A few days ago Pomegranate Publishers of Portland, Oregon put out their long awaited J. Fenwick Lansdowne, a lush coffee table book illustrating the bird art of my friend Fen. I had the privilege of writing the section on our early life together.
From age 14 to our 20’s, Fen and I had a unique bond that had nothing to do with anything else in our lives. It was a passion for birds. Our story is about two nut-case budding ornithologists who travelled far and near to put new species into their binoculars. My chapter in the book is called “Early Years on the Road,” and it records some mighty good times.
Covered in the chapter are the adventures of a couple of young guys discovering things for the first time, taking notes and sketching wherever they went. “In northern Nevada,” I wrote, “We discovered a wonderful alkali flat with lots of avocets. The place was hot as a firecracker in more ways than one. It took us a while to find one of the unbelievably camouflaged nests. We set up our pup tent right next to it. I got in the tent with a camera while Fen drove away in a mirage of heat. Avocets are smart birds, but they apparently can’t count. The adults soon returned to the nest. I snapped away through the fly while being eaten alive by mosquitoes. After what seemed to be an interminable time, Fen showed up and replaced me in the blind. It was my turn to drive away. Well warned of the mosquitoes, I gave him half an hour — much less than he had given me. When we packed up the tent and put it back in the car, Fen had several magnificent little drawings with blood on them. Driving over the vast, steaming desert, we drank warm barley water and sang, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”
Looking back, I’ve come to realize that companionship and mild competition can help build quality and lay the ground for excellence. And I’ve learned that it can happen at any stage in life — in far-flung workshops or in a friend’s basement studio. Perhaps creative bonding is most valuable when it happens in our formative years.
PS: “The best that an individual can do is to do what he or she can do, together with a burning desire to do it better.” (Elizabeth Bowen)
Esoterica: Fen Lansdowne is sometimes mentioned as the greatest bird painter of all time — surpassing even John James Audubon. In my eye, his work is more than ornithological illustration — it is fine art. Fen published a lot of really magnificent books in his lifetime (he died in 2008) but this latest is the best, not because I’m in it, but because it gives a comprehensive selection of his life’s work as well as valuable insights from colleagues.
acrylic on canvas, 39.5 x 39.5 inches
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