Monday, November 28, 2011

Francis Lee Jaques in Aitkin

Suppose you didn’t want to buy anything on Black Friday. Or suppose you didn’t particularly care to get an extraordinary deal. Here’s an alternative scenario.
We were in the car, heading north, by 9:15. (In Minnesota, heading “north” carries a special ring.) Nothing much to report on the way up to Aitkin, though Mille Lacs was as impressive as ever, and we spotted a swan, two golden eyes, and a few mergansers just off shore near Garrison.

We found a parking spot across the street from the American Legion in Aitkin and wandered inside to the Chili Cook-off. Folks were already having fun. Some of them in costume. We bought two tickets for $7 (total), were given our Styrofoam bowls, and began our circuit around the crowded room, sampling the offerings.

One of the entrants had put potatoes in her chili. “We have a potato farm up in Palisade,” she told me, gesturing at a framed potato sack hanging on the wall behind her booth. Another was serving little cornbread muffins on a stick. A third group had chosen a “Wizard of Oz” theme. One team (from the DNR) wore prison outfits, another had sombreros on their heads. I don’t know why.

Chili and cornbread (and potatoes) call for beer. At the bar I asked what they had, the bartender asked what I liked. I am no expert, and didn’t want to get into ales, stouts, porters, pilsners, IPAs… She was in a hurry, and as I was thinking of something to say she blurted out, “We have Bud, Bud Light, Miller, Miller Lite, Schmidt.”

OK. Budweiser sounds great.

Later, out on Main Street, we watched a succession of colorful floats pass by, their occupants throwing candy. Few of the floats had the slightest resemblance to ice houses, as far as I could tell. Then again, I’m not an ice fisherman.

While waiting for the parade to start, we’d walked down the street to the Frances Lee Jaques museum, which is housed in the old Carnegie Library building. Jaques, a wildlife artist, lived in Aitkin for many years when he wasn’t off in the Caribbean or the Rockies painting birds. He’s best known, perhaps, for a series of dioramas he did for the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Or perhaps he’s not so well-known. The New York Times once reported:
The painted backgrounds of the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History have a curious place in the hearts of almost everyone who has grown up in New York City during the last century. They are some of the most elaborate landscape paintings in the city and some of the most frequently viewed pictures anywhere, but almost nobody knows who did them or, in a sense, even seems to notice them when they’re staring straight at them.
Here in Minnesota, many of us grew to love Jaques work at the Bell Museum of Natural History. Children beyond counting have stared into the enormous scenes he did of elk on Inspiration Peak, of moose on Gunflint Beach, and of timber wolves on the rocky cliffs of the North Shore, as if they were real. And several generations of outdoor enthusiasts have cherished the scratch-board illustrations he did for the wilderness canoeing books of Sigurd Olson, and also the books he did with his wife Florence—Canoe Country, The Geese Fly High, and Snowshoe Country.

Jaques was raised on farms in Illinois and Kansas. Even as a boy he was entranced by the plumage of the birds he shot while hunting with his dad, and began to work at depicting them realistically. In the spring of 1903, after yet another unsuccessful year of farming, the family headed north in search of fertile, inexpensive soil, and ended up in a log cabin on a plot of land just north of Aitkin with an oxbow of the Mississippi River wrapped around it.

As a young adult, while working at various occupations—lumberman, railroad hand, taxidermist—Jacques continued to draw and sketch, and he also spent a good deal of time exploring the forests and lakes of the northern Minnesota border region by canoe. After serving in the military during WWI, he returned to Minnesota and found work in the Duluth shipyards, but his interest in nature stayed with him, and in 1924 he sent a painting of a black duck to Dr. Frank Chapman, a curator in the Ornithology Department at the American Museum of Natural History. To his surprise, the museum took Jaques on as a staff artist and he suddenly found himself working in the company of some of the country’s leading scientists. In time Jaques himself was recognized as one of America’s foremost wildlife artists.

Perhaps due to his years spent as an untrained but avid observer of nature, Jaques had developed the ability to render an animal’s posture and flair without resorting to the painstaking depiction of every piece of fur or feather. He was especially adept at capturing the form of birds in motion. Yet he also had the knack of integrating the elements of the surrounding environment into a pleasing whole—thus satisfying the requirements of art and science at a single stroke.

He once remarked:
The shape of things has always given me the most intense satisfaction. Everything one sees and senses. Geese in a storm, a landfall after a long period at sea, horses in a fence corner, the first glimpse of the ‘shining mountains’ across the plain, the eroded bank of a stream winding through a pasture. With me the keenest interest of all has been in wildlife, and that includes its habitat.
The main room of the museum was largely given over to holiday crafts, but in the back a number of Jaques’ paintings and scratchboards were still on display. As I wandered the gallery, I couldn’t help listening in on a conversation that a silver-haired man in a plaid shirt and hunting vest was having with a passing couple. They were telling him that their son had gone deer hunting for the first time—and got his deer.

“Was your brother there, too?” the seated man said. “You all must be very proud.”

“It was from 200 yards.”

“What kind of rifle?”

And on it went.

A little later, Hilary was admiring the paintings and the man said, “Do you like these pictures. I own most of them.”

When he found out we were fans of Jacques’ work, and actually knew something about him, he introduced himself.

“I’m Jerry Holm and this is my wife Cherie.” In the course of conversation I mentioned that I’d developed an appreciation of Jacques’ work while giving tours at the Bell Museum, and she replied, “I’m on the board there. There’s a lot going on at the Bell these days. The new planetarium...”

“The hardest thing,” Jerry told us at one point, “is to get anyone under fifty interested in this place. I don’t understand why. I’m just a dumb farmer from Palisade but I know good art when I see it. The front part of this building is the old Carnegie library, you know. It cost $15,000 to build. We added this part here where we’re standing, which wraps all the way around the back, a few years ago. It’s only 15 feet wide, but it cost $550,000. But we’ve got a lot of supporters here in Aitkin, and they really came through. Do you want to see the basement?”

So while Cherie went back to the front room to tend to customers, we took the elevator downstairs and Jerry gave us a quick tour: the vault, where the art collection is stored; the weaving room; the offices; the classroom. He also showed us a copy of The Geese Fly High.

“Do you have this?” he asked.

“Yes, we do. But it’s an old edition. It doesn’t have this full-color cover.”

“Take it. We’ve got hundreds of them.”

Jerry shared some stories about Les Kouba. And when he learned we were birders ourselves, he told us, “A friend of mine saw a snowy owl out on the road to my farm just this morning. I’ll tell you how to get there. You go out Highway 210 for about four miles. Turn left when you see the big osprey nest. You can’t miss it. Our farm is in about half a mile, it has a white PVC fence all around it.”

As we left we thanked the Holms' for their gracious hospitality. (Did I mention the donuts and the apple cider?) And when we left town after the parade we kept a lookout for the osprey nest. We spotted it, turned left, drove past the farm and all the way to a public access ramp to the Mississippi. The river is already fairly robust at this point. Well, river boats used to ply the route between Aitkin and Grand Rapids. It’s gotten pretty quiet in these parts. The edges of the river were stiff with ice. We could hear the sound of a chain saw in the distance. Someone clearing brush off a snowmobile trail, I’ll bet.

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