Juraj Jánošík packed more into his twenty-five years on Earth than most of us do in a lifetime. Born in 1688, by the age of fifteen he was fighting against the sweeping reach of the Habsburg monarchy that had already ruled much of Europe for four hundred years. As his moral compass calibrated, Jánošík evolved into myth and legend as a highwayman with respect for his rich merchant victims – chivalry was key, no one was ever killed in his heists. The plundered wealth would be distributed among the poor country-folk: a Slavic Robin Hood who would one day be celebrated in many poems, stories, and songs, all now covered in the national curricula of Slovak and Czech high schools.
The pride in the warm and friendly eyes of our modern-day Jon Janosik when telling me about his ancestor shines, and I think what a privilege it is to have such awareness of your family history. I talk with Jon in his home just a forty-minute drive from the ocean in the Willamette Valley area of Western Oregon. A trip to the Pacific northwest in 1970 showed Jon that the wildness of this place held such exceptional beauty, with the deepest ocean in the world to the west and the largest mountain system in North America to the east and south. Realizing that there was nowhere else in the world he needed to be to slake his thirst for beauty and wonder, on his return to Connecticut, he packed his wife, two children and belongings up in a U-Haul – “like a covered wagon!” he chuckles – and moved here permanently in 1971, never looking back.
Migration and breeding season is in full swing when we talk, and Jon describes a bird-rich world of shorebirds returning on the winds, where, among the thousands of oystercatchers, black turnstones and brown pelicans there are rhinoceros auklets and tufted puffins, names that conjure white-crested roiling waves and piercing avian calls rebounding off cliffs where old-growth forests dip their roots in the brine; this landlocked European can almost taste the salt in the air. On his website, Jon proclaims with no doubt in anyone’s mind that “there is enough subject matter in Oregon to keep me painting for many lifetimes.”
Born in New England in 1941, Jon spent memorable childhood summers on his grandparents’ farm in Fairfield County, CT, and it was here that he vividly recalls the epiphany that would strengthen the thread running through his life.
Whilst lying on his back beneath bushes one heat-filled day, his eyes shifted into focus on the striking shades of yellow, black, and white of a tiny bird.
“I can remember there was a magnolia tree above me, and then this beautiful Magnolia Warbler – funny it was the same bird as the plant – came and sat right over my head, this beautiful thing just eating bugs and spiders. After that, that was all I wanted to see. My father gave me a book called Birds of America, a very large thick book that contained lots of paintings by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, a famous bird painter from Cornell University. He really inspired me; I thought, I want to do that. Birds would often hit the windows and people didn't know what to do with them, but my father loved the preparation of animals, he went to school for taxidermy for a while. One day he taught me how to skin and then stuff a starling, right there on the kitchen table!”
It was this intimate insight into the bird’s anatomy that struck something deep within. Jon’s life was about to embark on its decades-long vocation.
“That starling stuffing episode really affected me, I could really understand the bird. When I looked at Fuertes’ drawings, I could see how he rendered them and showed that anatomy. Audubon too, they didn't draw these two-dimensional, flat looking creatures. They did something that had perspective in it, you could see these birds from different angles looking up, looking down. When I begin a drawing, I work with an egg and another egg positioned just so, and then you find out where the center line is and draw it through. When you do that, you realize how many angles you can possibly have a creature.”
This fascination for a bird’s poise and its relationship with the world around it was kindled like an ember in a rush of fresh air after visiting Natural History museums in New York and Boston, where he could see the full-size paintings of his heroes and contemporaries. Closer to home, the Connecticut Audubon Society Center in Fairfield was a frequent haunt of the growing teenager.
“They had all these stuffed songbirds in glass cases, and [manager] Mr. Novak just loved to have me there, he would let me sit on the floor for hours, just sketching all these birds. I also met Roger Tory Peterson as a kid because he'd give these bird walks in Connecticut, and you could tell he could hear and understand everything, he was completely at one with his environment; and that taught me how to be at one with my environment. I would go out birding and not do anything, just sit there under a tree and watch; and the birds just arrived. And that was wonderful because that would give me a chance to see them quietly and when they didn't move so fast, I could draw them. It's all I cared about as a kid.”
