Up here in Alaska at the American Bald Eagle Festival, one of my fellow presenters is Glen Browning. Glen’s giving a course in digital wildlife photography, as well as demonstrating — from start to finish — his methodology for mounting an immature female Goshawk. I asked Glen how he came to be one of the world’s most respected — and busy — bird taxidermists. When it comes to turning a passion into success, it’s the sort of story I’ve heard before.
Glen had always been stuffing birds, but a 1991 motorcycle accident had left him injured, angry, and reassessing the direction of his life. One day he made a phone call to the greatly admired, prize winning taxidermist Patrick Rummans. Glen invited Patrick to come several thousand miles and teach him all he could in two weeks. Patrick, looking for an exchange of good northern wildlife photography, took him up on it. “There’s more to it than meets the eye,” Glen says. “I learned from Patrick about the details and the finish. Feet — I always fill them out and mount the feet — otherwise they shrivel up — and the eyes — particularly around the eyes, you have to get that right.” Then there’s the knowledge needed for lifelike positioning. This takes an understanding of anatomy, weight distribution and habits that can only come from watching and study in the field. In Glen’s case he was able to add literally thousands of hours flying near and along with birds in his ultra-light aircraft. In Glen’s flying-mounts you can feel the wind.
In so many conversations with creative masters I’ve found myself hearing a lot of stuff about the details. In these details — no matter how much trouble they take or how much one is to be paid for them — there comes the resolve to excel and to do the job better. I see this kind of resolve as a “glow” in people, a one-tracked sense of personal pride that results in focus and purpose. Purpose-driven folks tend to develop an advanced proficiency that makes them stand out. Purpose-driven folks — while they may be laden with humility — are often also loaded up with a sense of righteousness about their work. Simply put, they believe in it. And purpose-driven folks have often taken a circuitous route to get that way. In Glen’s case it took a lot of jobs, banging around — commercial fishing, sheet metal working, and a bone-breaking experience to come to this resolve.
PS: “You’ve got to really take your time to scrape back the skins until they’re very thin — paper thin — and very very clean. That makes them supple — then and only then you can do what you want with them.” (Glen Browning)
Esoterica: Here in Haines, Alaska, down by the Chilkat River, the place is up close and personal with Bald Eagles. About four thousand right now. The long-lens birdwatchers attending this convention have been going nuts. Where I am there’s a foot of fresh snow. More coming. It’s silent except for the distant eagle’s calls, the soft thud of snow falling from the pines and my woolly-gloved fingers talking to you on this laptop. Amazing world. Bit different than Manhattan.
The Avian Art of Glen Browning
Caution on antecedents
by Marvin Petal, Oxnard, CA, USA
As much as I enjoy and value your letters, I really must caution you about your use of antecedents. In speaking of Glen Browning, you would have spared me from inappropriate thoughts if you had first identified him as a taxidermist and then told me, Glen’s demonstrating — from start to finish — his methodology for mounting an immature female Goshawk.”
Question of legality
by J Forest Ocean Bennett, Wailaua, HI, USA
I was wondering if you could give me an email address for Glen, your fellow presenter, about his work. I use deceased animal parts in my sculptures and want to ask him if he knows if some are illegal to use. I tried many state departments, but just get a run around. He’ll know.
(Andrew Niculescu note) For J and everyone else who wanted to ask Glen a question, he can be reached through his website.
Source of inspiration
by Jan Bushart, Kihei, HI, USA
I have been in Haines, Alaska at this time of year with the thousands of Bald Eagles roosting in the trees and feeding along the Chilkat River. It was 32 degrees and snowing. All of the vehicles were just sliding off of the road, the ice was so thick. The trees were silhouetted against the white snow and they had three feet of wet snow on the branches. At first I didn’t see the eagles because everything was black and white with all of the snow falling. Then one of the branches dropped all of its snow and a huge bald eagle flew off from that branch. There were hundreds of them. What a site!
My great uncle is the late Robert Smith, who made all of the eyes for the animals in the Colorado National Wildlife Museum. He invented the process that he used and was a source of inspiration to me as a child. He helped to inspire me to become an artist.
The ‘Life of the Artist’
by Sally Rosenbaum, Napa Valley, CA, USA
This subject of “finding one’s passion in their work” always moves and stimulates me. The sentence that rings true for me in this particular letter is the one about how this talented artist made his decision to pump up his art another notch after the awful motorcycle accident. I am amazed how many talented people experience that “turbo” charge right after life delivers something that could potentially defeat their spirit. I, too, experienced a turbo moment right after a life changing sequence of life’s “slapping me in the face.” It was from that day forth that my commitment to “my own excellence in art” became the theme that is defining my life.
Our personal misfortune is all a part of the beautiful alchemy that makes the art that makes the “map for meaning” for generations to come. Consider the lives of Hemingway, Picasso, Mozart, Michelangelo and Vincent Van Gogh. While the schools cut art from the program, communities ax the art associations, doctors and pharmacists sedate the spirits, and no one has time to visit the museum down the street, we need the courageous artists and writers more than ever. I sometimes ponder whether “The Life of the Artist” isn’t more of the “Art” than the canvas, the clay, or the words on paper.
Dedication to one’s craft
by Karoll Dalyce Brinton, Sherwood Park, AB, Canada
With the extremes of culture and landscape you are experiencing Robert, you must be expanding your ideas and perceptions. I had the privilege of visiting Hyder, Alaska a few years ago and saw a huge population of bald eagles fishing on the river. It was like a dream seeing these elusive and magnificent creatures in such abundance in a land where glaciers and waterfalls far outnumber the people that visit and admire this area.
