The work of one of the 20th century’s most preeminent artist-naturalists is coming to the Ned Smith Center this spring — Roger Tory Peterson, the man whose very name is synonymous with birds and birding.
The exhibit, which will run from April 7 to the end of Aug. in the Olewine Gallery, will feature a wide selection of Peterson’s work, including plates from his ground-breaking Field Guide to the Birds, which reinvented nature study.
The material comes from the extensive collections of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History, founded in 1984 in the artist’s hometown of Jamestown, NY. This exhibit serves as the first of an artwork exchange program which will include an exhibit of Ned Smith’s work, from the Center’s collections, traveling to the Peterson Institute at a later date.
Peterson (1908-1996) — or RTP, as birders often knew him — is revered for creating the modern field guide in 1934, and thus opening the study of the natural world to the average person. While he is most closely associated with birding and ornithology, Peterson was actually a naturalist of wide-ranging interests, from wildflowers to butterflies, as well as a gifted photographer, filmmaker and writer.
The exhibit will highlight many of those facets, including large gallery paintings of great horned owls, golden eagles, brown pelicans and other birds, created by Peterson for his print publisher, Mill Pond Press. The exhibit will also include a variety of Peterson’s famous field guide plates — some from the 1947 second edition of Field Guide to the Birds, one of the top-selling nature books of all time, as well as his later field guides to eastern wildflowers and Mexican birds.
“Even die-hard Peterson Field Guide users who have been exposed to reproductions of these images for many years will be in awe at the vibrant detail and artistic excellence of Peterson’s originals,” RTPI director Twan Leenders said. “His amazing work will never cease to inspire more people into becoming engaged and fascinated naturalists.”
A number of the pieces slated for exhibit are ink drawings that Peterson created for the 1955 book Wild America, which he co-authored with British ornithologist James Fisher. That bestseller recounted a 30,000-mile odyssey that the two men took around North America, from Newfoundland to Mexico and into the far Bering Sea. Some of the drawings depict Cup’ik Eskimos in traditional skin kayaks, clouds of terns around Fort Jefferson in Florida’s Dry Tortugas, and Native cliff dwellings in Arizona.
In addition to finished artwork, the exhibit will include samples from Peterson’s sketchbooks and field notebooks, his binoculars, movie camera and other objects.
Growing up in western New York, Peterson was a poor student, but two things lit a fire inside him — art and birds. His obsession with the latter, he said, could be traced to a spring day in 1920, when he found “a bundle of brown feathers clinging to a tree.” It was a flicker, exhausted from migration and sleeping — but when young Roger touched it, thinking it dead, the woodpecker exploded into flight, its bright yellow feather shafts flashing in the sun.
“It was like resurrection,” Peterson later recalled. “Ever since then, birds have seemed to me the most vivid expression of life.”
After high school, Peterson moved to New York City, where he worked in a furniture factory in the morning and took classes at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design. He also fell in a group of similarly bird-obsessed young men under the tutelage of Ludlow Griscom, a great ornithologist who was almost single-handedly developing the modern sport of birding, identifying live birds in the field using binoculars, instead of collecting them with a shotgun.
Peterson’s studies in art and birding combined in the early 1930s to produce his Field Guide to the Birds — although it was not immediately recognized as a work of genius. The publisher, looking at Depression-era economics, declined to even pay him royalties on the first 2,000 copies — though that changed in a hurry when the book immediately sold out.
It has kept on selling, for decades, through many revisions and updates. It spawned the highly successful Peterson Field Guide series (one of which, Hal H. Harrison’s Field Guide to Birds’ Nests, was illustrated by Ned Smith). And it cemented Peterson’s reputation, which grew through the years and the publication of dozens of other field guides, books, photos, films and fine-art prints. By the time Peterson died in 1996, at age 87, he was one of the most lauded naturalists in the world.
The Peterson Institute carries on its namesake’s legacy, just as does the Center with Ned Smith’s. That’s why the idea of joint exhibits made so much sense, said Scott Weidensaul, chair of the Center’s exhibition committee and curator of its collection.
“In many ways, Roger Peterson and Ned Smith are different sides of the same coin,” he said. “Both were self-taught naturalists, and both established reputations as superb artists. And when we were just starting the Center in the early 1990s, we also benefitted from advice and guidance from the folks at RTPI. Exhibiting Peterson’s work here, and later sending some of our collection to Jamestown, seems a perfect way to bring that full circle.”