Birds of a Feather Flock Together

by Jenna Riehl

Birds of a Feather is an exhibit featured at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts until June 24, 2012. John Costin shows his hand-colored etchings next to John James Audubon’s lithograph collection from the 19th century. These works are over a century apart but still very similar. Both Costin’s and Audubon’s prints required much skill and knowledge. In depicting these specific birds in their natural habitats, Costin breathes new life into Audubon’s works making them a part of the contemporary world of art. John Costin employs a number of techniques in his own prints which appear to emulate Audubon’s prints along with the purpose behind Audubon producing his prints.

John James Audubon was a naturalist, painter, and ornithologist from the 1800’s. His fascination with American birds began his collection of drawings and paintings of the birds of America in their natural setting. His major work was titled The Birds of America, a color-plated book known to be one of the best ornithological works ever completed. [1] In this book, Audubon distinguishes 25 species and many new subspecies. He studied and published writings and drawings about 497 species of birds in America in animated life-like poses. When producing the prints and his book, Audubon insisted on making the images oversized for dramatic grandeur.

John James Audubon, Black-bellied Darter (common name: Anhinga), pl. 316, lithograph from the 1971 Theatrum, Orbis Terrarum, Amsterdam, reprint of the original Birds of America publication (1826-38), with engravings by Robert Havell, On loan from Kalamazoo College

In this KIA exhibit, contemporary artist John Costin was influenced by Audubon’s The Birds of America in two ways. The first is the purpose of Audubon’s research and fascination with American birds. The second is the way Audubon accomplished his purpose: large scale printmaking. Costin accomplishes his goal but his prints lack the innovation and novelty that make Audubon’s prints more appealing. Audubon’s prints and research were generated first, over a century ago. John Costin is obviously a bird enthusiast, but primarily a contemporary artist. The exhibit shows his love for the natural beauty of birds and the influence Audubon has had on him.

Costin is from Florida with a background in contemporary art. John Costin is also an extreme bird enthusiast. “Through my art, I strive to capture and I personify birds, enriching the viewers perception of this particular form of wildlife which they may rarely have an opportunity to intimately experience.” [2] He has studied these birds like Audubon did, but cannot measure up to Audubon’s research or be the original ornithologist from the 19th century.

John Costin presented his works in the Birds of a Feather exhibit side by side with John Audubon’s. Both artists try to simulate encountering one of these species in the wild. Costin and Audubon have a similar understanding of how they believe these birds should be represented. Both artists highlight the necessity of portraying the species in their natural habitat. They have a shared appreciation and interest in North American birds. The insistence on large-scale prints by both artists is notable because they both use prominent printing techniques of their respective times. Costin and Audubon may have made their prints by hand, but Audubon furthered his process by publishing his lithographs in his book, accompanying his research.

As the North American frontier has slowly been transforming in the past two centuries, Costin must face a distinct difference when attempting to recreate Audubon’s motivation behind natural habitats. Costin’s representations of this century’s bird habitats come from an increasingly modern standpoint. Costin displays this modernism through the use of brighter, more vibrant colors in his prints. This gives his works a much more animated feel, while Audubon’s prints have duller coloring with a little more depth. Audubon uses more shadowing and the image of blood in a few of his prints, but these details are not as present in Costin’s. Blood is prevalent on many of Audubon’s bird’s claws as well as mixed in the feathering. Some of the species that Audubon researched have since been labeled as endangered, extinct, or simply living in different or reduced habitats. However, nearly all of the species utilized in this exhibit can still be found in North America, often in new habitats or with much smaller population sizes. [3]

John Costin, Anhinga, 1998, hand-colored etching from the Large Florida Birds portfolio. Collection of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Gift of Brent Garback and Linda Tremblay

Today’s adaptation that Costin provides in his exhibit reminds me of when National Geographic published photographs of today’s big cityscapes, compared with what that specific land looked like before western culture inhabited it. The article in National Geographic talked about how we treasure our own mastery of civilization but we will always appreciate the natural beauty of untouched or fresh land. [4] The evolving cityscapes are a good representation of how the progression of a culture influences how it functions internally and has been interpreted from external perspectives. As culture progresses in North America, ecosystems have been and will be altered. By comparing depictions of birds in a relatively untouched North America to depictions of birds living in modern America, Costin’s work subtly shows how culture has spilled into the bird’s habitats. This idea led me to a book called The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography by Katherine Harmon. [5] Maps have always been considered an art form but at the beginning of cartography, maps were extremely inaccurate. Today, we are able to use satellite technology and reproduce these to an exact measure. This process of evolution will continue on throughout the ages just as it has in the past with every type of transforming life. This relates to John Costin’s bird exhibit because there is a distinct focus on how nature changes from decade to decade, and in this case century to century.


[1] John J. Audubon, The Birds of America, 7 vols. (Edinburgh: n.p., 1827-1838).

[2] John Costin, Intaglio – Expressions of the Avian World, 2009, [Accessed: 1 May 2012].

[3] “Birds of a Feather,” Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, [Accessed: 1 May 2012].

[4] Peter Miller, “Before New York,” National Geographic (Sept. 2009).

[5] Katherine Harmon, The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography (New York: Princeton Architechtural Press, 2009).


One thought on “Birds of a Feather Flock Together

  1. Pingback: Birds in Art 2011: the KIA’s kitsch wildlife exhibit « comment with a K

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