Jon went to college as a Zoology major where he studied neural physiology, fascinated with the internal workings of the nervous system and anatomy as a whole, originally with the notion that medicine of some kind was on the horizon. But it was there that he found his talent for drawing and illustrating would become an income lifeline.
“My professor of comparative anatomy, Warren Walker, was publishing books on the subject and asked if I would illustrate them, so I did, and that's how I got through school. I would spend a couple of nights a week up in his lab in front of a dissection, drawing it and recomposing it so it looked presentable, and I made a living on that. Being published young meant I got to know the business well. But I was always drawing birds somewhere, sketching the birds in the college collection but also learning how they moved out in the field.”
After college, Jon got a job as an illustrator in Yale University’s Peabody Museum. It was here that the stars aligned for the developing artist.
“In the department upstairs was a very famous artist, Rudolph Zallinger, a mural painter, [he of the famous Age of Reptiles mural] and at the time he was painting this fabulous mural about the age of the mammals in this huge hall. I had lunch with him often, and he would show me the rudiments of his painting, he painted these murals in egg tempera. Also, someone I consider one of the great bird painters, Robert Verity Clem, he wrote a famous book called The Shorebirds of America, he came by a lot. He was a very severe critic of my work; and I bless him every day for that. He showed me where I was really going off in the wrong direction with my drawings, and he showed me how a bird's eye should be rendered in paint. It’s one thing to draw it but you need to know how it should be done in paint, and also with the legs and feet. Those are the things that bird artists often neglect.”
My personal goal now is to help support the lives and conservation of the birds which have supported my life.
Encouraged by his peers, Jon would eventually take his work to the Audubon Society in New York and someone there suggested he get in touch with a man called Don Eckelberry.
“Young bird artists would flock to him for advice because he was so open. A lot of bird artists were not, they were very self-contained, and they wanted to keep their own style and not tell any secrets, but Don was just the opposite, everything was open. I had never experienced anything quite like that. He taught me how to draw a bird. He took my drawings, put an overlay tissue on top and corrected them.
It was so enlightening, and it happened so fast that I got really good after that. You have to know how to draw to be a bird painter; painting is the last part, it’s not so important. If you don't get the drawing right, you don't get the painting right. So I really studied drawing with Don and then he showed me how to paint a watercolor of a sparrow, I still have it somewhere. I just was in heaven.”
Another significant thing Eckelberry taught Jon was the sanctity of life. As was common in those days, bird artists and bird collections all required one thing – the subject matter close at hand to study. John James Audubon is of course known for being America’s most famous bird artist and ornithologist, but many over the years have decried his methods of shoot first, paint later. As Jon says, this was just symptomatic of the era, and Jon himself was not immune. But change can and does happen.
“I used to collect for universities and yes, I did take the lives of several birds when I was young, but I always used them, I studied them. It was a different time, how we understood our relationship to nature, you know? But then I realized: this was ridiculous. So, at least I saw how wonderful birds are, I had that enlightenment. When I met Don Eckelberry, he sent me down to Trinidad for a while to use mist nets to study birds. He set me up with a Plexiglass box and I could put the bird in there and watch it and sketch it, make notes on the wing formula and so on, and then release them unharmed – and that was just wonderful. So I threw away my BB gun.”
The mentorship naturally developed into friendship, and soon Jon was invited to one of Eckelberry’s parties in the New York house he shared with his textile artist and designer wife Virginia Nepodal. It was here that Jon’s life completed another circle.
“Don had these bird artist parties in the summertime once a year, and I was living with my wife's family in Houston, Texas at the time. I wouldn't miss this party for the world, so I hitchhiked all the way. I met Arthur Singer there, also a famous bird illustrator; but I got to meet Roger [Tory Peterson] again. He remembered me from when I was a boy, sticking so close to him on those guided walks.”
They became firm friends, and Jon’s circle of artists continued to flourish with ample opportunities to catch up with each other over the years.
“We exhibited in many shows together, they invited me along and I did a show with them whenever I could, although it was hard enough to get a show anyway for bird artists. You just are not accepted by the art community, as a bird artist.”
This dismissive view in the western world, that the marriage between painting and detailed anatomy which bird artists so beautifully portray, was somehow inferior, was a constant frustration for Jon and his peers. On occasion they would ‘adapt’ and paint a landscape that just so happened to have a beautiful bird in it, then these works would be more readily accepted, but the inextricable link that Jon understood between animal and art was his core, his raison d’être. So when he learned of how science and art was unquestioningly intertwined in the far East, Jon yearned to visit Japan.