I appreciate your perspective on the dedication to one’s craft, whether it be painting, taxidermy, photography, woodcarving, or teaching. How long something takes to do is irrelevant. It is silly to measure how long it takes to create, when a race with time is illusionary anyway.
When people ask me, “How long did that take you?” I used to try and give them an hourly estimate, as if it made any difference. Comparisons are a form of disconnection from our higher being. So now I respond by saying that I don’t keep track of the time “investment,” because that distracts from the creative energy that is flowing.
Sometimes we amaze ourselves with what we can create or do. It seemed so easy, we almost feel guilty. What a funny idea that is. It’s supposed to be that way. It happens when we stop resisting or conceptualizing things, often in the process of playing with the paint searching for the “Michelangelo Moment.” Without conscious awareness, we become the physical facilitator to our soul’s creativity.
Paintings deserve a finish
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
Details, I love details, for me and my work I have to go that extra mile to make it feel right for me. Often being told I’ve overworked the piece. So I tried to loosen up and plein air painting has assisted me in that direction. To paint faster and looser. One thing that I’ve noticed in plein air and workshops is that you get to see how other artists paint. And how they feel about their work. I hear so many times of them scrapping, painting over or just abandoning their work. I’m not one of those types of artists. I believe each piece was started for a reason, hence deserves a finish. I will work that painting until I feel I have done it justice. I never paint over or abandon, but complete each and every piece. It once took me 5 years to complete a piece, studying it as a work in progress as I worked on other projects. Finally each step came to me from time to time. It’s one of my favorite pieces to date.
Room for less and room for more
by Jane Freeman, Bemidji, MN, USA
Robert, the last time you spoke of leaving something out while talking about writing. Now with taxidermy we are talking about getting even more than the eye can see. For me as a watercolor artist, I have gone through abstract and have gradually gravitated toward realism. Now the more realistic I can make it the more I enjoy it. I think I am happier here than anywhere else I have been. I now think it has to do with who we are at the time. I think I enjoy more information. I also collect more things and I like my house and gardens neat and just overall my life is more organized now. I think that would reflect in my art which would explain my realistic approach. I do not like modern furniture, metal etc… I love wood, nature and reality. For all of us to think we would paint alike would seem silly. I can appreciate good abstract work because I understand it, but my friends who still work that way cannot seem to appreciate what I am doing. Am I now also more open-minded? Maybe that comes with age as well. I think that for anyone to dictate what is right or wrong in art, good or bad in art, is like also telling us who we are or should be. I love what I do and plan to continue this realistic journey for the rest of my days. There is room for less and room for more.
Key to success
by Maria Scaringi, Don Mills, ON, Canada
I just read an article in Time magazine November 2005 issue, entitled “Why Some People Are Most Likely to Succeed.” In a nutshell the author says, “A fire in the belly doesn’t light itself.” Various possibilities are described using real people in the world. He refers to research and ongoing studies on the topic. Ultimately the spark of Ambition lies in genes, family, culture and even in your own hands.
It is my opinion that we can all achieve if we do not give up. But then again, even when one gives up, one still has the potential to be rewired to achieve. One simply must learn to recognize when a door has just closed and aim for an open one.
On craft and craftsmanship
by Peggy DeVries, Mt. Brydges, ON, Canada
As an artist and art teacher I have been enjoying your letters. Since you mentioned spirituality and the value of craft and craftsmanship, I would like to refer you to a group of artists in Toronto called ‘Imago’ that have done some serious reflection on that subject. I would highly recommend reading a paper entitled Redeeming the Arts that they helped put together. It came out of an international discussion in Thailand at the Lausanne Forum 2004.
Light in paint
by John Carson, Montignac-Charente, France
Finding myself in Paris in 1947 in my new cheap demob suit, a Danish painter and ex-resistance worker, Paul Klose, allowed me to help him square up the walls for his ‘commercial’ commissioned work, painting Italiante landscape murals, which incidentally we both disliked. He dismissed my newfound enthusiasm for the Impressionists and their quest for light in paint. His integrity would not allow him to follow the current fashion for something he could not ‘ see’ for himself and so he lectured me on his Renaissance idols. ‘Now you gently, gently, lightly limn the Madonna’s robe with golden yellow, and see. the blue begins to sing!’ A year later when I scraped the money to return, he had married his classical training to a new vision, his own discovery of what the Impressionists were attempting and which was to transform his work, after he had surmounted an acute case of painter’s block. Gallery owners at the door and no paintings on the easel!
Peaches and Bowl
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Catherine Stock of Rignac, France who wrote, “Your current letter is most timely. I am in Washington, DC where there is a terrific exhibition of Audubon’s hand-coloured prints of birds at the National Gallery. Anyone who can get to it should.”
And also Jeanie Jones of Lubbock, TX, USA who wrote, “My accident’s names are Beth and Ricky (twins), past 40 now and well worth the career change. In fact, at 73 I am raising Ricky’s daughter alone. She has been with me 11 years and is in High School. Without the accident I would have never justified that much time to give to painting.”
And also Sigal Blaauw of Zurich, Switzerland who wrote, “This article was another step in gaining the strength to become a vegeterian. It is just too much touching dead things, isn’t art about immortalizing? Like Van Gogh forever capturing The potato eaters, would he ever have thought to stuff them instead?”