NORMAN — Today’s animal biologists live in an age almost totally dependent on digital imagery to record and store their observations. University of Oklahoma Professor Emeritus George M. Sutton (1898-1982) was an ornithologist decidedly of an era past. He was a life-long observer of birds who handpainted his subjects in watercolor and drew their likenesses with pen and ink.
An exhibition of Sutton’s extraordinary pictures of birds and other wildlife go on display at OU’s Sam Noble Museum of Natural History Jan. 18 to April 20.
“There will be 73 of his watercolor paintings,” said Michael McCarty, museum media specialist. “Along with several of Sutton’s personal items from his expeditions.”
Among those artifacts from Sutton’s life is a paint box given to him in 1916 by his mentor and famed bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes. The container for paints and brushes was used throughout his entire lifetime of expeditions across North America and into the Arctic wilderness.
“All watercolors on display are from the Sam Noble Museum collection,” McCarty said.
A few of the works depict other varieties of wildlife. They are all incredibly detailed portraits depicted as Sutton saw them in their natural habitat.
“A couple are of fish and there’s one of a wolf,” Museum Head of Exhibits Tom Luczycki said. “All the rest are birds.”
Mostly Sutton stalked his fine feathered friends in Mexico and the Arctic. In one water color a snowy white gyrfalcon with elegant gray feather highlights is perched vigilantly on a boulder by the sea. Sutton signed most works and some are dated. A few note where the painting was done such as on still-uninhabited Jenny Lind Island in Canada’s Queen Maud Gulf.
“There’s a continuing interest in Dr. Sutton and this will be our third major exhibit of his work since we opened in 1999,” Luczycki said. “Mike McCarty is our resident expert on the man and knew him personally.”
Professor Sutton befriended the young McCarty in the late 1970s and their relationship continued until his death in 1982. Norman’s Urban Wilderness Park bears the Sutton moniker along with an OU School of Music concert series. The professor was a music lover and musician himself. McCarty recalls him playing an organ and singing sea shanties for him in the home. The un-groomed park isn’t just named after Sutton; it’s a wooded respite from the city that the ornithologist actually frequented himself. In addition to the frozen north and tropical south, Sutton also watched birds in the wilds of Norman.
“That was one of his favorite places to go, get away from the town and walk around looking at birds,” McCarty said. “He loved that place and went there a lot. There’s a pond at the park so birds are always around.”
OU undoubtedly possesses the bulk of the art work that Sutton produced in a career that started when he was a teenager. For a time in the 1920s he was Pennsylvania’s state ornithologist and some of his work resides in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum.
“He did over 20,000 study skins of birds during his careers and those are spread out across the country in various scientific institutions,” McCarty said. “OU has around 6,000 of them.”
A search for art dealers selling Sutton’s work privately turned up nothing, which is somewhat unusual for a 20th century artist. In addition to drawings and watercolors Sutton also hand-tinted black and white photo negatives of birds and wilderness scenes for use on lantern slides that could be projected for audience viewing.
“In the days before color photography it gave people a truer feeling for these remote places that most had never been to,” Luczycki said.
Fourteen of these one-of-a kind slides from a technology seldom used today will be part of the exhibit. Sutton rarely worked with oil paints and no acrylics at all. Many of his pictures were used on the covers and within natural science periodicals. He authored 18 books about birds and his illustrations appeared in many others. A biography of Sutton’s life was published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2007. Dr. Jerome A. Jackson, recently retired professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, authored the book.
“Sutton was a master with pen and ink and with watercolor,” Jackson wrote. “He knew birds; he knew his medium; he understood light.”
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