Butler exhibit will showcase illustrations for bird book

Murrell Butler works on a painting in his butterfly series, which was commissioned by a collector. Butler found much of his inspiration in the work of John James Audubon, who lived at worked at the Oakley House at Audubon State Historic Site near St. Francisville.
Murrell Butler works on a painting in his butterfly series, which was commissioned by a collector. Butler found much of his inspiration in the work of John James Audubon, who lived at worked at the Oakley House at Audubon State Historic Site near St. Francisville.

One by one the plates were uncovered, revealing birds in color as brilliant as when they were painted four decades earlier.

“These are just a few,” Murrell Butler said.

He said it almost apologetically, as if a few plates out of 36 aren’t enough. But to unveil the entire collection would mean filling the entire room with birds.

This wouldn’t be a bad thing, because being surrounded by Butler’s birds is like stepping into a storybook illustration with colors bright enough to conjure childhood wonder. These were the kinds of pictures many people found in the pages of the “B” encyclopedia when writing their fifth grade paper on birds — birds portrayed in colors that were sometimes too exotic to be real.

But they were real. They were in the encyclopedia, after all. As they were in Ernest P. Edwards’ 1972 book, Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Adjacent Areas, from the pages of which the plates in Butler’s dining room were reproduced.

An exhibit of these plates, Murrell Butler: Original Bird Illustrations, will run through Friday, May 31, at Backwoods Gallery in St. Francisville, Butler’s hometown. He lives just outside the city limits on a spread along Old U.S. 61. Ride along the long, winding drive leading to his house, and it becomes clear why John James Audubon chose to paint in West Feliciana Parish.

The rolling landscape is filled with birds, creatures Butler has loved since childhood.

“My grandparents had a large plantation in St. Francisville, where I spent much time as a child,” Butler writes in his artist’s biography. “They were both birders and nature lovers and had a large library of ornithological books. This was also Audubon country, so I learned about John James Audubon.”

Butler’s mother was a fashion illustrator for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. But nature was at the center of his artistic interests.

“My first art subjects at about age 6 were frogs, but soon I turned to birds studying from the works of Audubon, Allan Brooks and Fuertes,” he said. “I stopped painting in my teens but later took it up in my 20s.”

This happened when Butler enrolled in an art course at Newcomb College at Tulane University. He also was working at the Oakley House on the grounds of what was then Audubon Memorial State Park in St. Francisville.

The park now is called Audubon State Historic Site and tells the story of Audubon’s stay in West Feliciana Parish, along with the house where he boarded while tutoring a young Eliza Pirrie.

The setting was perfect for the young Butler, for it was here where he not only delved more into Audubon’s life but looked at the plantation grounds from the artist’s perspective.

He was seeing what Audubon saw, seeing the park’s surroundings for its possibilities.

And Butler knew at that time he, too, wanted to be a full time artist. “It was the only thing that I consistently got praise for,” Butler said.

So, he left the park after seven years and began working as an artist for a company that provided diorama displays for museums. Butler’s job was creating habitat background paintings for foreground subjects, and he created 15 while working as a freelance illustrator for bird books, notepaper companies and magazines.

It was through his freelance work where he met Virginia professor and ornithologist Ernest P. Edwards.

Edwards was writing a field guide to birds in Mexico and needed an artist to illustrate each bird. Not each species, but individual birds. Seven hundred of them to be specific. The guide not only covered Mexico but the adjacent areas of Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Butler sat at his dining room table and looked at the 17- by 22-foot panels propped against the wall. Some birds perched, others were in flight, all were painted in minute detail.

Thirty-six panels were returned to him after Edwards’ death in September 2011. Butler didn’t say much about the panels, letting his artwork do the talking.

Those who remember what it was like to get swept into the magic of book illustrations will find Butler’s illustrations irresistible. Those who don’t harbor such memories will make a new discovery.

Butler smiled but still didn’t say much and instead led the way to his studio, where he now works on a series of butterfly paintings commissioned by a collector. Books and supplies were scattered atop a table; an easel stood in the center with a butterfly in progress.

Butler sat, then began working. “This kind of art isn’t popular anymore,” he said.

There’s no regret in his tone; it’s just matter-of-fact. Then again, art, as does everything in life, goes in cycles.

And there’s no denying the effect this butterfly has on viewers, its bright wings ushering in springtime on a cold February day. It’s a testimony to Butler’s work, the beauty found in the detail of his style.

And the magic of his subjects.