Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rara Avis

I've spent the entire month of November researching and rehearsing the role of John James Audubon, painter, naturalist, and business man. The more I research, the more I like this guy. He was truly an American original, a rare bird.

Audubon was consumed by a passion to create a monumental work of both science and art, The Birds of America, which made him famous. 435 paintings depicting 1000 birds native to North America. His genius was to paint his bird specimens "in the size of life." The pages of his double-elephant folio are 3 feet by 2 feet and require a special desk to display them properly; and yet the long-necked flamingo must still bend down to gobble-up some small animal, which is Audubon's other inspiration: to depict the real drama of life. In his paintings, birds protect their young, defend their food, and awaken in the morning to the fangs of a snake. He depicts birds astonished by his own rifle shot.

In Europe he promoted himself as the "American Woodsman" at the height of the Romantic Era's infatuation with the American frontier and "noble savages". Audubon was in fact an excellent marksman, and killed thousands of birds in pursuit of his ornithological studies. He ate, yes, many of the specimins, and documented their flavors as well as their physical and behavioral characteristics in his companion work, Ornithological Biographia, which made his fortune. He catalogued over 500 native American bird species, all from first-hand observation in the new frontier.

For the month of December, you may see me walking the French Quarter with a group of 14 other historical New Orleans personalities. Marie Laveau is quite convincing. So is Andrew Jackson and the Baroness Pontalba. We're a fun group of actors, all of whom really get nerdy on research. I've read 2 biographies, a National Geographic article, and much online material. I viewed an American Masters documentary about Birds of America, and also read his diary from 1820-21, a significant year in Audubon's aesthetic development, right here in New Orleans. There's a park and zoo here named in his honor.

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