Oct 7, 2012

Dr. George M. Sutton Remembered

A few weeks ago, I ran across a post in a forum of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) in which an individual was trying to sell a couple of framed Stark Davis-painted "bird advertisements" for 1928 Lincoln Automobiles.  I didn't make an offer on these particular ads, but it turns out that I knew a little bit about their origins.

In the early 1970s I took a job as Superintendent of the Power and Chilled Water Plants at the University of Oklahoma.  I worked with another engineer by the name of Bob White.  Bob happened to be an artist and was at that time the president of the Norman Art League.  One day he came to me with an unusual request.  Bob had somehow discovered that I had learned and practiced decorative italic writing and had on occasion done presentation certificates.  The Norman Art League wanted to formally recognize the life's work of Dr. George Miksch Sutton, a world-renowned bird artist who was a Professor of Ornithology at the University.  Bob asked me if I would be willing to do a presentation parchment scroll for Dr. Sutton's recognition banquet.  I was honored and agreed to do it.

I received the parchment on which I would do the work along with the art league's text of the presentation scroll.  It was not brief.  It went on at length about Dr. Sutton's myriad achievements.  As I read it, I kept wondering how I could lay out that many words, along with some elaborately illuminated letters, in the limited real estate available.  I had three or four weeks to complete the assignment.

I don't know how other calligraphers work, but I know that after 15 or 20 minutes, I have to quit because my hand will start to tremble from the sustained tension.  Remember, you only get one chance at getting it right.  The ink sinks indelibly into the paper-thin leather.  There's no erasing.  As soon as I dip the pen into the ink, I am tense.  So, night after night, I labored through the wordy presentation.  I left room in a few locations, around the first letters of significant words at the beginnings of paragraphs, so I could come back later to embellish those letters with colored inks and gold leaf.  The final result was fortunately very impressive.  No misspelled words, no spilled ink, nothing left out.  Everything fit and the size of the italic font remained consistent throughout.  I was thrilled.

The presentation night came and went.  Bob informed me that Dr. Sutton had been deeply moved by the entire event and was particularly impressed by the beautiful certificate.  The art league sent me a lovely note expressing their gratitude for my services.

A few weeks later, I receved a phone call at the power plant.  It was Dr. Sutton.  He asked if I could meet him at the bird collection section of the museum.  He wanted to "meet the man who created that beautiful certificate."  I was very moved and agreed on a mutually convenient time to meet Dr. Sutton.  I had seen this world famous teacher on campus over the years but had never been formally introduced.  When I met him at the museum, he was warm and most gracious.  He gave me the "grand tour" of the bird collection that represented his life's work.

There were literally thousands of birds, carefully stuffed and mounted in hundreds of sample drawers.  Each tiny carcass was labeled, describing the identity of the example and the dates and locations where each was collected.  Dr. Sutton related stories about many of the examples.  Some he had collected on various expeditions.  Others were donated.  Many species were incredibly rare or extinct.  The collection was obviously a valuable and irreplaceable treasure.

He then shared some of his life story.  His interest in birds started at a very early age and he had joined the American Ornithologists' Union at age 12.  In 1916, as a teenager, he had sudied under the world famous bird artist, Louis Agassiz Fuertes.  After a rather stormy undergraduate career (He led a student revolt against mandatory ROTC and was temporarily expelled.), he graduated from West Virginia's Bethany College in 1923.  By age 27, he was the Pennsylvania State Ornithologist.  In 1929 he went to Ithaca, New York, to pursue his Ph.D. under Dr. Arthur Allen.  His long career had taken him all over the world, including a stint in the Army Air Corps during World War II, during which he tested arctic survival gear.  He had previously spent considerable time studying arctic birds.

Dr. Sutton had come to the University of Oklahoma in 1952 and had become an institution.  And everywhere he had gone during his long career, he had painted images of birds - hundreds and hundreds of birds.  He had published dozens of articles and books illustrated with his incredibly detailed bird paintings.  And on that day in 1972, he presented me with several artists proofs from his most recent book, "High Arctic."  He had personalized and signed each one.

Then, as the gracious Doctor showed me some more of the museum, he asked about my interests.  When I mentioned my interest in antique cars, he related a story about those Lincoln bird advertisements.  He was employed by the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh in the mid-1920's and had made some acquaintances at the Ford Motor Company,  In 1927, after Henry Ford had acquired the Lincoln Motorcar Company, his son Edsel had come up with the idea of producing some custom-bodied Lincolns colored to resemble the bright foliage of birds.  They had hired the famous commercial artist, Stark Davis, to paint the advertisements and the company had enlisted the services of George Sutton to help them decide on the colors and species of birds to use in this promotion!  And now, some 40 years after I met this remarkable gentleman, these ads crossed my path a second time...

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