September 2008 Issue
Modern Day Audubon
John Ruthven is widely respected as both a wildlife artist and a conservationist.
If the sight of a 10-year-old boy carrying a .22-caliber rifle and sketch pad concerned other passengers on the Cincinnati streetcar, they never mentioned it to him. After all, it was 1934, the height of the Great Depression. And if the boy with the mop of hair and big smile returned home from his adventures near the Ohio River with a brace of rabbits, more power to him. The sketchpad may have puzzled the passengers a bit more.
Whatever he hunted or fished or observed, the boy wanted to draw. Nature was art to him, and even at an early age, he wanted to be like his hero: John James Audubon, the 19th-century master of wildlife art.
“I wished I had been born a hundred years earlier so I could have floated down the river with Audubon on one of his expeditions,” says John Ruthven, still a little wistful, even after a career that has brought international acclaim, scores of friends and the unofficial title of modern-day Audubon. On the eve of his 84th birthday, however, the artist with the big smile and mop of hair is far too busy to reflect for long on the past.
“When I think about my career, I count my blessings. Every day’s an adventure,” he says. “When I get out of bed in the morning, I think ‘I’ve got to get busy on that new commission.’ As long as the commissions come in, I’ll continue to paint. I love what I do.”
He’s just returned to his Brown County farmhouse and studio after a brief break at a friend’s ranch in Montana. Three days of riding horses and punching cattle have Ruthven revved up for his current projects: completing a commissioned painting for the Hamilton County SPCA that will be used for fundraising, working on the next painting in his new series on wild turkeys, and preparing to teach an art seminar in Wyoming.
Teaching is something the prolific artist has come to more recently, although many artists already think of him as a mentor. “Teaching is such a great opportunity,” Ruthven says. “If you can impress your thoughts — in a positive way — on someone else who can go on from there, that’s a real gift.”
Although he’s too immersed in the present to think in terms of a legacy, those who know him say his influence on art and nature conservation is immense.
“John has used his art career as a pulpit for conservation. He’s been an amazing role model for other wildlife artists,” says DeVere Burt, a friend and colleague from Cincinnati. “The best advice John ever gave me was to paint what I love, paint what I know. Develop a strong emotional attachment to the subject. John immerses himself in the world of the creature he’s painting. That’s what Audubon did, what all truly great artists do.”
Part of Ruthven’s genius is that “he is a true nature artist, not just a wildlife artist,” adds Jim Berry, president of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Jamestown, N.Y. “He paints an entire scene. He puts the animal in the right habitat in the right season. John knows the animals as well as any field biologist does.”
Although Ruthven’s career has taken him around the world, it was in Ohio that he first learned to appreciate nature and how to study it. Those weekend excursions to the grassy thickets between Cincinnati’s city limits and the Ohio River gave him an early glimpse of nature’s variety. He spent most of his adolescence outside: hunting, fishing, building forts. “I’ve always said I’m a latent pioneer,” Ruthven admits.
Drafted into the Navy at age 18, he was soon traveling widely, seeing birds and aquatic life and creatures he had never experienced before. During World War II, he became art director for the Subchaser Training Center News and later served as a 2nd class petty officer on the destroyer escort, J.R.Y. Blakely.
After the service, he studied art at the Cincinnati Art Academy under the GI bill and then at the Central Academy of Commercial Art. As a commercial artist, he created the little boy who appeared on cans of Play-Doh in the 1950s. Advertising art provided a living, but Ruthven’s real love was still wildlife art, something that wasn’t yet very marketable. Then in 1960, he entered a painting of redheaded ducks in the National Duck Stamp contest. He won the contest and began pursuing wildlife art as a career.
Ruthven soon realized that to be a truly great wildlife painter, he had to know his subjects better. He began accompanying Emerson Kemsies, curator of an avian collection at the University of Cincinnati, to Grand Lake St. Marys in Auglaize and Mercer counties to study waterfowl. The lake was so rich in different species and subspecies that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Wildlife Division issued them a special permit to collect birds in the area. Ruthven then worked with Kemsies to prepare specimens for exhibit and curate the collection.
“You’ve got to make the bird as lifelike as possible without it being a photograph. You want to convey the feeling, the attitude of the subject to your viewers,” Ruthven says.Whether it’s the subtle beauty of ruffed grouse spreading its wings in a snowy woods or the placid faces of a pair of pandas or the vibrancy of royal terns against a royal blue ocean and icy white beach, Ruthven’s creatures are as inviting and accessible as the artist himself. Even the tiger he painted for the Cincinnati Bengals looks downright friendly.
