This year the Portrait Society of America celebrated its 20th year of operation. A milestone for any business, but it is particularly significant for a nonprofit fine art organization. So, it felt appropriate during my opening welcome to share the inspiration that led to the founding the Society. Quite a few years ago I learned that good public speakers capture and hold onto their listener’s attention through the power of storytelling. The story that I shared Friday morning occurred over 41 years ago but I can remember it like it was yesterday.
I was just a few years out of college and trying to find a path to becoming a self supporting artist. A goal that had burned inside of me ever since I can remember, to put it more distinctly I felt if I could not find a way, I wouldn't be able to breathe. Many in the crowd nodded in understanding.
I had built a small 260 ft.² studio on the edge of some Florida wetlands where I enjoyed the natural diversity of the wildlife in the area. It was not surprising one day when I walked out my door and came face to face with a barred owl sitting on the fence a few feet away. I moved to within an arm’s length and still this approximately18 inch bird did not fly. But when it turned its head towards me, I saw that the usually deep brownish-black eyes were clouded and a smokey grey color, immediately I knew the bird was blind. With the assistance of a Florida Wildlife Officer the bird was caught and together we took him to a local veterinarian who found thorns in her eyes. That evening, I found myself standing outside my studio door with a bag of antibiotics, a wild bird in a cardboard appliance box, and a grinning wildlife officer who as he drove away yelled back, “you better get a book on falconry!”
Over the next two weeks I read several volumes on the ancient sport while I cared for the owl. I was able to get her to quietly sit on my gloved hand while I would caress her head. Sadly, the bird passed but the experience left me with a new passion. Armed with a federal and state falconry license, I was soon working with a young female red-tailed hawk that the Florida Game and Fish Commission requested that I trap and remove as the bird was turning a local farmer’s yard into her own Chick-fil-A!
After many, many weeks of slowly working with this bird to overcome her natural distrust of humans and also to condition her to associate my whistle with food she responded so well that not only could she be trusted to be set free of any leashes, but she would immediately return to my glove whenever she heard my whistle. We had become a team with enough trust built between us that we could confidently venture into the field for a season of hunting.
Red-tail hawks seldom hunt “on the wing” in the manner of a Peregrine Falcon but prefer to find a high perch where with their amazingly powerful eyesight, that is even telescopic, can scan a large area for the slightest movement and possible prey, which for her now had to be rabbits that are far more crafty than barnyard chickens, or so she found out one day.
It was just after sunrise on a crisp fall day and I had found a field that had a dead pine tree conveniently situated on a slight hilltop, it looked like the perfect place for “Khan.”
The night had left some low spots in the field covered with ground fog that would burn-off as soon as the sun’s rays would warm the air. As we entered the field the hawk lifted off my fist and headed for the top of the pine tree, when she landed you could hear the high and low jingle of falconry bells attached to the protective leather jesses on her legs, as she moved up a branch.
Fairly soon as I was walking through some brush a large cottontail busted out into a full run. I looked to the bird who was already off the branch with wings partially folded in a full dive gathering speed for the chase. The rabbit headed first right then left but with the hawk closing on her she made a direct line for the fog.
One of the amazing tricks rabbits, that seem to know instinctively, is that when they have a hawk closing in on them they will head for the lowest scrub tree they can find and shoot under the limbs at which time they will do a right angle and continue to run. The bird either has to smash into the tree or go up and over at which time the rabbit has made their escape. Score one for the rabbit.
And this was exactly the rabbits escape, and the fog was its only haven. They both disappeared into the fog bank leaving behind only the swirling coils of white mist to indicate their entrance. It was all was so explosively quick and exciting to watch and that the rabbit won out is more the norm nine out of ten times in nature.
But now somewhere in that blanket of whiteness I had lost my hawk. All I could hear was the jingle of her bells and the rhythm told me not only had she missed her target but that now she was socked-in and trying to walk out! That the fog was only a very thin layer between her wings and the clear blue sky was not within her comprehension.
This magnificent and powerful bird with over a three-foot wing span that can soar above the clouds or dive at speeds of 120 mph and that can grip your hand so tightly through a heavy leather glove it can go numb is letting a little mist stop her. I whistled, and she continues to walk towards the sound but still did not attempt to fly. So I went closer to her and with my field bag fanned an opening so she could see and up she jumped onto my arm.
An amazing day for sure and as I reflected upon it, I realized how we sometimes can let little things seem impossible to overcome, and we let it stop us. Maybe it the way we are looking at the problem and if we only persevered, investigated, pushed a little harder then maybe that big thing might really be nothing. And think what how it means to be that person who can fan the fog away for someone else.
Establishing a career in the arts can seem confusing and overwhelming. After the conference this year we heard from a first-time attendee, “The Portrait Society is such a welcoming, supportive group I wish I knew about sooner! -I learned creating a great painting is the priority even before likeness. I also learned why I do many things and I have a new perspective on how to improve my work. Seeing so many different approaches really opened my eyes to new possibilities. It is a great atmosphere to learn in when everyone is an artist.
This was the inspiration behind having an organization “run by artist for artists”? We wanted to provide the opportunity for artists to gather together, share and guide each other.
I believe in it and wish that it existed when I was struggling to find my way through the fog.