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On Exhibit: birds captured in the wild

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If the curse of portrait painters is human vanity, the curse of wildlife artists is verisimilitude. Though a wildlife artist will not become popular unless his work is aesthetically appealing, it will also never be respected unless it's scientifically accurate. In this century no one has done more to improve wildlife painting on both counts--and it has improved a lot--than Owen Gromme.

Gromme, who died last fall at age 95, was a Wisconsin native who devoted over 20 years to painting the portraits of every bird species indigenous to the state. The results were published in 1963 as the sumptuous volume Birds of Wisconsin, and many of the watercolor originals are now on display at the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

Gromme was a self-taught naturalist: he dropped out of high school to open his own taxidermy shop and never had any more formal schooling. After short stints at the Field Museum and in the Army during World War I, he landed a curatorial job at the Milwaukee Public Museum, where he remained for 43 years. In 1928 the museum sent him along on a two-year collecting trip to East Africa; as there was no money to hire an expedition artist, Gromme was charged with painting the animals collected. With his taxidermist's eye for detail, Gromme had a knack for recording the appearance of just-killed specimens (it's important that they be fresh kills, because the skin on many birds changes color soon after death).

Painting quickly evolved into a hobby and then a passion, and Gromme became one of those fortunate individuals with an entire new career to look forward to after retirement. Though he remained a curator at the museum until 1964, his artwork took on increased importance during the 1940s, when he began painting the plates for Birds of Wisconsin. Gromme set out to depict every native bird known to the state--323 in all, including the extinct passenger pigeon. On all but one of the 92 plates he used watercolors of only three pigments--yellow, blue, and crimson--creating any color he needed by laboriously blending the three.

After the book's publication the plates remained in storage; meanwhile Gromme's second career as a professional wildlife artist flourished--he received awards and commissions and remained active in art and conservation until his death. In 1989 the Milwaukee Public Museum put together the current traveling exhibit. The original paintings have lost none of their original luster. Gromme's meticulous brushwork reproduces the exact details of feathers and beaks. At times his intense colors--such as the scarlet of a male cardinal or rose-breasted grosbeak--seem to glow from within, with a translucence and lightness entirely appropriate to the subject.

Among other things, Gromme was instrumental in preserving Wisconsin's large Horicon Marsh as a refuge for nesting and migrating birds. Not coincidentally, he always created naturalistic settings for his paintings--he said that he wanted viewers to "gain a greater appreciation of that particular bird or animal's place in the scheme of things." The result is sometimes striking, as when he poses a pair of large pileated woodpeckers on a dead tree trunk in a boreal forest whose green conifers turn purple with distance--all under an orange sunset sky (it looks much better than it sounds). In a family portrait of ruby-throated hummingbirds, the shimmering wings blur and meld with the hazy green background of honeysuckle leaves.

"He was trying to get people to be more observant of their surroundings," says Marilyn Jacob Rodger, an illustrator and exhibit preparator at the Academy of Sciences.

"Owen Gromme's Birds of the Midwest" will be on display in the academy's third-floor exhibit hall through March 15. The academy, at 2001 N. Clark, is open 10 to 5 seven days a week; admission is $1 for adults, 50 cents for children, and free for members and on Mondays. For more information on the exhibit call 871-2668.

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