That talent has brought Ruthven many honors over the years. His paintings hang in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Smithsonian Institution and the White House. His royal commissions include paintings for the late Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and Crown Prince Henri of Luxembourg. Even more meaningful to the former petty officer are the American bald eagle portraits he has painted for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
In 2004, the artist and his wife, Judy, met President George W. Bush when Ruthven received the National Medal of Arts Lifetime Honors. The prestigious award, managed by the National Endowment for the Arts, is given annually to a small number of individuals and organizations that have made outstanding contributions to the arts over their lifetimes. The award created a buzz in the art world because it was the first time a painter of wildlife had been recognized. (Famed painter Andrew Wyeth had to wait until 2007 to receive the same award.)
Another of Ruthven’s biggest thrills as an artist and conservationist came in the late 1980s on the Philippine island of Panay. He was part of a University of Cincinnati team doing the rarest kind of ornithological research: looking for a new species of bird that had reportedly been spotted in the islands. Audubon found and painted many bird species unknown to Europeans as he explored the American frontier, but discovering a new species today is rare. The team was several days into its most recent expedition and all was not going well. “We were dodging Communist insurrectionists who were roaming the mountains, armed with AK47s,” he recalls. “They weren’t kidding around.”
A rainstorm commenced, making the search even trickier. Then Ruthven spotted the bird in a nest. “I’ve dreamed of emulating Audubon and suddenly there I am, in the Philippines, spotting a new species — the Panay Striped-Babbler, sketching it while Devere Burt is covering us up from the rain. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Currently, Ruthven is on the trail of another rare bird — the ivory-billed woodpecker — that was declared extinct in 1943. He and a team of ornithologists, naturalists and other artists have made several trips to Arkansas and Florida to search for it. Ruthven himself caught a glimpse of the bird in the Florida panhandle, but photographs and DNA are needed to document the bird’s re-emergence. The artist plans to join the team on its next mission as well.
Conservation has been Ruthven’s primary cause for decades, and he feels even more urgency now to make the public aware of it. “Man is expanding into areas where he’s never lived before. The emergence of mountain lions into populated areas is an example here,” he notes. “As our population expands, the animals need places to live. In the Philippines, some species are literally being pushed into the ocean.”
Jim Berry says that Ruthven is exceptional among wildlife artists in taking action, having helped dozens of natural history organizations in Ohio and elsewhere, often quietly.
“Art can get you an audience but it takes your action to become credible as a conservationist. John’s career has been about trying to make people more aware of the natural world,” Berry says. “He does everything from planting trees to serving on fund-raising committees to donating his own time and money to help preserve nature.”
Ruthven’s most widely reproduced image has also done the most for Ohio conservation. That beautiful cardinal on your license plate was painted by Ruthven to benefit the ODNR’s Division of Wildlife. From 1997 through 2007, sales of the cardinal plate have raised nearly $7.5 million for wildlife diversity projects throughout the state.
“He’s my hero!” says Vicki Mountz, information and education administrator for the Division of Wildlife. “He’s contributed artwork for many of our publications ... We do lots of PR but words don’t give that same punch that great artwork does. He’s a proud Ohioan and a genuinely nice guy.”
Ruthven’s love for Ohio is a family trait. Forty years ago, his wife Judy — a Toledo native — took him to an antiques auction in Georgetown, the Brown County seat. The couple didn’t buy any antiques that day, but did buy the farm that has been their home ever since. Judy has become a respected preservationist, helping to place Georgetown’s historic downtown district on the National Register. She and her husband have also worked to preserve the boyhood home of Ulysses S. Grant in Georgetown, as well as the school that Grant attended. Both sites are open to the public.
Judy has given her husband several commissions over the years — painting her beloved feline pets. “Judy loves her cats,” he says affectionately. “Every time one dies, I paint a portrait. We have cat portraits all over the house.”
Prominent commission clients include Colonial Williamsburg, John Deere & Co., Procter & Gamble, the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum, and the Wilds conservation center in Muskingum County. But whether he’s working for a corporation or making little sketches for a friend’s children, Ruthven delights in creating art.
He grins when he recalls an elderly lady who walked into his former gallery in Georgetown. She was carrying a rectangular package and asked if he had a minute to talk with her. “She pulled out this package and said, ‘I can’t really use this anymore because I’ve had to give up driving, but I wonder if you could autograph it for me.’ It was the cardinal license plate. And, yes, I signed it.”
Audubon would have approved.