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Bird Man of Mariemont
John A. Ruthven, our most popular living painter, at 89.
You talk to John A. Ruthven for a while, and on your way back home, a bird might fly by. Suddenly, your eyes are glued to it. You start wondering about its nest, about its migration patterns. Ruthven has that effect on people. All of a sudden, you have new eyes for nature.
The 89-year-old Ruthven is Cincinnati’s favorite living artist, and has long been billed as a “20th Century Audubon.” In fact, he modeled his career after Audubon’s, picking up where the master left off. Like Audubon, Ruthven’s career is mainly in the depiction of birds, and he has traveled widely to find and draw them. Also like Audubon, he allied himself with a Cincinnati museum, having long worked with the curators at the Museum of Natural History and Science. Finally, like Audubon, he has helped expand the known world of birds for the rest of us.
At 89, John Ruthven is a handsome and spry white-haired gentleman. On a fall day his Mariemont condo was sporting empty picture hooks; an exhibition had borrowed his own pieces. Colonial color schemes rule here, as if you are truly in the home of a 19th century man. Ruthven’s skill as an illustrator, artist, and dead-eye marksman have all won him opportunities. For decades, he accompanied experts from the Cincinnati Zoo, the University of Cincinnati, and the Museum of Natural History around the globe on collecting safaris, which gave him access to rare animals in their habitat. He has been working on his birder’s life list since childhood, counting more than 4,000 sightings worldwide and 500 of the 700 American birds.
Collecting expeditions involve shooting the bird and then documenting it. “I’ve skinned out more than 1,000 birds over the years. Like Michelangelo, I learned about the bodies of birds from the inside out,” he says. “I photograph the backgrounds for reference and do my research online and at the Museum of Natural History”—which has an encyclopedic collection of bird skeletons, one that he has helped to build.
Ruthven attributes his success to a three-part work ethic: “Perseverance, capturing the moment, and trying to meet the public. The more people who know you, the more will want your art. I didn’t want to be the biggest collector of my own art.” That starts to explain why almost everywhere you go in this town, there’s a Ruthven on the wall—a bird, a fox, a deer.
His life is a Cincinnati story—from Hoffman Elementary, where he painted the scenery for the play he starred in, to Withrow High School, where he was one of the school paper’s cartoonists, to the Central Academy of Commercial Art. The stories he tells are like those that our own granddads told when we were too young to care, stories that almost seem like fairytales about our city from the standpoint of today’s world.
From earliest childhood, Ruthven’s artistic talent was nurtured, with Saturday classes at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Growing up in Walnut Hills during the Depression, his greatest loves were hunting, fishing, and just being outdoors. Like many of the neighborhood boys, he saved his allowance and purchased a .22 caliber rifle for $10 at Fox Hardware Store on Gilbert Avenue. “I walked on Saturdays to the movies in Norwood with my Gene Autry pistols strapped to my belt,” he says. But Davy Crockett was his real idol.
Young John would ride the Mt. Washington streetcar to the end of the line to hunt rabbits and squirrels on a friend’s farm by Wolfangle Road. He rode back on the streetcar, too, with his gun and his catch. He learned how to skin his bounty, and his mother would cook them for dinner. It was the Depression, after all. He also taught himself how to tan hides, thanks to the Walnut Hills library. “I loved that library. It had purple bricks,” he says. He hunted in Indian Hill when it was practically wilderness.
The art-making continued in the Navy during World War II, when he drew cartoons aboard a destroyer escort ship while chasing submarines. After the war he attended the Art Academy on the GI Bill, and then in 1946 set up his own commercial art studio in Walnut Hills.
It wasn’t until 1960, when he won the competition for the annual Federal Duck Stamp design, that he focused his attention on depicting birds. By 1971, he had founded Wildlife Internationale, a firm that would produce and distribute his work.
Looking back, Ruthven sees that his art has evolved. “Today I think my work has more insight,” he says. “I am working to put more emotion into the work.” One example is the huge mural he only this year designed and painted for ArtWorks downtown, a tribute to the last passenger pigeon, Martha, who died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. While the typical Ruthven image is a spare affair, the mural depicts a huge flock of passenger pigeons almost bursting out of the picture, an awe-inspiring look at a long-gone species in its heyday. No one alive today has seen such a sight, and as the reverse Audubon, he shows us a part of the bird world that has passed from the earth.
The Audubon relationship is one of which he is quite proud. “His work just spoke more to me than any other. He was able to see nature in its pristine state,” says Ruthven. “Maybe in the great hereafter, we will meet. I would like that.”
Originally published in the November 2013 issue.