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Jennifer Piurek
University Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, February 22, 2011

IU receives NEH grant for Picturing John James Audubon Institute

Lilly Library's 'Birds of America' to be used as resource

Feb. 22, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When an original edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America sold for a record $11.5 million at Sotheby's in December, the art world was atwitter, and the pun-ny headlines flew:

Audubon Institute

Courtesy, The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

This is one of more than 400 images in John James Audubon's "Birds of America." IU's Lilly Library houses a set of the books identical to ones that sold at auction for $11.5 million in December.

"High-Flying Price for Audubon's 'Birds.'" "Sotheby's hawks rare copy of John James Audubon's 'Birds in America.'" "Audubon's Birds Fly to $11.5 Million at Sotheby's London."

While the purchase of the most expensive printed manuscript in the world was going down in a frenzied, four-minute bidding battle, an identical, immaculate set of Audubon's 19th-century masterpiece remained placidly on public display at Indiana University's Lilly Library, where it has been housed since 1960. (The Audubon came to IU with the rest of the Lilly collection in the mid-1950s and was moved to the Lilly Library when it opened in 1960.)

The Lilly Library owns a Double Elephant Folio of Birds of America, containing 435 meticulously detailed, hand-colored illustrations, as well as an early, paper-wrapped edition of the Royal Octavo edition of the same work.

The Lilly collection and IU Professor of English Christoph Irmscher, an Audubon expert, make IU the ideal place for this summer's Picturing John James Audubon Institute, scheduled to begin July 6 and culminate July 30. The institute is made possible by a $204,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, funded by NEH's Picturing America summer seminar series designed for high school teachers.

The first-ever Picturing John James Audubon Institute took place at IU in 2009 under the direction of Irmscher, who again is directing and planning the event with assistance from department manager Alita Hornick.

Irmscher has edited a collection of Audubon's writings and drawings for the Library of America, and most recently appeared in the PBS film "Drawn from Life: John James Audubon," directed by Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey, and the Louisiana Public Television documentary "A Summer of Birds." Hott and Garey will lecture at the institute, as will Danny Heitman, who wrote the book upon which "A Summer of Birds" was based.

Participants will have the opportunity to meet with experts on Audubon, American art and natural history, and will have their own writing critiqued by world-renowned writer Scott Russell Sanders, IU Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and author of A Private History of Awe and The Conservationist Manifesto; poet Dave Smith, chairman of the Hopkins Writing Seminar; and Canadian novelist Katherine Govier, author of several books, including a novel about Audubon and, most recently, the novel The Ghost Brush. Joel Silver, curator of rare books at the Lilly Library, will assist throughout the institute.

The goal of the institute, said Irmscher, is to inspire teachers from a variety of backgrounds (as well as librarians and graduate students) to pursue research on their own and to further their career goals.

"The rationale for the whole institute is to get teachers to come and work with these materials and think about ways they can use these 19th-century materials in their teaching," he said.

Irmscher image

Photo by Chris Meyer

Christoph Irmscher

Print-Quality Photo

Some local teachers who took part in the 2009 institute have brought their classes to look at the materials at the Lilly, while others have developed entire teaching units based upon what they learned at that institute. Two local teachers, one from Bloomington South and one from The New Tech high school, will come back this year as Picturing John James Audubon Institute instructors.

Audubon was one of America's first internationally known painters. A world traveler and nature writer, Audubon's life-sized Birds of America changed the tradition of natural history illustration and had a major impact on the development of ornithology and bird conservation.

Audubon himself seemed to be a contradiction -- he loved birds, but killed thousands of them so he could paint their likeness, he wanted to both rob from nature and preserve it forever in his books. He began his lifelong journey to paint and describe American birds and other animals in areas near to Bloomington (Henderson, Ky., and Cincinnati), and participants in the institute will travel to the areas that inspired him.

Irmscher said some aspects of the first institute will remain the same as the 2009 institute: trips to the Audubon Museum in Kentucky and the Field Museum in Chicago, and participation by some of the same instructors as those who came in 2009.

One thing he heard a lot in the evaluations of the last institute: More Scott Russell Sanders. "This man is good for my soul," wrote one attendee. Rather than coming to just a couple of sessions, as he did in 2009, Sanders will be part of the core faculty for the institute. "He was very generous about it," Irmscher said.

Many of the meetings will take place at the Lilly Library, where institute participants can see the Audubon book and the Gutenberg Bible.

"Most students don't realize that this state university has these two absolutely amazing treasures right here. You just have to walk in, and on the left is Audubon and straight ahead is Gutenberg. It is a testimony to several things: the foresight of the people who started the Lilly Library, Herman B Wells' leadership, and the directors and curators of the Lilly who have preserved these treasures."