NORMAN — George Miksch Sutton (1898-1982) or “Doc” as he was known to friends and colleagues was among the world’s most accomplished ornithologists. Most of his career was as a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma.
In addition to being a scientist, Sutton was also a fine artist who produced an amazingly large portfolio of work depicting the subjects of his study. OU’s Sam Noble Museum of Natural History is honoring Sutton’s legacy with an exhibition of his art that opens today.
On Friday, Sutton’s biographer, Jerome A. Jackson, Ph.D, delivered a lecture at the museum as part of the Sutton show’s opening reception. Jackson is the recently retired Whitaker Eminent Scholar and Professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.
His biography of George Miksch Sutton was published by the University of Oklahoma Press in April 2007.
Before Jackson’s remarks Museum Head of Exhibits Tom Luczycki addressed the crowd of members and people invited who had known Sutton. He credited Museum Media Specialist Michael McCarty with making it a very special exhibit because for him it was a passion.
Indeed it is an excellent collection of art displayed with finesse and attention to detail.
Works by Sutton include watercolor paintings of a curve-billed thrasher, plain chacalaca and crested guan. There was a vintage video tape of Sutton running in one corner explaining his techniques on expeditions to Mexico and the Arctic.
In one case is a worn leather portfolio marked “Pilot Navigation Kit” from his days as a 40-something officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII. Most of the exhibit is the very fine drawings and watercolors of the birds that Sutton devoted his life to studying.
Jackson spoke to Sutton’s life as a man, scientist and artist. He’d known him personally from when he was a student and Sutton was already an accomplished academic. Jackson recalled a time they’d discovered a dead yellow billed cuckoo in the road on the way home from campus and Sutton retrieved it for study.
“Doc asked me if I knew how to prepare a study skin and said we should sit down and do it,” Jackson said.
The creature was dissected in short order over lunch. Jackson detailed Sutton’s life from earliest childhood to his death in 1982. At age 13 in rural Nebraska a friendly local physician had recognized his young neighbor’s artistic talent and encouraged him by paying a penny each for sketches. Images of several of Sutton’s early nature magazine covers were projected on a screen along with his first book cover titled “Eskimo Year” published in 1934.
Jackson noted the unique accuracy Sutton displayed in his paintings with an eye for light and keen awareness of subtle differences in birds’ feather colors.
His career wasn’t limited to just fine art and academics.
Sutton also had a gig drawing fish for a series of trading cards called “The World of Nature” that was produced by Coca Cola Corporation in the late 1940s.
Little of his fine art was ever sold by dealers and Jackson related a woman telling him that her family owned an original Sutton painting. He asked how they’d come to acquire it.
“She said her father-in-law had been Sutton’s physician when he’d been at Cornell University,” Jackson said.
The doctor was an amateur calligrapher and showed Sutton some of his work.
A trade was worked out wherein Sutton painted a border of chipmunks, turtles and goldfinches around the “Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi” in calligraphy. And that was the original work that the woman’s family owns.
The prayer is one that asks God to guard with tenderness the small creatures of the world that have not words. Highly appropriate because it was tenderness for the little beasties in deed and art that Sutton devoted an entire lifetime to.
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