ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 6 Karl Plath
Out at 2547 Giddings Street, there is an aviary inhabited by an average of eighty birds of many species and colors., These birds are “artists’ models,” and they are under as close surveillance as were the human models, nude young women and men who used to wander about in the huge studio of the sculptor Rodin, waiting for him to catch them in some pose he wished to immortalize in marble.
The bird models are the creatures of Karl Plath, young painter rapidly gaining national recognition as Chicago’s Audubon.
Plath is half scientist and half painter. Rather, it should be said, lest you gather that he is only “halfway” as either, he is an alert scientist in one part of his mental makeup and just as alert an artist in another.
As scientist, Plath collects birds from all over the world, either as “chicks” or in the stage of eggs to be hatched, if small, by setting bantams, or if large, by hens of more hefty dimensions: closely observes their habits and manners and even writes about them for the various bird magazines.
As artist, this same Plath studies their gorgeous plumage with eager admiration; observes their poses and antics; and ultimately transfer them to his canvases, not only as feathered “personalities” but in pictorial “patterns.”
Plath, I’m afraid, isn’t wholly satisfied with my designation of him as “Chicago’s Audubon.” He has the most intense admiration for the old scientist-artist and has a full collection of his pictures in his extensive bird library
“Audubon was a bit fantastic,” he says. “I have been observing my birds for years and do not catch them in the melodramatic poses he liked.”
Plath likes for his “models” to be easy—to be just themselves. It may be that times have changed. Audubon lived in an age when painters saw nymphs and fauns in the forests and when actors and actresses mouthed and sawed the air.
As artist, though, Plath compromises a bit with his science. .Sometimes, for the purpose of ornithological illustrations, he draws a bird with extreme accuracy, recording every hue of every feather. But in doing an oil painting, covering big surfaces, he is content to give a semblance of naturalism. That is to say, if the bird has a red spot on a blue wing, the red and the blue are in proper proportions as you look at the picture from a reasonable distance, but the feathers are not counted.
In the winter time, P lath’s “models” occupy half his studio on the third-floor attic of his home. They are screened into their half, and are supplied with sand, with plants growing in tubs and with a pool fed by running water. Sometimes the water runs over and seeps down, invariably about 2 a.m., to the sleeping quarters of the Plath family on the floor below. But the birds don’t know that and they don’t mind.
In the summer the aviary is transferred to the outdoors. Here, in a small, shaded yard near the river, there is a wire cage about eighteen feet long and ten feet wide and high. Again there is shrubbery and sand and a pool. A part of the top is of wire, but for the rest there is a more substantial shelter from the sun and the rain. The chief enemy of the birds is a prowling cat, now and then. The cat can’t get to the birds, but it can frighten them into beating their heads and wings against the wire, often damaging their plumage and scalping them beyond repair.
The birds, as a rule, are not unpopular with the neighbors. Occasionally there is one so noisy, however, that it has to be eliminated.
A case in point was a thick-billed parrot from Mexico, the only one of the species then in captivity anywhere, that chattered and screamed day and night. Also, it could eat its way out of any cage devised. With its strong beak, it could bit a clothespin in two. The only person for whom it had anything but contempt was Mr. Plath’s small son. It would crawl under the cover of his bed and go to sleep with him. But the boy couldn’t spend all his time in bed, so the Mexican parrot was finally exchanged for a blue macaw, also a chatterer, but more willing to listen to reason.
This macaw has been one of the most favored of all Plath’s models. It “poses,” with fine vanity, on one of the light fixtures. Plath has caught it in attitudes that even Audubon would have loved. In one of his most successful pictures, the macaw appears in six different antics, blended into a decorative composition.
Besides his living models, Plath has a number of pets that have died and been stuffed and mounted, and a still greater number of birds’ skins. These skins, more than 200 of them, he studies for intimate lights and shades of their feathers and down. One rare treasure is a humming bird’s hide.
A number of these skins he has got from Field Museum and other institutions in exchange for something of his that they want. For example, Field Museum collects birds’ skeletons as well as stuffed specimens. Plath has supplied twenty-three dead birds for this purpose and of these twenty-one were unique.
Plath is proudest of his quetzal among his stuffed pets. The quetzal, you may know (I didn’t), is the national bird of Guatemala and appears on that empire’s postage stamps. It is of a glittering green with a crimson breast. It is not a particularly large bird except for its tail, which is three feet long. Plath’s quetzal lives again in one of his paintings.
Plath was born in Chicago at a date to be inferred from the fact that he was an infant at the time of the Columbian exposition. When he was 10 years old, he had his appendix removed and while recovering, amused himself with a copy of Wood’s Natural History. He colored the illustrations and that was his start as a bird painter.
When he was well enough to leave his appendicitis bed, he went down to Warsaw, Ind., to recuperate his strength in the woods and beside Pike Lake. He struck up a friendship with the sexton in the graveyard where birds flocked, unafraid of ghosts. He and the sexton spent a lot of their time talking birds.
In high school Plath played hookey from saw and hammer in the carpentry class to stuff and mount birds. He found not only pleasure but profit in the stolen pastime.
While still in high school, he entered the Art Institute of Chicago. Instructors arranged various “still life” setups, but Plath always managed to introduce a bird. Later he took individual instruction from Frederic Grant, who taught him decorative composition, with birds as the motif.
Plath first encountered tropical birds on a sketching trip to Florida A little later he heard of a rare bird that spent its life gliding over the ocean waves, rarely resting, but nesting for a short time on an outer island of the Bermudas. This bird, of the gull family, called the Bermuda tropic bird, so intrigued him that he made a special trip to study it. To his amazement, he found it a fearless bird in spite of its constant wandering. When nesting, it allowed him to approach within a few inches without taking flight. Plath, after a few weeks, wrote a study of the Bermuda tropic bird for a London magazine, which won him his first distinction as a “scientist.”
Next came a trip to Jamaica, which about completes his travels to date. In these countries he made innumerable sketches not only of his friends, the birds, but of their habitats. These sketches, together with tropical and other luxuriant plants and trees in Chicago’s horticultural gardens, particularly the one in Garfield Park, supply him with “backgrounds” for his bird compositions.
Plath is inclined to be apologetic because he hasn’t studied in any of the great ateliers of Paris or Munich, and hasn’t a string of gold medals from international expositions. But he has what most of his fellows lack and that may carry him very far—a keen, energetic and vigorous interest in life and life’s wonders. He doesn’t bother about the myriads of petty “problems” that clutter the brains of artists as a species.
He admits (with a shiver of diffidence) that he prefers scientists to painters. He is in touch with them all over the world. They are always exchanging eggs and chicks with him. Once he even traded a painting for a live bird.