterns in Tree Sparrows at Dragon Mountain even works of bird habitats without a bird in sight. Always critical to a juried work, however, is its overall quality: the composition, structure, form, style, color, line, texture, and narrative.

Along with a tradition of quality is the selection of a master wildlife artist for each exhibition. Early on the museum honored Gromme and others like George Miksch Sutton and Arthur B. Singer. These artists nurtured and encouraged others to stretch the limits of “bird art,” in part through participation in Birds in Art.  The show has since recognized artists such as Robert Bateman, Kent Ullberg, Thomas Quinn, and Anne Senechal Faust as master artists.

Sculpture in various mediums has been an important component of the exhibition for more than a dozen years. At the same time, the number of works on paper including watercolors, pastels, pencil drawings, and graphic mediums has significantly increased. Often more intimate and at times more daring, works on paper have played a significant role in dispelling animal art stereotypes. Paintings have, of course, continued to be the mainstay of the exhibition, and through the years these works, too, have revealed a complexity and daring that keep Birds in Art exciting.

At the outset of the new century, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum marks the 25th anniversary of Birds in Art with an exhibition of both classics and surprises. Familiar faces join newcomers to offer an avian array that will appeal to every artistic taste and interest. From painterly impressions to highly realistic bird portraits and from rich landscapes to three-dimensional interpretations of bird life, the exhibition continues to reward as well as challenge.

Birds in Art 2000 pays tribute to the venerable tradition of the early years while embracing the innovations that ensure a dynamic exhibition. In the show’s 25-year history, more than 550 artists have participated. Each has left an indelible mark on the exhibition, on the Woodson Art Museum, and on the genre as a whole. The competition for a coveted spot in the exhibition has not diminished, and each spring when jurors convene in Wausau, they are charged with selecting the most accomplished and intriguing artworks from among the hundreds submitted. This year 114 artists contribute to making this year’s Birds in Art a successful anniversary exhibition.

Featured in “In the Museums” September 2000