Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Have I mentioned that this is the year of the frog? This year a consortium of zoo, conservation and zoological groups are joining forces to spread the word about the catastrophic decline of the world's frogs. One of the prime ventures under this heading is the Amphibian Ark, a project dedicated to captive propagation of the most critical frog species. Among their innovative fund-raising schemes is the Toad-Naming Auction, bidding for which will cease tomorrow.
Let me explain. The little fellow above is a newly-discovered member of the genus Osornophryne, a group of bufonid toads known only from the northern Andes. Little is known about them, but they seem to be dependent on pristine montane forests. Unlike other bufonids, they undergo direct development, meaning that the tadpoles metamorphose within the eggs, emerging as tiny froglets. This particular species was recently found in the mountains of northern Ecuador, and will be described in a peer-reviewed journal, but, in break with orthodoxy, the second part of the Latin binomial will go to the highest bidder. In other words, if you're looking for a means to immortality, get over to the auction page and put in your bid before 12:27pm, Eastern Daylight Time on May 29th. Should your bid win, this fascinating little toad species will bear your name, and the proceeds will go to Amphibian Ark. It's as simple as that.
Update: I'm not sure what the winning bid was, but last time I looked, it was up to $5,500US. A new auction has begun for the name of a Venezuelan species of Mannophryne, a relative of the poison frogs (Dendrobatidae).
upper: AMERICAN TOAD (1999) acrylic on illustration board 7" x 7"
lower: New Osornophryne species photo swiped from charitybuzz.com. Photographer unknown.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


That's right, George W. returns to Salt Lake City tomorrow, and, as always, we've organized a protest rally to greet him. So if you're in our vicinity, show some respect and turn up at Washington Square (the City & County Building, State Street & 4th South) at 5:30pm. Daniel Ellsberg will speak as will former mayor Rocky Anderson and more.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Fishing season officially opens this weekend, but to pull those really big carp from the water, a rod and reel just won't do. What you need is one of these: a Steller's Sea Eagle (Haliaeëtus pelagicus), the biggest member of its genus. This particular bird is a two-year-old captive-bred female that a friend of mine recently acquired. Six more years remain before she'll molt into her full adult plumage of solid dark gray, with a white forehead and tail, and matching "trousers" and "epaulettes." Drab though her current plumage may be, she's anything but unimposing. Her massive 20 pounds assure that; next to her, a Golden Eagle looks like a dark Redtail.

Steller's Sea Eagles range along coastal Siberia, from the Kamchatka peninsula to Sakhalin Island and the Amur River Valley and adjacent China and North Korea, wintering as far south as Japan's Ryukyu Islands. They occasionally wander into the Kodiak, Pribilof and Aleutian Islands, and as far as Midway Island in Hawaii. Apparently, a single bird has been living for several years in Dillingham County, Alaska. Like the Bald Eagle (H. leucocephalus) and the other Haliaeëtus species, Steller's Sea Eagles subsist mainly on fish, which they capture on the wing, scavenge, or strongarm from smaller predators. Ducks, hares, and other non-piscine creatures are taken, possibly more frequently than is generally assumed, and these eagles are hardly above eating carrion or human garbage. Like their two close relatives, the Eurasian Gray Eagle (H. albicilla) and the American Bald Eagle, adult Steller's Sea Eagles have a characteristic white tail, yellow eye and deep, keel-like yellow bill. The Steller's bill is even proportionally larger, almost toucan-like, and the tail is wedge-shaped, with 14, not 12 feathers. It is often held out at a peculiar angle, much like a pygmy owl (Glaucidium spp.) does. When mantling over prey, a Steller's wags its tail about in a unique and somewhat comical fashion. A Korean subspecies, with white tail feathers only, was once proposed, but it was likely just a morph. The minor controversy may never be resolved satisfactorily, since the population was extirpated some 40 years ago.

Steller's Sea Eagles are moderately social, and form strong pair bonds. One or more huge stick nests, which are often rotated periodically, are constructed in trees. In late winter, the female lays two white eggs with a greenish cast. Incubation begins once the second egg is laid, and lasts 35-36 days. Both sexes brood the eggs and young, which begin to fly at about 45 days of age. It seems quite rare for both nestlings to survive to fledging, and siblicide is probably not uncommon.

Eight species of Haliaeëtus eagles are generally recognized. They are less closely related to the typical Aquila eagles than to the kites, particularly those of the genus Haliastur. The widespread, fish-scavenging Brahminy Kite (H. indus - above) of Australasia seems to represent a transitional form between kites and sea-eagles. The three large, northern Haliaeëtus species form a distinct subgroup, and four smaller, tropical species (sometimes placed in their own genus, Blagrus) form another. The eighth species, the Central Asian Pallas' Sea Eagle (H. leucoryphus), exhibits characteristics of both subgroups, and has no very close relatives.
Of the Blagrus subgroup, the Southeast Asian White-bellied Sea Eagle (H. leucogaster - above) is closely related (and considered conspecific by some) to Sanford's Sea Eagle (H. sanfordi) of the Solomon Islands, and the well-known African Fish Eagle (H. vocifer) is likewise closely related to the Madagascan Fish Eagle (H. vociferoides). Another genus of small sea eagles is well-distributed in Southeast Asia, with two species: Icthyophaga humilis and I. icthyaetus.
All Photos by CPBvK

