The art of not being famous

Last Friday night I sat down to check email one more time before relaxing for the evening. There was a message from a website called FineArtAmerica. A woman named Delinda was writing to inquire about a painting that she owns. This is what she wrote:

Good day,
I am inquiring about this magnificent print of yours, titled on back in handwritten notecard, reads:
Great Horned Own with Red Phase Ruffed Grouse. 3/5 life size.
Curious, it says ’78 perhaps as a date? I can send pics if you need to see it, hoping to get more info about who it may have been commissioned for, or if its just a random print?  I love it so much, its so lifelike it scares my cat lol.
Thanks in advance,
Delinda

This is a watercolor painting of mine from 1978. I produced it and sold it during a show in the Preus Library at Luther College just before Christmas.

The painting was a labor of love a long time ago. It bears similarities to a watercolor by an artist that I admired and emulated. His name was Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of the greatest bird artists that ever lived. I’d gone to Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology to study the work of Fuertes and other great bird artists. I did my best to absorb what I could from studying their work close up.

My aspirations were to become as great a bird artist as I could. This particular portrait was a refinement of an earlier study I had done. I also executed an ink drawing of the same pose. But the pose originated from a painting I produced as a freshman in college from a stuffed great horned owl borrowed from the biology lab. That painting copied the mussed up feathers verbatim, a condition that a live owl would never likely allow to happen.

The great horned owl painting produced in 1975 from a stuffed specimen.

When I showed the 1975 painting to Dr. Lancaster, the Director of Laboratory of Ornithology, he blurted, “That’s some of the finest featherwork I’ve seen.” I took that as a kind compliment. Clearly he saw my potential, but also noted that much further study of birds was in order to become a fully accomplished bird painter.

That I continued to do. But the challenge was finding suitable resources. I’d learned taxidermy in college, but it was illegal to collect and own dead birds of any kind. Still, I collected specimens and kept them in our second freezer for reference. I owned a camera with a 300mm lens but never seemed to get good quality photos to copy. Plus it takes years or genius to absorb and render the “true” lines and forms of birds in the wild.

The years passed and I produced hundreds of paintings of varying quality for patrons public and private. Almost all of those are in the possession of people whose whereabouts I do not know. Occasionally I’ll be contacted by someone who wants to know if I’m still painting. We have a good chat and they send me a picture of the painting they own. That makes me feel good. Someone prizes a bit of my work.

I’ve even gotten calls from strangers who came into possession of one of my paintings. One of them started our phone conversation with a question, “Are you famous?” They’d picked up one of my watercolors at a garage sale of a couple getting a divorce (I remember the couple) and wanted to know if the painting they’d purchased for $25 was worth a bunch of money. “I hate to disappoint you,” I related. “But I’m not famous.”

Last year a friend found one of my paintings at an antique shop in Michigan. They were browsing the store and saw a painting of an eagle that I’d painted long ago. I’d done the work on commission for Robert Van Kampen, a patron who went on to sell his investment company to Xerox for $400 million. He hired me to do a series of hawk paintings when I was 18 years old. Somehow it escaped his estate and has been kicking around antique shops the last forty years.

Last Friday night, I wrote back to my new friend Delinda thanking her for getting in touch with me about the owl painting from ’78. She explained how she came to own it.

“So happy to hear from you! I live in San Diego, ocean beach, and people leave things in alleys all the time. The owl I’m guessing was from someone older who may have passed away. I’ve had it for about 5 years now. It was in an alley for about ten seconds before I grabbed it, others really wanted it too but I won lol. I knew it was special, and would be happy to return to you if you’d like it, or donate to the school or elsewhere that might appreciate it. Otherwise, I will cherish it forever, as I love owls and birds! XO”

I told her that I wanted her to keep it for as long as she wanted it. We agreed that if I get out to visit my son in Venice, California, we’d get together as friends and share a drink by the ocean.

That’s the most an artist can hope for in some ways. That the work builds connections. I’ll not pretend that I became one of the world’s greatest bird artists as I once believed was possible. But I also haven’t quit. These days, with the camera and lens I now own, and ability to collect good reference material, my work has improved and continues to do so.

I may never be a Louis Agassiz Fuertes. No one ever will. But I can be the best Christopher Cudworth that I can be. That’s the art of not being famous. And that’s the right kind of pride.

Painted in 2015 from a photo of a great horned own at a local forest preserve. The composition is fuller. The rhythms of the bark and the markings on the owl match.

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