Closeup/Art

Splendor on the wing

An artist’s fame comes home to roost

Marilyn Powell May 16 1977
Closeup/Art

Splendor on the wing

An artist’s fame comes home to roost

Marilyn Powell May 16 1977

Splendor on the wing

Closeup/Art

An artist’s fame comes home to roost

Marilyn Powell

Terence Shortt is 66 years old and has been sketching and painting birds since he was a boy of 10, almost as long as he’s loved them. He has observed more than 2,500 species, roughly one third of the world’s bird population, depicted almost one fifth of them, and traveled to, among other places, the Arctic, Africa, Mexico, India, Japan, and the Galapagos Islands to view them in the field. His paintings have been exhibited in several North American museums, and his work has long been respected by leading ornithologists. But it is only recently, since his retirement in 1976 from Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum where he served quietly as a staff artist and later as chief artist for 46 years, that Shortt has found himself gaining considerable public recognition.

Not long ago, at a Sotheby Parke Bernet auction in Toronto, a Shortt painting of a snowy owl sold for $1,800, and more recently, at a Toronto art gallery, his watercolors of a woolly-necked stork, roseate spoonbill and a Pondicherry vulture sold for $2,000, $2,500, and $5,000 respectively. Following a brief show in Vancouver and one in Winnipeg, it was his second in Toronto in less than a year; some 100 people a

day, most of whom couldn’t afford the prices, nonetheless trooped through the gallery to see Shortt’s work. “It’s all a little overwhelming,” says Shortt, who is busy with television and radio appearances now that his near anonymity has come suddenly to an end.

Roger Tory Peterson, the U.S. naturalist and author of a standard field guide to North American birds, has called Shortt “the dean of Canadian bird portraitists.” David Lank, a Montreal art historian who specializes in wildlife, has praised Shortt’s use of color, while John Livingston, an environmental studies expert at Toronto’s York University, says that in his black and white bird drawings, Shortt “has no equal.”

It almost takes a specialist to accurately assess Shortt’s pictures, with their splendid anatomical accuracy and shading. But anyone can see that he is able to communicate the idea of flight. Often Shortt achieves that by arranging his birds in

stages of motion, as in a slow motion film. It is this dynamism that distinguishes his paintings from the more posed, sometimes rather lifeless, set pieces by Vancouver’s Fenwick Lansdowne, Shortt’s younger, more illustrious Canadian rival in the field. In the search for his own style, Shortt has evolved from the technical, scientific and diagrammatic treatment of his first studies to a freer, more expressive approach. Toronto Star art critic Gary Michael Dault has observed that “Shortt is at a pivotal point in his aesthetic life. He has been devoted to delineating his birds accurately. He now knows, at some quickening level, that there is more of the ethereal, the evanescent, that can be added to his art.” What critic Dault means can be seen in a new book, which is being published this month by Pagurian Press, entitled Birds In Peril, with a text by Canadian naturalist John P. S. Mackenzie and illustrations by Shortt.

Birds In Peril is the story of the fight to save 20 endangered North American species, among them the Eskimo curlew, trumpeter swan, Aleutian Canada goose, bald eagle, Bachman warbler and the prairie chicken. The cause is close to Shortt’s heart, as he explains, because it reflects man’s heartening attempts to save his fellow creatures. In the Maritimes, the Ipswich sparrow is being transplanted from Sable Island because of soil erosion, to Nova Scotia; in the West, the eggs of the elusive and threatened whooping crane are incubated by man to perpetuate the species. Shortt’s birds,* in color and black and white, manage to convey something of their own determination to defy extinction; it is something in the eyes that the artist tries to capture. Says Shortt: “I want to try to get into the psyche of these birds, absolutely wild, free creatures, leading their own existence, part of their environment as we are part of society. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve enjoyed the rapture of seeing them on their terms, and I want to share what I’ve seen.”

Shortt, a retiring man with a crooked, thin moustache and an oddly debonair smile, never expected widespread recognition of his work. He grew up on the outskirts of Winnipeg and recalls that his interest in birds was first aroused by his father, a CPR railwayman who was an ardent hunter. “One of my earliest memories is of the prairie chickens and ducks my father shot. I used to go into seventh heaven examining them. My father taught me how to shoot, and my mother, who was an artist, taught me all about watercolors. It became my favorite medium because it was hers. She was my first teacher.” In 1926, at the age of 15, he was ready for more professional instruction. He persuaded his father to let him enroll in the Winnipeg School of Art, where he studied under L. LeMoine Fitzgerald, a later member of the Group of Seven. In 1928 he went to work as a bank teller. Shortt caught the eye of the bank manager, Charles Broley, a bird enthusiast

known locally as the “eagle man.” On the weekends the two would pile into Broley’s Model-T Ford and go out on the prairie together to observe birds.