Friday, May 16, 2008


In the last post I talked about the subjectivity of jurying a show, but I shouldn't leave the impression that it's always so. A few years back, I was one of three jurors for a show in Vermont. We didn't agree about much, except that "Best of Show" should go to an amazing drawing by Cole Johnson. Sometimes there is but one possible answer to a question. So it was today. I just juried a show of animal art from middle and high school students of the Salt Lake City Public School District. There were some wonderful pieces, both two- and three-dimensional, but there was no doubt in my mind about who deserved the overall "Best of Show" rosette. It went to Oliver Morgan, a middle-school student who created the scratchboard above. It wasn't the most creative piece in the show--it had obviously been copied from a photograph of a fat old zoo Orang-Utan, but I was amazed that a kid yet unable to drive legally might be capable of such mastery of the use of value. And scratchboard is a difficult medium, since we learn to draw with dark onto light--working in reverse is extremely confusing at first. Congratulations, Oliver, on an incredibly mature piece of art. Keep at it--I'm not turning my back on you.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


It's that time, again: the week when nature artists across the globe check their mailboxes for their jury results from Birds In Art, the premier annual exhibition of bird art sponsored by the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin. One hundred of those artists will receive the "big envelope," filled with forms that need to be filled out, and instructions for shipping their work to the museum. The remaining 500 of us receive the "small envelope," containing an encouraging pat-on-the-back and better-luck-next-time.

This year I submitted two works, Blue-crowned Motmot and Langsdorff's Coralsnake (above), and my ink wash painting of a poisoned Peregrine, Stargazing (below).
Yesterday, a second search of my PO Box revealed a slim envelope with the museum's return address, which, more often then not, is what I get from them. This was my 20th Birds In Art submission, and my 15th rejection--75% failure--not exactly a stellar record.
Last year I got lucky, and my magpie painting, Crash-barrier Waltzer (above), was selected for the show, after having been rejected the previous year. This year it was submitted for Art & the Animal, the big annual exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists. Results should be here in a week or so. I like this piece, and have high hopes that it will be included in A&TA, but art jurying is a subjective thing that can't be forecast. The juror considers a number of factors that are out of the artist's control. Besides looking for quality work, the total exhibition must be considered. Too many times, when jurying a show, I've had to reject art that I liked in the service of an overall show that was diverse, yet cohesive. Our own personal biases come in to play as well, and these can change from one day to the next. The same jury would come up with quite different results if they met a week later.

As artists, we can't take rejection too seriously, and likewise, can't pretend that accolades and awards mean more than they do. It's a common thing to see an artist receive a rejection for a work they're very proud of, and refuse to apply for that exhibition again. This, of course, hurts no one but themselves. Rejection remains a companion throughout one's career (at least that's been my experience), and it's important to learn to live with it. I can claim to be a rather ridiculous example of tenacity: I started submitting my work to juried shows at age 18, and received my first acceptance just a few months shy of my 30th birthday.
I consider last year's painting of an Oustalet's Chameleon, Sprawl (above), to be one of the best in my catalog, but that opinion doesn't appear to be widely shared. It was rejected by the 2007 Art & the Animal jury, and by this year's Artists for Conservation jury. Just the other day, though, I received the happy news that it's been accepted into Art of the Animal Kingdom, an annual exhibition which will be installed at the Bennington Center for the Arts in June.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Last Saturday, May 10, was Community Chalk-drawing Day in the Salt Lake City Public Library System. At each branch (save the main one), a local artist was invited to create a sidewalk drawing depicting a story from his/her life, and encourage others to join in. I took my post at the library in the neighborhood of Sugarhouse, and decided at the last minute to draw a composite of several childhood memories of wild animal sightings/captures. Never having worked in the medium of sidewalk chalk, I struggled some. I love to contrast value in my work. I always found the Impressionists' use of nothing but color temperature to give space to their work impressive, but boring, and painting in a single uniform value is a challenge for me, but a seriously positive exercise.
The best part of the day, though, was watching the work of others take shape. Below are some of my favorites.
"Octopus Man" teams up with a hedgehog to threaten the Plumridges' family crest.
A young photographer's tools, Snoopy, a penguin, and a wonderfully graceful (maneating?) plant.

Utah has been a dance Mecca for many decades, and there's no sign of that changing.
Two small but ambitious and skilled boys drew an entire reef community.

Hallie's parents should keep a watchful eye when Ringling Bros. come to town.
Commuting in the early 21st Century.
For many kids, pets constitute a major aspect of life.

Friday, May 02, 2008


The annual exhibition, Masterpieces in Miniature, will open tomorrow evening at Picture This! Gallery in Sherwood Park, Alberta. My painting above, of a Spectacled Owl will be offered for sale there, as well as the Casque-headed Treefrog painting I recently posted about. You can see both paintings here. I'd love to go on, but, having just turned fifty today, I'm going to go take a nap instead.