A Big Year: Avian Art in the Johnson Collection

TJC Gallery, Spartanburg, SC
April 19, 2023 – July 1, 2023

Whether lured by their intricate songs, intrigued by their ability to fly, or captivated by their colorful plumage, humans have long been enthralled by birds. Over the ages, this fascination has manifested itself in religion, myth, music, art, literature, décor, and design. Ornithology, the zoological study of birds, was once a chiefly academic endeavor. In the early twentieth century, however, the pursuit transformed into a recreational pastime, its popularity facilitated by the invention of telescopic lenses and illustrated field guides. During the global pandemic, amateur interest in birding soared, providing a visual and intellectual escape to people on lockdown. Within the ever-expanding birdwatching community, a friendly competition challenges hobbyists to identify—by sight and sound—the highest number of local bird species over a twelve-month span. The contest, known as “A Big Year,” breeds curiosity and encourages discovery. This exhibition echoes the “Big Year” ethos, inviting viewers to explore the vibrant intersection of art and nature as borne out in culture and on canvas.

Artistic depictions of birds—as symbols of freedom, power, wisdom, or peace—date to the dawn of civilization. Avian art advanced exponentially in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, thanks in large part to the painstaking work of dedicated naturalists like Alexander Wilson, John James Audubon, and Mark Catesby. Their bird illustrations, and those of their successors, grew increasingly realistic and detailed, valued for both their scientific significance and aesthetic appeal. Some artists collected field specimens, which were then posed post-mortem in a studio, as seen in Nature Morte: Purple Gallinule by George Viavant. Others executed active portrayals of avifauna observed in flight or native surrounds, such as Alice Ravenel Huger Smith’s Wood Ibis at Dawn. The ubiquitous presence of birds in Southern agrarian life is highlighted in Clementine Hunter’s Cotton Picking and Boyd SaundersSouthern Serves the South.

As contemporary culture confronts the dangers of climate change—and its threat to avian habitat, health, migration, and survival—humanity’s need to meaningfully connect with and to nature is acute. Author Flannery O’Connor famously collected peacocks on her Georgia farm, a flock that swelled to nearly one hundred birds at her death. “I intend to stand firm and let the peacocks multiply,” she wrote, “for I am sure that, in the end, the last word will be theirs.”

Featured artists include Josef Albers, Walter Anderson, Richard Bishop, Lucile Blanch, Warren Brandt, Carroll Cloar, August Cook, Ida Crawley, Howard Finster, Gina Gilmour, William Hawkins, Hattie Hill, Marie Hull, Clementine Hunter, Helen DuPré Moseley, Boyd Saunders, Walter Simon, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Gladys Nelson Smith, Anna Heyward Taylor, Walter Thompson, Mose Tolliver, George Viavant, Walter Williams, Mildred Wolfe, and Karl Zerbe.

View our exhibition programming here