Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A trip to the Roger Tory Peterson Institute

This past June, when I drove up to Chautauqua to attend the opening for the 57th Annual Exhibition, I made a stop in Jamestown, New York to visit a place I'd never been to and only recently heard about - the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, named for the famous wildlife illustrator and native son of Jamestown. The Institute is part gallery, part educational resource, part research institution, and all a meaningful tribute to Peterson's commitment to observing wildlife.

Despite my obvious and long-term interest in birds, I hadn't known about this place until it was featured on a local radio program, the Allegheny Front, during a special bird-centric episode.

Inside the lobby of the Institute, with silhouettes modeled after the endpages in Peterson's Guides.

Roger Tory Peterson is probably best known for his Peterson bird guides, which were the first field guides developed for "non-experts." His system of identification which used lines to point out distinct field markings and the approachable, readable nature of the guides has made them favorites with bird lovers for half a century. The Institute houses some of his original drawings, and features a wonderful library of nature books and guides, a gallery, natural history displays, and lots of huge windows looking out into the woods for birdwatching whenever the urge strikes. (There are binoculars on every windowsill!) The story on Allegheny Front gives the Institute a thorough and wonderful review, so I won't repeat everything here, but wanted to share some photos I took and things I found particularly striking.

One of Peterson's original paintings. 

Original sketches from Peterson's notebooks.

A page of warblers in drawing form, and as seen in a Peterson Field Guide.

As one of my friends pointed out, if you've been looking at these guides for most of your life, it's easy to forget that every bird is an individual painting, each one done by Roger Tory Peterson. In person they are very lovely to look at - all crisply rendered and done with great care. As a lover of scientific illustration, it reminded me that drawings that exist for the primary purpose of conveying information can still be a pleasure to look at, and worth considering as legitimate artwork. Illustrators wield a wonderful power, in addition to creating works that serve as testaments to the amazing reward of looking closely: they define truth in a very specific way, a particularly important consideration at a time when books or illustrations (or the internet) weren't available to most people. I've always found that fascinating, as a child of the information age.

A display about Passenger Pigeons.
The last one, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo almost 100 years ago.

Drawing of a Northern Flicker

I was excited to read that an encounter with a Northern Flicker was one of the things that inspired Peterson's lifelong fascination with birds. It's one of my favorite birds too, even though it's fairly common. Maybe it's something about their unusual, non-woodpecker-like plumage, or the striking yellow on the underside of their wings, that attracts me so much.

It was a beautiful day to walk the nature trails.

I had never thought about the effort that went into producing these guides, or the legacy of wildlife appreciation and conservation that Peterson left behind, so I'm glad I got to visit the Institute to learn more about his work. And it turns out he's had a lasting impression on my work as well - I recently completed an installation for the Cataloguing Pattern show, made out of birds guides laser-cut into silhouettes. 

Mandala, 2014.

I hadn't thought about this when gathering materials for the installation in May, but I'd chosen Peterson guides because of the clear illustrations and the existence of many previous editions I could choose from. So, when I set everything up in the gallery, it seemed fitting to display an intact Peterson guide nearby for comparison. In some small way, I hope to reference the legacy of close observation that he's left behind for us.

1 comment:

  1. Great tie-in. I, too, had never heard of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute. We'll have to make the trip some time.

    Also -- in our Field Ecology Governor's School, each day we feature a biology-related career. This year we added scientific/medical illustrator. Some students think there's not enough artistic freedom in the profession, but it does require a great deal of talent and knowledge.

    Finally -- do you have a top-down view of the mandala? It looks interesting!