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At the FAC, what started with John James Audubon comes full circle via Kevin Sloan

Martha died at 1 o'clock in the afternoon of Sept. 1, 1914.

Found at the bottom of her enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens, she was believed to be 29 years old. Her body was promptly iced, then stuffed for permanent display in the Smithsonian.

Less than a century before, hundreds of thousands had blackened skies over America. Now, with endling Martha gone, the extinction of the passenger pigeon was totally complete.

One hundred years later, Denver artist Kevin Sloan was in his studio thinking about her death, and he wanted to create something to commemorate the anniversary. "It's a story that most of us don't know," he says, "and it's an old story."

In "The Ascension of Martha," Sloan painted a neo-Baroque shrine, in which two passenger pigeons — based on one image captured by John James Audubon back in the early 19th century — stand on a pedestal in front of a painting of a landscape and a red velvet curtain. There's a broken clock and a small "1914" inscribed on the painting's frame.

Generally, Sloan, 56, goes for a more timeless, universal approach. He also, when appropriating the work of Audubon, prefers to depict the birds as closely as possible to the way Audubon did. Yet Audubon's Ectopistes migratorius showed a pair, one feeding the other. To Sloan, the birds had to be separated somehow, per the reality of Martha's story, so he painted one as if it was made from fine china, glazed a fair white under flowery blue toile.

"I treated it like a memento," Sloan says, "like a souvenir that you'd buy at the gift shop: 'Oh, then there's these beautiful painted china figurines we can get of passenger pigeons,' you know. ... Also those figurines, in china and porcelain, to me, are a very powerful symbol of fragility, so I wanted it to be this fragile, delicate thing, and yet it can't sustain [Martha]. It's useless to her, basically."

In the days of artist/ornithologist/marksman Audubon, so abundant were Martha's ancestors that they were fed on a commercial scale to slaves. The overwhelming nature of their numbers was matched only by their staggering slaughter, by net, gun and fire.

That was not Audubon's immediate concern. The intrepid artist was instead working long hours on Birds of America, a vast undertaking to catalog hundreds of species from that time in America for the general public. Audubon would strike out during the dawn and dusk hours, hunting his prey. After killing them with fine shot, he'd take each prize back home and arrange its body in a naturalistic position, though to today's viewers those positions appear more dynamic than natural.

He aimed to have the bird take up as much of the composition as possible — the first Birds of America, the Double Elephant Folio, was to be somewhat life-sized — but also to leave room for depictions of its habitat, its predators or prey.

Birds of America was a tough sell; for one thing, it was too expensive for many U.S. takers. Several years, investors and changes later put Birds of America in England, to be printed by noted father-and-son engravers, the Havells, between 1827 and 1838. Finally, it became a huge success.

The following century saw Audubon's passing in 1851, the organization of the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1896, and then Martha's death. Audubon's works grew in value among collectors and institutions in the U.S. In the 1950s, a large gift of Havell Edition prints came to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. More Audubon gifts would later arrive, and live quietly in the FAC coffers, with only a small appearance here and there. Until now.

Opening this week, A Naturalist & an Artist unveils quite a bit more of the FAC's collection: Sloan and executive museum director and chief curator Blake Milteer together hand-picked about 45 prints from the institution's 197. "Kevin and I chose a variety, so some of them feel like portraits," Milteer says. "Some of them do have a definite narrative sensibility to them. ... Some of them there are a direct correlation to Kevin's works that are in the show, like ... Audubon's passenger pigeons."

As they worked, Sloan could get right up close to the prints he has long studied, and without the hindrance of protective glass or guards, observe the prints' ultra-fine quality: the barbs on each feather so delicately conveyed in confident lines; the colors, added by hand, faded hardly if at all. Here and there, the engravers allowed the tip of a wing feather, or the tiniest edge of a beak, to break the borders of the print. It's a modern touch, and a display of extra loving labor.

In this show, you'll find Audubon engravings, aquatints and chromolithographs from several editions, and they're kind of like drawings turned up to 11 — retaining the spontaneity and expressiveness of the originals, but with the engraving process lending extra brightness, clarity and sharpness.

This is why the works can function both as a scientific record and fine art: The details are all there as Audubon the scientist demanded, but they're handled with a designer's eye to make them also stunningly beautiful. Some are moody and atmospheric when they don't have to be. Others are visually jarring, even disturbing, and they don't have to be that, either.

Sloan is very good at what he does. His technique is exquisite, his use of color lush but balanced. Today, it's fashionable to veer away from representational art, or anything unironic; Sloan creates as if the trends never occurred. But he is glad he doesn't have to approach his art with a scientist's eye. He likes birds, but confesses he sometimes gets in trouble with bird people on specifics.

Nonetheless, in many ways, Sloan sees himself picking up where Audubon left off. Where Audubon took the commonplace and elevated it, Sloan pushes further, into the realm of the legendary. Martha, as part of an extinct race, has become mythical, and Sloan's sumptuous style — displayed on canvases that can stretch up to seven feet high — suits such a situation.

"I feel like almost a responsibility to keep reminding people," he says of the natural world's allure, adding, "I think the way I need to go about doing is through some quirky, unexpected means. And that's why my work looks the way it does, full of metaphors and allegories and storytelling."

"I think there's a hint of surrealism in the works," Milteer says of Sloan's acrylic paintings. "There's definitely some symbolism ... All of them have titles that very much suggest a narrative component. And of course that was not unlike what Audubon was doing as well. He was — in suggesting the environs and dietary habits, sometimes hunting habits, of the birds — essentially giving you a narrative. He's placing you in their world, and that's a big part of what Kevin is doing here with narrative."

See, for instance, "Admit One," made for this show. Based on Audubon's "Sandhill Crane," which will be on display as well, Sloan has taken the bird from its flock in a tributary and mounted it on a large stump. Wildflowers and urban-garden varieties bloom from the stump and ornament the crane, which is tangled in a red ribbon of "admit one" tape.

"The concept for me was to create this noble portrait of what I feel is a very exotic-looking bird, and at the same time address the issue of habitat that's shrinking for it. We give them fewer and fewer places so they feel safe and can be seen ... and so he's on this little pedestal, and the idea is we get to go see these birds at these preserves, so we have to pay admission."

Sloan hesitates to make much political or ecological commentary in the majority of his work. Mostly he wants to honor what is beautiful in the wilds on Earth. Yet as human encroachment grows, so do the modern elements that Sloan once swore he never would add to his creations: the tape, or orange extension cords.

"It's important for me to acknowledge that there are these conflicts, or at best, there are these situations happening, that are maybe tenuous sometimes, between the natural world and a technological, power-hungry world," he says. "What would that look like in the form of a visual, poetic image?"

It looks a lot like a little pigeon named Martha.

  • At the FAC, what started with John James Audubon comes full circle via Kevin Sloan

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