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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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Wildlife Artist

Green-winged Teal by John Ruthven

North America has been blessed with talented bird and natural history artists and one of the best is John A. Ruthven, a resident of Georgetown, Ohio.

The names of many other nature artists come to mind, from the legendary Alexander Wilson, Mark Catesby, and William Bartram to an entire coterie of more modern illustrators. To name a few: David Beadle, Walter John Breckenridge, John A. Crosby, John Henry Dick, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Albert Earl Gilbert, Robert Gillmore, Bruce Horsfall, Francis Lee Jaques, S. D. MacDonald, Roger Tory Peterson, David Quinn, Chris Rose, Ernest Thompson Seton, Keith Shackleton, George Miksch Sutton, Robert E. Tucker, Angela Turner, and Walter Alois Weber.

"I believe that art is as necessary to our heritage as the history book," Ruthven says.

"Both record past and present," he continues, "in the effort to educate and enrich the lives of people today and in the future."

Then he gets to the correlation between his great artistic talent and the real environmental world we all live in. "It is my desire through my paintings to record for later generations some of the beauty of nature that exists in my lifetime."

And does he ever!

But let me flash-back for a moment to how I came to know John Ruthven. I had heard of him, of course. For years. Through the Audubon Society. As the illustrator of Duck Stamps. As a featured artist at a gallery in Lancaster, Ohio.

In 1992, John had accepted my invitation to participate on my bird show on WOSU-AM, the local National Public Radio station in Columbus. On November 11, he was hooked up by telephone, and along with Lois Day, Secretary of the Columbus Audubon Society and radio host Tom Wiebell, we spent a pleasant hour chatting and fielding questions from listeners.

Recently, I called Mr. Ruthven and told him I would like to write about him in "Birds of a Feather." In his usual intellectually curious and jovial way, he relished the idea and within a few days - to my delight - I had received a copy of a magnificent book titled: John A. Ruthven, In the Audubon Tradition, brilliantly illustrated with color plates of his paintings, reproductions of drawings and photographs, and a text by George Laycock.

In the Introduction to the book, David Bowen remarks: "To fully understand John's work, it is important to know of the esteem he has always held for the work of John James Audubon."

The truth of that statement is evident when one looks at a Ruthven painting: the stylistic influence of Audubon is apparent, although it is also obvious that the artist has advanced beyond his exemplar into the realm of Louis Agassiz Fuertes or, perhaps, of his British counterpart, Basil Ede.

But the style is Ruthven's. The subjects are beautifully portrayed, and they are so life-like they seem to escape the boundaries of John's canvas and, like Ede, he is careful with the botanical settings he places his subjects in.

My favorite paintings are many, but I shall mention a few. The Great Auk standing on an ocean-washed rock is a magnificent interpretation of that extinct bird's perilous covenant with its marine environment.

Cottontails, by John Ruthven

On three different occasions Ruthven has painted the Bald Eagle for presentation to presidents in the White House, and each painting is wonderful in its own way.

Eagle to the Moon, a Bald Eagle in flight, commissioned by Ohio Governor James Rhodes, was completed in 1971, then purchased by the Ohio Historical Society for display at the Neil Armstrong Aerospace Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

I love the effortless grace suggested in his portrayal of a trio of Northern Pintails, and I guess everybody else did too. This was the painting commissioned for Ducks Unlimited.

Some of his paintings hang in countries around the world: Luxembourg, Russia, and the Philippines come to mind. The administrators of Colonial Williamsburg commissioned him to paint four birds: a Cardinal, a Mockingbird, a Bobwhite Quail, and a Blue Jay. But John is quick to emphasizes that thousands of collectors buy Ruthven prints.

The Ruthvens lived in Cincinnati and many of John's formative years were during the Great Depression, but for the young boy there were days of adventures in the outdoors, sometimes to the banks of the Ohio River, and always there was an increasing interest in drawing and painting.

As he grew up, he felt a growing kinship with Audubon, who had once also lived in Cincinnati. In fact, Audubon became a taxidermist for the Western Museum, forerunner of today's Cincinnati Museum of Natural History.

After high school and a tour of duty in the Navy, John enrolled for a year at the Cincinnati Art Academy under the G. I. Bill. For another year, he attended the Central Academy of Commercial Art. Even though he subsequently opened a commercial art studio in his home, his interest in painting birds and other wildlife never flagged.

In 1959, John met Karl H. Maslowski, the immensely talented wildlife filmmaker, joined the Cincinnati Bird Club, and became acquainted with Emerson Kemsies, head of the Ornithology Laboratory of the University of Cincinnati's Department of Biological Sciences, and a devoted collector of birds. Along with Worth Randle, Kemsies authored the Birds of Southwestern Ohio published in 1953.

Ruthven humorously recalls a field trip during which Kemsies waded out on the mudflats of Rocky Fork Lake to get closer to some feeding shorebirds and got stuck up to his waist in the gooey muck.

John collected all the junk he could find - old tires, rugs, tree branches, anything - and finally dragged and rafted the older man back to the shore. He laughingly recalls that when they got back in their car and turned the heater on, "we were like two chickens baked in a mud coating."

In 1961, John painted a family of Mallards that appeared on the Federal Duck Stamp, and his career as wildlife artist took off.

Fulfilling the wishes of Emerson Kemsies after his death, John kept an eye on the U. of C. bird collection and when there was talk of its being sold, John was responsible for its transfer to the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History.

John was also aware of a lack of communication between Cincinnati's various natural history organizations. He felt that "whatever the underlying reasons, these professionals with like interests should be exchanging ideas and sharing experiences for their mutual good," so he played an active role in forming the Langdon Club, named in honor of Dr. Frank W. Langdon, an early Cincinnati neurosurgeon and naturalist.

By painting a portrait of a Passenger Pigeon from which 200 prints were made and sold, John was instrumental in saving one of the original buildings that once housed Martha the last-known surviving pigeon of that species at the Cincinnati Zoo. A less-known fact is that the last Carolina Parakeet died at the zoo four years later in 1918.

One outstanding event followed another in the life of John Ruthven. With fellow-bird artist Bill Zimmerman, he co-authored and illustrated Top Flight, a waterfowl identification book published in 1964.

Like John James Audubon, John has never been one to let grass grow under his feet. Trips afield have included Mexico, East Africa with Zimmerman, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta on the coast of the Bering Sea, to Alaska with his wife Judy, to Iceland and Eldy Island (to do research for his Great Auk painting), a trip to Russia as part of a cultural exchange group (three of his paintings were commissioned as gifts for Soviet leaders), to Scotland and the Philippines with Judy.

Soon after his marriage to Judy, the pair began thinking about a move to the country. Eventually they found just the place they were looking for: a two-story brick house dating back to the 1830s on 160 acres of beautiful countryside with a pond and woodland near Georgetown, Ohio, about 40 miles east of Cincinnati.

In Georgetown, the Ruthvens purchased the historic Thompson House and converted it into an art gallery. Down the street a way is the Grant House, a National Historic Landmark, the childhood home of President Ulysses S. Grant, which they also restored and maintain with love and affection.

Today, John is no longer a young man, but speaking engagements and a steady flow of commissions keep him busy.

He says, "I'll keep painting as long as birds fly and I can lift a brush."

Information on obtaining prints by John Ruthven can be had by contacting
Wildlife Internationa, P. O. Box 59, 202 East Grant Avenue, Georgetown,
Ohio, or calling 513/378-4141, or faxing 513/378-4141.

16 x 12 Red-headed Woodpeckers by John Ruthven


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