He had also developed two other things in common with this country – a love for cranes, and the quietude of Buddhism. These twin draws of Zen philosophy and the almost mythical connection between the long-legged graceful birds that have been part of human civilization for centuries meant that Jon just had to visit the nation of seven thousands islands one day. That day came on his sixtieth birthday, and Jon spent months there, studying, learning, and immersing himself in the culture of his soul.
“My wife's cousin was working in Hokkaido, and she said, come up, there's these incredible eagles out in the harbor and all these other wonderful birds. So, we shared this tiny apartment, she'd clean off her cosmetic table in the morning and that was my art table. I went to Japan to see the cranes because I knew I could see them in Izumi which has a big refuge for wintering cranes. Japan and the cranes have had a hard time over the years, they used to eat them, the kings would eat them, you know, so they got shot a lot to feed the kings, but certain species still exist. At this refuge, there would be thousands of them, and it’s a wonderful thing to just see all these creatures together.”
Ten percent of any sale of Jon’s work is donated explicitly to the International Crane Foundation; Jon is one of over 700 featured artists on the Artists for Conservation website.
Conservation is something that matters deeply to Jon, and he urges anyone with a love for birds to promote conservation and educate people as to why it is needed and what it can do, whenever they can. While researching Jon for this interview, I suddenly found myself staring into the eyes of a short-eared owl that would not let my gaze drop, even though my mind was aware of the beautiful colors of the landscape it was sat in, with the moon rising through pink sunset haze in the background. The painting Once Common is one of the most haunting call-to-arms I have seen for a long time.
“We all have to say, what can I do to conserve these birds? The best thing I can do is to spread the idea of birds to people I meet, and I talk about them with everyone I encounter, I swear to God. Not too preachy, you know, but if we’re out somewhere I’ll just go – ‘oh did you hear that?’ and then tell them about the bird, why they're important in our lives and to not let them dwindle. I was sad because when I first arrived in Oregon, short-eared owls were common. I could go out any time and see them, but I noticed that they were dropping off.
Near my house, they use bales in the wintertime to stop the erosion and the owls would sit on these bales and hunt. But they were not coming anymore. So, it was time to pay homage to them. They would always show up as the moon was about to rise above the horizon, I would love to see them at that time. So I knew I had to paint a large one. There is a refuge for them now, on Diamond Hill where you can ask to see them. Slowly, their numbers are coming back up, I hope.”
Jon’s advice for any aspiring artists to focus on conservation with their talents is to tell a story that captures the need for survival.
“That's the only thing I can think of. I'm an artist so for me, that's what it's about. It's about how you relate to the world. I just want to tell the story of birds in my paintings, so I paint a lot of families, I paint a lot of flocks, I want to show the family unit. Tell a story with your birds; that way, you can tell the story of conservation.”
As we come to the end of our conversation, Jon is keen to remind me of something that so many people have also impressed through their own experiences with birds – patience. Patience is vital, not just for being with the birds and allowing them to come to you, but also for you as a person. If we’re going to help our fellow inhabitants in this world, we need to learn how to slow down. Birdwatching is one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself and for the world, and all it requires is patience.
“When I grew up, my father told me to just sit down and get quiet. That was my first experience with Zen, as I was sat under the trees at Grandma's house waiting, and the birds would come to me, I realize now I was meditating. And that's the point. Patience is a great thing. I can tell you this, if people would learn to just take three mindful breaths, just three before you do anything that’s weighing on you, you’d be surprised how powerful that is. Our breath is something that we all have to do to stay alive, it's the key to our life, this oxygen coming in and out. I see it as medicine, it’s helped me through my life. And I've had a very beautiful life, I know that. All my children and my grandchildren love me, and it's very cool.”
A short-eared owl sits unseen in a shallow scrape in the ground, waiting patiently for her mate to return with food for her and their chicks. Nearby, a young rebel also patiently sits, listening for cartwheels and ready to bring change for the common good. The owl sees the shimmer of an almost invisible shining thread, stretching through blood and nerves and genetics, linking to a young man in the future who holds a brush above canvas as an owl takes shape through the paint. Their love for the world binds them, and as they breathe, their purpose follows.