April 2010 Issue
Our Lady of the Birds
Julie Zickefoose chronicles her close encounters with various feathered friends and other wildlife of southeast Ohio.
It's a cold and rainy Sunday morning in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio. The mid-January sky is gray, the trees are bare, and a few patches of snow still cling to the surrounding hills after a heavy snowfall a couple of weeks earlier. Despite the weather, Julie Zickefoose stands at the top of a 42-foot tower built onto her house in the town of Whipple, located just northeast of Marietta. The tower overlooks the 80-acre wildlife sanctuary that she and her husband and two children call home.
“Imagine this view on a morning in May,” she tells a visitor, ignoring the clouds, the drizzle and the cold. “Or a late afternoon in October.”
For all of her optimism, there’s something wrong with this picture — something that doesn’t make sense in the middle of January. And yet it’s the same thing that gives the picture hope. It’s the birds. Scores of them, darting around the perimeter of the house — colorful things whose individual species are beyond the ken of her suburbanite guest from the crowded northeast corner of the state.
Birds. In January. They’re here by warm invitation, and like every other critter roaming the nearby hills, they’re always welcome. There are bird feeders mounted everywhere — near every window and door of the house and its surrounding structures. In fact, the tower itself was constructed as a means to watch them.
Observation, after all, is the first step in any artistic endeavor. Zickefoose has been painting birds and other wildlife since she was 5. She’s been doing it professionally for more than 30 years, and some of her best work can be found in Letters from Eden, a compilation of essays and illustrations that capture the essence of her relationship with the animal world that exists just outside her front door.
By the time the book was published in 2006, she had already filled her resume with three decades’ worth of illustration work for a long list of clients: National Geographic Books, The New Yorker, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bird Watcher’s Digest, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and many others.
“My work has always been about natural history,” she says. “It’s always been something that walks, crawls, swims or flies — or grows out of the ground. I’ve done some technical renderings of bird feeders, but you have to keep me interested. There has to be a bird or an animal involved somehow.”
Inside, Zickefoose gives her visitor a tour of her studio, a crowded but inviting place full of the typical artist’s paraphernalia — along with the not-so-typical chestnut-fronted macaw named Charlie, who is perched in a corner of the room. Inside a large cabinet are scores of finely detailed drawings and brilliantly colored paintings that capture birds and other wildlife in moments of exquisite natural beauty and sublime grace.
A watercolor vignette of a bird or other animal generally takes her about a day. A more elaborate painting of a bird in its habitat, from planning to execution, takes closer to a week. For Zickefoose, painting birds is as much about context as it is about the subjects themselves.
“I start by asking myself some very basic questions: ‘Are we backlit? Are we mysterious and obscure? Are we harshly lit and everything is in stark relief? What’s the mood?’ ” she says. “What you take away from a painting is not how many barbules are on a feather. What you take away is how you felt when you looked at it. And that’s true of a piece of writing as well. You can completely forget the specifics, but if you don’t have a compelling mood in the piece, then forget it.”
She says the shift away from the minute details in favor of the overall mood is the result of middle age taking its toll on her 51-year-old eyes, but Russell Greenberg, director and founder of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., gives her more credit.
“Julie’s keen naturalist’s eye for bird behavior sets her apart from other illustrators who get every single feather right, but don’t get the overall feel for what the bird looks like in its natural setting,” says Greenberg. “I have tremendous respect for her, because she has so many different talents, and her personality is so upbeat and positive that you can’t help but be receptive to the message within her work. She comes across as someone who really enjoys nature, and that can be infectious.”
An early source of inspiration for Zickefoose was a five-acre woodland behind her childhood home in Richmond, Virginia. In high school, she was enrolled in a program for gifted young artists, and she completed her first professional illustrating jobs while still an undergraduate at Harvard University, where she studied biological anthropology.
Artist as Writer
An even balance of text and illustrations, Letters from Eden represents her increased focus on writing as well as painting in recent years. The essays within are culled from eight years’ worth of “Watcher in the Window,” a monthly column she wrote for Backyard Bird Newsletter, a supplement to Bird Watcher’s Digest.
“It’s a very accessible way to write a book,” she says. “The prose is already written, and then you say, ‘OK, I have to illustrate this.’ I raided my files for a lot of the illustrations. They were in sketchbooks and paintings I had done previously — often for their own sake. And then I did a number of the illustrations just for the book to illustrate key passages.”
A second book is in the works. It’s a memoir about a lifetime spent helping birds — either raising them from nestlings or rescuing those that are injured — and she hopes to have it published as early as this fall. In the meantime, she maintains a blog (juliezickefoose.blogspot.com) about her encounters with not just birds but land and sea creatures of every kind. A few two-legged friends — especially her husband Bill Thompson III, who is editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, or her two children, 13-year-old Phoebe and 10-year-old Liam — occasionally get a mention as well.
Since 2005, she has contributed audio essays to National Public Radio about her experiences with nature. In any given segment, she talks about rescuing a wren trapped in a carpet warehouse, the beauty of Boston terriers (despite many people’s opinions to the contrary), a close encounter with an otter (and the scar to prove it) during a trip down the Amazon, or her decade-long relationship with a box turtle that frequently emerges from the woods to visit her house.
“I think part of the appeal has to do with the fact that I’m from Appalachian Ohio,” she says. “It’s a part of the country that generally doesn’t get heard from. I talk about things like bullfrogs that eat hummingbirds — the kinds of things that most people don’t know about. There’s a whole segment of society here that people aren’t familiar with, but they want to hear about it.”
She states her artistic philosophy clearly and simply in the preamble to her blog: “I hope to show what happens when you make room in your life, every day, for the things that bring you joy. Strange … most of them are free.”
For as simple as it may sound, it’s a perspective that took some soul searching to develop. “I’d been blogging for a year or two before I came up with that,” she says, “but I looked back and thought, ‘You know, I could blog about “American Idol.” I could blog about my new car. But why not just write about what’s important to me?’ What’s important to me are the connections between people and animals, people and people. It’s all free. All the good stuff is free. I think people take refuge in that, because they realize that there’s this beauty all around them, all the time.”
To learn more about Julie Zickefoose’s books and artwork, visit juliezickefoose.com.