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Rotary Happenings: Shell Museum guest speaker talks bird paintings

By Staff | Nov 26, 2014

Sanibel-Captiva Rotary’s speaker recently was a guest from the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum’s, Dr. Harry G. Lee.

Participating in the R. Tucker Abbott Visiting Curatorship fellowship program, Dr. Lee spent one week this month in residence at the Museum helping to identify some of the Museum’s more mysterious micromollusks.

So, I guess what I thought we would be hearing about from our speaker was something about micromollusks; well, I was somewhat wrong.

Dr. Lee’s topic was actually concentrated on John James Audubon “Birds of America”. For as Dr. Lee explained, if we look closer at Audubon’s famous bird paintings, although primarily and foremost focused on the birds, he also included seashells in many of his beautiful composition of shore birds.

John James Audubon the most successful naturalist artist of his time and definitely for many, of all time. “The Birds of America” is the single greatest ornithological works ever produced and is the realization of Audubon’s dream of traveling throughout the United States recording, natural size, every native bird then know.

The 435 double-elephant folio sized plates, printed by the Havells of London, depict some 1,065 different species, the majority drawn from specimens that Audubon himself had captured” Audubon Gallery.

But here is where the surprise comes in. Although shells were included in the paintings, they were often not the right kind of shells. In other words, the mollusks pictured in the paintings were not found in the same area as the birds pictured or in some cases the shells were misidentified.

Would most of us have noticed? I don’t think so, but Dr. Lee did and that’s the point. Experts in any field look at things a little differently than the average gal or guy.

If you are a well-noted shell expert and are looking at paintings that include shells, more than likely you would be able to identify the type of shells in the composition and where the shells are found.

You know what they say, you can’t fool Mother Nature, and in this case you can’t fool a good scientist.

Dr. Lee showed us a number of slides to illustrate his point. On Plate 212 Common Gull, the wrong shells were placed in picture; Plate 253 Jager, you will see a marine bird and a fresh water shell; Plate 221 Mallard, land duck eating wrong mollusk; Plate 299 Red-Back Sandpiper, collection of shells from all different parts of the country; etc.

Since the birds were Audubon’s true subject, the background and objects included in the pictures were there mostly to enhance the magnificence of the birds.

Shells were used to fill in the composition and fill in the setting. Audubon painted the birds and for many of his paintings assistants filled in the landscapes and floral backgrounds.

Who was responsible for the shells? Not many are sure.

Art and nature side by side, both beautiful, both with mysteries abound. Next time you see a beautiful shell on the beach, find out its name, find out where else it is found in the world, find out how many different species of this shell are in other countries.

Or, just take a trip to the Shell Museum where you will definitely be challenged to look at our natural environment with a broader sense of understanding and be given all types of information about shells from all over the world and information as to the purpose of those small little creatures within and their place in natures food chain.

The Sanibel-Captiva Rotary meets at 7 a.m., Friday mornings at the Dunes Golf and Tennis Club, Sanibel.

There will be no meeting Friday, Nov. 28.