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Renowned Nature Artist's Work On Display At IUAM

Last updated on Sunday, June 24, 2012

(BLOOMINGTON) - Those who love birds and art should plan a visit to the Indiana University Art Museum to see five original paintings of woodpeckers by William Zimmerman.

Zimmerman was a renowned Brown County nature artist, beloved and respected by the local birding community and beyond, and now honored by the local art museum.

The museum owns all 25 original acrylic-on-paper paintings of woodpeckers of North America Zimmerman produced for Arthur Cleveland Bent's "Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers," published in 1992. The artist died last November at age 74.

Zimmerman's paintings aren't usually on display at the museum. "All works on paper are vulnerable to light exposure," said Nan Brewer, curator of works on paper for the museum.

The five paintings on display through Sept. 9 are ivory billed, Lewis's and Harris' hairy woodpecker, gilded flicker and red-naped sapsucker, with rufous hummingbird as a bonus, birds not found in Indiana. (Harris' is the Pacific Coast variety of hairy woodpecker.)

Brewer said anyone who wishes to see the other 20 original woodpecker paintings may make an appointment to do so by calling her at 812-855-1040, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m Mondays through Fridays. The original paintings Zimmerman produced for "The Birds of Indiana" are on permanent display on the walls of Jordan Hall, near the atrium, Brewer said.

The art museum is showing the paintings because of Zimmerman's recent death, and because "he is an important regional artist," she said. He was one of the nation's premier bird artists, having also contributed art for "The Birds of Ohio," "The Birds of Illinois," "The Birds of Kentucky," and "Waterfowl of North America."

"He really knew his birds," Brewer said. "He wanted (his paintings) to be truthful and factual, but also to be beautiful art." The result is a combination of scientific information -- accurate portrayal of each bird in its natural habitat -- as well as artistic beauty, Brewer said. His paintings appeal to art lovers because of the beauty of his design, she said, and of course, they appeal to birders because of the subject matter.

For artists and art lovers who are also birders, Zimmerman was a giant. And he was local -- a friend to many.

To local nature artist Jeffrey Belth, Zimmerman was a mentor who became a friend. "I don't remember when I first met Bill, but it was probably on the first Lake Monroe Christmas Bird Count, in December of 1976," Belth wrote in a tribute to Zimmerman published in The Leaflet, Sassafras Audubon Society's newsletter. At the time, Belth was 13, a new birder and an aspiring artist. "My first impression of Bill was his amazing hearing. He was one of the first people I birded with who could identify birds solely by ear," Belth recalled.

Zimmerman grew up in a family of sportsmen, Belth said, and used his lifelong field experience with the birds to paint them accurately in their habitats. He also used study skins for reference, some prepared from birds he had shot himself or found as road kill. Others were obtained from museums. "This direct contact with the birds gave his work a level of accuracy rarely seen in bird art. It also gave him an encyclopedic knowledge of plumage and molting patterns," Belth said. "On several occasions I showed him feathers I had found and he was invariably able to tell me not only the species of bird, but where on the bird the feather came from, and the sex and age of the bird."

Zimmerman helped Belth improve as an artist, and shared his design technique: "Do you draw on vellum? I draw each component of a composition on separate pieces of vellum, then just slide the sheets of vellum around until I have the arrangement I like," Zimmerman told Belth. "Every piece of art I have created since then, regardless of medium, has started with sketches on vellum," Belth says.

Belth's own "The Butterflies of Indiana: A Field Guide" will be published in early 2013 by Indiana University Press. "Very few of us have the talent -- and the dedication required to perfect it -- to bring beauty into the world," Belth writes in The Leaflet. "Bill, however, through his talent and dedication to his craft, brought more beauty into the world than anyone I've ever known. Also, through his art and his willingness to share and pass on knowledge, Bill did even more -- he showed countless people that Earth's beauty was everywhere around them, waiting to be seen, and taught them how to see it."

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