Perhaps Maria Osorio’s name one day will be included among the listing of such great artists as John James Audubon.
She’s already on her way.
“I learned today that the story of what your painting is just as important as the subject,” the 14-year-old said while wandering through the West Baton Rouge Museum exhibit “Wildlands: Thomas Cole and the Birth of American Landscape Painting.”
Osorio is an eighth-grader in the Talented Arts program at Brusly Middle School. She and 31 classmates in the program, along with 13 students in Brusly High School’s Talented Arts program, attended a show by actor and storyteller Brian “Fox” Ellis at the museum on Friday.
Ellis tells the stories of several historical figures by acting out their characters. His specialty is artist and naturalist John James Audubon, whose work is included in the West Baton Rouge Museum’s exhibit.
The museum also is hosting a Saturday program where Ellis will lead a group of visitors on a birdwatching tour at the Audubon State Historic Site near St. Francisville, where Audubon tutored Eliza Pirrie, of Oakley Plantation, in summer 1821 while working on his “Birds of America” series.
But the museum’s Friday program was different. Ellis, in character, not only told the Brusly students Audubon’s story but taught them how to study nature, particularly birds.
“It was amazing,” said Kim Kennedy, a Talented Arts teacher at Brusly Middle School. “I have never seen a group of middle school and high school students so engaged in a program. He had their attention, and they were interested in everything he said.”
Osorio was surprised by the lecture.
“We didn’t know what it was going to be, but it was really interesting,” she said.
Osorio plans to major in art in college, her main interest being portraits. She and her classmates were handed paper and pencils after Ellis’ program and asked to draw a scene from one of the paintings and prints hanging in the “Wildlands” exhibit.
“I’ve thought about nature art, and I almost started drawing birds at one time,” she said. “But I still drew portraits. It’s what I do best. But after this program, I will look at my surroundings.”
That is Ellis’ mission as Audubon.
He dressed in the naturalist’s trademark buckskin jacket and spoke in front of a backdrop of Aububon prints, telling the students not only a first-person account of Audubon’s boyhood in France but his lifelong interest in nature.
Ellis encouraged students to dig deeper into their environment.
“If you can name a bird, does that mean you know the bird?” he asked. “No. You have to look at its beak to learn how it eats and its wing span to find out if it’s built for speed or soaring or agility. Are their feet webbed or clawed? How do they build their nests and how many eggs do they lay? And you have to look at the environment where they live.”
Ellis pointed out that Audubon always included birds’ natural environments in his “Birds of America” series.
“I tried to capture the story and the drama of every bird I painted,” he said in character. “During the spring migration on one good day, alone, you can count 100 species of birds along the Mississippi River. If you only know their names, do you really know them?”
Ellis challenged the students to choose one bird and learn everything about it.
“It’s a homework assignment, but it’s the fun kind of homework, because you don’t have to do it,” he said. “But I encourage you to do it. Learn everything you can about that bird, then pick one bird a year to learn about after that. Draw it, and draw the terrain in which it lives. Tell the story about your favorite bird through one work of art.”
Ellis said afterward that he began lecturing as Audubon after realizing that he had been following Audubon’s footsteps.
“I’d traveled the same places that Audubon had traveled, and I loved the outdoors,” he said. “I knew the director of a museum who was having an Aububon exhibit, and I told her I would love to do a program as Audubon. It was also the 100th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System, so I was able to get a grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for my programs.”
That was 15 years ago. Now Ellis works through his own business, Fox Tales International, telling not only Audubon’s story but those of Charles Darwin, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Wilhelm Grimm and Civil War soldiers. He is based in Bishop Hill, Illinois.
“I make at least one trip to Louisiana each year,” he said. “Audubon kept journals, and I’m following them. I also use Danny Heitman’s book, ‘A Summer of Birds,’ about Audubon’s summer at Oakley. That book has been great in my research. I love programs that bring art, science and history together, and this program does that.”
Heitman is a columnist for The Advocate.
The program inspired Osorio, who walked away from the program with a different perspective of art and nature.
“Even though I like to paint faces, I will look more at the things around them,” she said. “It’s about telling the story.”