The next key development in Shortt’s life came in 1930, when the Royal Ontario Museum was casting about for an assistant to L. L. Snyder in its nature department. A friend of Shortt’s and a fellow bird watcher, who was passing through Toronto at the time, recommended Shortt for the job. Shortt got it.

Then in 1938, when Shortt was 27 and a seasoned ornithologist, he was chosen by the federal government to be part of the official party aboard the Hudson’s Bay Company ship, the “Nascopie,” which sailed for the Arctic Archipelago and northern Greenland. The ship was servicing company outposts, as it did once a year; Ottawa took the opportunity to make a scientific and artistic record of the areas visited by the ship. As luck would have it, Shortt’s cabin mate for three months was Frederick Horsman Varley, another noted member of the Group of Seven.

Shortt’s task during the expedition was to collect birds by shooting them and bringing them back as specimens to be catalogued. He had mastered taxidermy in his youth. He knew how to dry and mount the birds, and while he held them stretched out in his hand, he examined every bend and curve of their bones. The job was a perfect progression for the boy who had just wanted to learn and sketch birds. Varley and Shortt would sit side by side on a bunk, while Varley painted and Shortt skinned birds. Occasionally, when the ship hit ice, sending the birds and the paintings flying across the six-by-10-foot cabin, “Varley would get down on his hands and knees, collecting my skins,” recalls Shortt. “He used to call me ‘the queer lad.’ That’s what he thought of me and my birds.”

Varley might never have known that Shortt was more than a museum technician, that he was an interpreter of birds as well as a student of them. But because of the Arctic climate, Varley’s oil colors would not dry and that encouraged Shortt to bring out watercolors and paper, revealing himself to Varley as an artist. Yet Varley couldn’t resist criticizing. Blunt and studded with expletives, his criticism is recalled in notes scrawled on the back of a Shortt portrait of a rough-legged hawk dated July 30, 1938: “Cease trying to be a flippin’ scientist, lad; world’s full of ’em. Needs artists.”

Varley lectured Shortt about light and shadow. Out on the ice, says Shortt, “we’d look at things together, and he’d say, ‘What do you see and how do you see it and what masses do you see?’ He taught me to see, not in line, but in areas of color. I think that is the whole thing about art—areas of color.” Today, Shortt becomes animated when he remembers Varley and the three months on Arctic patrol: “It was,” he says, “the greatest art experience of my life.”

Back in Toronto, Shortt’s weekends

were spent in the company of Toronto artists such as Roy Fisher and Luke Bradley. His weeks were spent painting and grew to include setting up dioramas—life-size scenes from nature—for the ROM. At the same time, he was surveying the birds of North America, and producing posters and maps. Soon he was taking field trips to exotic places, paddling on ice floes to retrieve the bodies of rare birds he had shot and slathering latex on jungle trees to make molds for the museum’s dioramas. Says Shortt: “Sometimes in a tea chest I’d bring home four gigantic trees all rolled up like a rug,” to be reassembled with wood and plaster backing them up in the museum.

He spent nights in the rain forests of Uganda, listening, enchanted, to the sound of insects. He filled pages with line drawings, short-form reminders of how birds moved in their natural habitat. He caught the living colors that faded as they died. Once, in the Galapagos, a Darwin finch lined a nest with his socks, plucking the wool by strands, fearlessly, while Shortt sat still on a boulder, resting. “I was an ornithologist, you see. I worked many long hours in the field to prepare what I had to do and then on top of that 1 painted my birds.”

In 1962, Shortt’s life took another fateful tum. John Mackenzie, an avid amateur bird watcher who is a senior executive with Canada Permanent Trust Co. in Toronto, walked into the headquarters of the nowdefunct Canadian Audubon Society and admired some black and white drawings Shortt had done while he was going about his official museum business. Mackenzie bought them, framed them and hung them on his wall where he continued to admire them. A year ago, when his publisher, Pagurian Press, asked Mackenzie who he would like to illustrate his Complete Outdoorsmam's Guide to Birds of Canada and Eastern North America, he pointed to the drawings, and said, “That man.”

Birds In Peril is their second collaboration. Shortt has also illustrated other books in the past. But his collaboration with Mackenzie is different. He is at last engaged in an undertaking that is specifically designed around his talent. And this fall, for the first time, he will be totally on his own. Wild Birds of the Americas, to be published in September, will be both written and illustrated by Shortt.

It has taken time for Shortt to realize the significance of Varley’s advice written down on that July day in 1938. Varley said the world needed artists. He had gone on to say: “With a lot of hard work and a heaping measure of good luck, you might just make one.” Now at 66, intrigued by his unexpected prominence, Shortt is thinking about taking creative risks, deciding that perhaps he has been too cautious. From the beginning, he had an obsession with birds. Now, to his astonishment, his obsession is belatedly being hailed as a statement of great eloquence.