This past weekend, West Feliciana Parish (a Louisiana county) hosted the first of what is hoped will be an Annual John James Audubon Symposium. As with so many other events of this kind, COVID delayed the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the 1821 summer during which Audubon painted a large number of his famous bird pictures here in the St. Francisville area of Louisiana. Feliciana is a Spanish and Latin-derived word which means happy, and Audubon -we are told- was indeed well-pleased and contented by his time here to study and portray an amazing number of birds that still inhabit this region, whether by seasonal migration or by providing year-round company to local human residents.
The inspiration for this festival was provided in large part by local and regional historian, David Floyd, whose recent premature death added a special poignancy to the symposium. He had provided a succinct but heartfelt introduction to a beautiful little booklet, titled Audubon & Louisiana: 200 Year Love Story. David’s nuanced sense of Audubon’s place in the history of this region, and his perhaps Audubon-inspired vision for the future was captured for us by the author and presenter, Danny Heitman. Heitman noted how often David would begin a sentence with the word, imagine. “Imagine this…” or “imagine that…,” David would often say, and then invite a sense of possibility within his listeners. This led Heitman to observe something that may have been true of both David Floyd and John James Audubon. It is how a genuine sense of wonder about the world around us instills a sincere humility, and how both then lead to wisdom.
Danny Heitman’s book, A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House, is focused on that seminal 1821 summer during which Audubon discovered and then came to love West Feliciana Parish. During his presentation, Heitman commended three themes that help us appreciate the unique sensitivity of Audubon’s perception and artistic vision that so profoundly shaped his subsequent life’s work.
For Audubon, ‘nature was a verb,’ and something to be portrayed as alive with activity rather than displayed in a static, ‘pinned butterfly,’ way. In so many Audubon paintings, we find the birds pursuing what they might prey upon, or eluding what may be seeking to pursue them.
Second, and especially as assisted by his young associate, James Mason, Audubon was as attentive to the characteristic flora where he found his birds as he was to the birds themselves. Thus, the plants, shrubs and trees of this region are an intrinsic part of each composition.
And third, Audubon’s paintings were huge in size, and dramatic in the extent of their detail and range of color, and thus very compelling to viewers when they were first displayed. One contemporary commentator has likened their effect upon folks in early 19th century London as likely to have been akin to the remarkable effect upon first time viewers of movies in modern IMAX theaters.
We can be grateful, on this extended bicentennial celebration of Audubon’s summer at Oakley, for guides like David Floyd and Danny Heitman. For they help us see, and perceive more appreciatively, the immensely beautiful 200 year old bird paintings of John James Audubon as assisted by James Mason.
Pictured above is Audubon’s painting of the Louisiana or Tricolored Heron.