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John James Audubon subject of NEH-funded 'Picturing America' institute at IU Bloomington

High school teachers from across the country converged in Bloomington on July 6 for a four-week "Picturing John James Audubon Institute" at Indiana University, the first of its kind.

The institute, which ends July 30, is directed by Indiana University English Professor Christoph Irmscher and funded by a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities through its "Picturing America" series of summer seminars and institutes for high school teachers. Alita Hornick from the IU Department of English helped organize the institute.

The "Picturing John James Audubon Institute" has featured experts on Audubon, American art and natural history. In addition to becoming immersed in all things related to Audubon, the institute's 20 attendees have the opportunity to hone their own writing skills under the tutelage of three award-winning authors who are institute faculty members -- renowned writer Scott Russell Sanders, author of, most recently, A Private History of Awe; poet Dave Smith, chairman of the Hopkins Writing Seminar; and Canadian novelist Katherine Govier, author of Creation, a novel about Audubon. Also participating in the institute will be PBS filmmakers Diane Garey and Larry Hott, who directed Drawn from Nature, an "American Masters" documentary about John James Audubon, for which Irmscher served as a consultant and interview subject.

Free and open to the public Audubon Institute events next week are:

6 p.m. Monday, July 27, Maple Room, Indiana Memorial Union: Reading with Katherine Govier. Govier's Audubon novel, Creation, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2003. In a review, The Christian Science Monitor said that "Govier hovers beyond approval or condemnation, showing Audubon in his natural habitat of selfishness and generosity, forced to murder the beings he loves. . . . She's caught the conflicted ferocity and beauty of Audubon's paintings in a story that rises above the burdens of artistic genius and speaks to us back on the ground. . . . fulfills [Govier's] opening promise about the power of fiction to tell truths that history can't approach."

Note: If you're interested in attending the following conversation with filmmakers Diane Garey and Larry Hott, please contact Christoph Irmscher,, for permission.

9 a.m.-noon Thursday, July 30, Slocum Room, Lilly Library: Conversation with filmmakers Diane Garey and Larry Hott, Florentine Films. Garey's and Hott's NEH-funded, award-winning documentary Drawn from Nature was screened during the first week of the institute. This open-ended conversation will give conference attendees an unprecedented insight into how an idea, first flaunted by a private Audubon collector, eventually became a filmic reality. As Hott himself defined the challenges: Where does one find a live golden eagle to illustrate one of Audubon's most famous bird essays? How does one portray the life of a man whose most intense experiences took place before the age of photography? How does one film the smaller birds, the ones that won't stay still. "I'm amazed that Audubon was able to find them, let alone shoot them," Hott said.

Irmscher image

Photo by Chris Meyer

Christoph Irmscher directs "Picturing John James Audubon," a four-week institute for high school teachers from across the country. The institute began on July 6 at IU Bloomington.

Print-Quality Photo

Painter and author John James Audubon, for whom the Audubon Society is named, is perhaps best known for his life-sized "Birds of America" drawings that chronicled more than 400 species of birds in the 1800s, several of which are now extinct. Lesser known are his prolific -- and sometimes grammatically incorrect and risqué -- writings about life and nature as he traveled the world, crisscrossing the continent, always returning to America to paint the birds that captivated him.

Irmscher is part of a small group of archival scholars for whom Audubon's writings are at least as interesting as his paintings.

"I always say Audubon is the first great American artist of international distinction, but he's also one of the first great nature writers in the American tradition," said Irmscher, who authored The Poetics of Natural History, a book that sought to rehabilitate Audubon as a writer, and co-edited the forthcoming ecocritical anthology A Keener Perception with art historian Alan Braddock of Temple University. Irmscher also was asked to edit a selection of Audubon's writing for the Library of America. "As a nature writer, Audubon deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson," he said.

One particular problem with looking back at Audbon's writings, Irmscher said, is that although his body of writing was vast initially, his writings were censored by his granddaughter, particularly the journals. "She destroyed some and ended up rewriting others out of a notion of Victorian propriety," he said.

Much of the institute has taken place at IU's Lilly Library, one of the foremost repositories of rare books and manuscripts in the world and home to unparalleled Audubon resources, among them a pristine set of Audubon's Double Elephant Folio of Birds of America and an early, paper-wrapped edition of the Royal Octavo edition of the same work.

Irmscher said Audubon sought to document North America through its bird life. But while Audubon found the birds of America beautiful, he had no trouble slaughtering them for his art.

"It's so ironic that the Audubon Society is named after him," said Irmscher. "He killed thousands of birds in his lifetime. He would rig them up on a board and draw them as they were decomposing; that's how he obtained models for his art."

He may have been "a pretty wild man" and even crass at times, but Audubon was a multilingual, cosmopolitan visionary, said Irmscher; unlike mainstream artists who are content with producing unique works of art destined for exclusive ownership by few individuals, Audubon was interested in making his work available to others through prints. He traveled to England for that very purpose, where an engraver painstakingly reproduced the works in what was then a complicated process.

"It's unusual for art," Irmscher said. "We tend to think of artists as solitary geniuses who produce exceptional masterpieces, but, from the beginning, he wanted to produce these images as prints so people could have all of the birds of America in their hands, so to speak."

Because Bloomington is close to many of the sites that shaped Audubon's early career (among them Henderson, Ky., and Cincinnati), the location of the institute will allow participants the rare opportunity to combine a chronological look at Audubon's career with first-hand evidence.

High school teachers, from places including New York, Hawaii and Guatemala, with backgrounds as school librarians, science teachers and English teachers, among many others, will come away with ideas for bringing Audubon into their classrooms in a way that works at their school and with their subject.

"Biology teachers may consider including some art and literature in class about environmental awareness; it's more important now that we know some of the birds Audubon described are now extinct today," said Irmscher. "For art teachers, they may discuss 'How do you draw nature?' and 'What is an illustration?' One reason Audubon was not received so favorably by art historians is that the kind of thing he does is not considered original art; it's illustration. That's another topic -- is it art or scientific research?"

Irmscher, whose future projects will likely include a short history of 19th-century American poetry and a new Audubon edition in collaboration with the Field Museum, has become accustomed to being the "Audubon expert." He regularly gets e-mails wanting to know if Audubon really said some of the statements that are credited to him.

"In a lot of cases, he didn't," said Irmscher. "You look on the Internet and see all of these beautiful quotes, like 'A true conservationist knows that the world was not given to him by their fathers but borrowed from his children.' The word 'conservationist' is not even a 19th century word. There are so many other, beautiful quotes in his work that he did say, and I want people to re-discover them by reading Audubon's original work."

For more information about the Picturing James Audubon Institute, see

For more information on the NEH Picturing America series, see