The Call of the Creeks

Rendering landscapes and birds—precisely

James Coe’s backyard and frog pond are worthy of their own plein air paintings.Photograph by Stu Rosner

Hudson Valley artist James Coe ’79 enjoys tromping through “mucky, smelly, low-tide salt marshes.” A 2011 visit to the one at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on Cape Cod spawned a series of studies and oil paintings, the latest of which, Salt Marsh Spring, is on display from September 9 through November 26 at the prestigious Birds in Art 2017 show at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, in Wausau, Wisconsin.

Salt Marsh Spring offers a close look at a continuous tidal channel (reflecting pockets of blue sky) meandering through muddy banks and clumps of straw-colored coastal grasses. After working on it for nearly four years, Coe finally felt he’d rightly captured “the rich textural feel, to evoke the smell of the marshes”—and figured out which bird to put where.

Coe studied ornithology at Harvard, then spent 15 years as a field-guide illustrator before freeing himself to do the more spontaneous, plein air landscapes for which he is also now known. Once he discovered the joys of immediately channeling nature onto canvas, he painted constantly, and has produced about 850 works since making the switch in 2000.

Birds now appear on his canvases less as party crashers than as invited cameos. Standing outside his 1860 farmhouse in rural Hannacroix, New York, he points out red-eyed vireos whistling in the woods, and “a family of chattering wrens in the bushes.” And there’s a common yellowthroat. Catbirds. Orioles. Within 20 minutes, in the yard alone, seven species appear, or call out. That “sweet tinkling warble?” A goldfinch. He pauses, listening. “Hear that flute-like trill, spiraling down the scale? It’s wonderful. That’s a veery. We get them every year.

“Even though birds are not the focus of my painting anymore, I still get a thrill seeing them,” he says. “In fact, I like them better now than when I was doing the bird illustrations,” he adds, “because then, they used to torture me. I’d be going to bed at night obsessing about it, maybe about a bird’s toes I had been trying to draw that day, and how I could fix them.”

For Salt Marsh Spring, Coe specifically wanted a subtle-looking species native to that habitat to provide a focal point and a sense of movement. He made a Wellfleet tidal marsh painting with three brown-speckled least sandpipers, but they were too obscure; “Is this a ‘Where’s Waldo’ painting?” a gallery owner asked. Then he spent an entire summer trying out different wading birds. Willet Study. Composition with Plovers.

A greater yellowlegs won out. The elegant, white-breasted bird with spindly trademark gams offered dabs of eye-catching color and “is large enough to be seen, but doesn’t dominate,” he says. It flies low over the water, leading the viewer’s eye across the coastal landscape toward an unseen horizon.

It was also among the first birds Coe ever identified when as a 13-year-old he began roaming the reeds and muddy slopes of Long Island Sound. He and an equally obsessed friend would bike a mile from their homes in Larchmont to search for birds. Excitement at finding them turned into drawing them—meticulously copying the work of prominent artists like Roger Tory Peterson and Don Richard Eckelberry.

This patience and particularity has routinely garnered Coe guide-book commissions, numerous awards, gallery shows, and museum exhibitions during the last 30 years. He’s followed not only by bird-art enthusiasts around the globe—a larger group than one would suspect—but by those enamored of landscapes. This fall, his work is also part of the fifty-seventh annual Society of Animal Artists exhibition at the Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum, in Oradell, New Jersey, and can be seen at the Bennington Center for the Arts, in Vermont.

Coe’s recent oil paintings were shown in a solo exhibition, Birdscapes, at Mass Audubon’s Museum of American Bird Art, in Canton, Massachusetts, this past spring. Director Amy Montague first knew him as the author and illustrator of the field guide, Eastern Birds (1994), and was amazed that his later oil works, “those loose, painterly compositions,” were by the same hand, as she wrote in the show’s catalog: “Who was this person who seemed to be so many things: author, illustrator, naturalist, painter—and who was so successful in such different realms?” The Coe painting that Montague herself owns, Autumn Mood (2000-2002), is of a simple wetlands scene near his house. It hangs over the mantelpiece in her living room and, she says, “depending on where I stand and the color and intensity of the light, my perception of the painting changes dramatically.”

Autumn Mood and Salt Marsh Spring aside, most of Coe’s works depict wider, realist views of the natural world. He has traveled to Texas and Utah to capture desert landscapes and red rocks, and this spring joined a group of artists painting the Dead Sea in Israel for the Netherlands-based Artists for Nature Foundation. But he tends to paint what’s in and around the Hudson Valley: gentle subjects throughout the seasons—streams, woodland creeks, meadows, tree lines amid sunsets or moody skies—along with the farms, barns, and croplands scattered along quiet country roads.

Coe’s Hudson Valley studio
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Since 1987, Coe and his wife, Karen Scharff ’79, executive director of Citizen Action of New York, in Albany, have lived in the old house on 17 acres, most of it woods. The walls are chock-full of artwork by friends and other artists he admires; he’s generous with praise, talks openly about his own creative challenges, and often runs classes or workshops where he encourages aspiring painters. But the stairway leading to his second-floor home studio, which overlooks a pond dug in 1996, doubles as a gallery for his own work.

The majestic Hudson River is a 20-minute drive away. Coe frequents a shoreline park in early summer to lead a weekly painting group, or to watch an eagle’s nest, but shies away from tackling the scene himself. “It’s too broad, too open, almost too panoramic,” he says. Instead, he’s drawn, again, to a long view of the park’s tidal estuary, where trees’ tangled branches cast shadows on greenish-brown water.

Often, he’ll step out his front door and walk a mile and a half to West Medway Creek, which he’s probably painted more than 60 times. It changes throughout the seasons, but also, he says, thanks to beavers that dam it up, and take down trees: “The place looks different every time I come.”

Like Salt Marsh Spring, his West Medway Creek paintings take time. Coe typically paints in oil and does many full versions of the landscapes he’s rendering, sometimes layering on the paints, lopping off parts of the canvas, and re-stretching it, when “other artists would say, ‘I’m moving on,’ or just send it out with, ‘It’s good enough,’” he says. “I stick with paintings for years until they are done. I’m very stubborn.”

Two paintings of the same Cape Cod scene, Salt Marsh Spring (2017) and Salt Marsh Plovers (2013), reveal his dogged efforts to get it just right.
Painting by James Coe

The perfectionism probably stems from the field-guide illustrations, which had to be “just right.” But Coe is also exacting because he knows what’s right, and respects the integrity of nature. After a boyhood of bird-watching, he landed at Harvard intent on becoming an ornithologist. He concentrated in biology, but took an increasing number of studio art classes during his last two years. Breaks from academic pressures meant trolling through the collections at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), or during the spring, waking at 6 a.m. and biking to Mount Auburn Cemetery to watch scores of species migrating through.

Always, in the back of his mind, was the coupling of science and art: “I had an odd combination of interests, but I knew I was not alone. There were people out there who could make a living painting birds”—among them Don Richard Eckelberry, best known for illustrating Richard Plough’s Audubon Bird Guide (1946), whom Coe met as a high-schooler and thinks of as a mentor.

After graduation, Coe worked as a night manager at Wordsworth Bookstore so he could paint during the day. “Even then I had two strains going,” he says: “large paintings of birds and a series of en plein air studies of overpasses and train tracks and industrial sites around Somerville, where I lived.”

Through his Harvard adviser, he was soon hired to create some of the illustrations for the pioneering Birds of New Guinea, by Bruce Beehler, Thane Pratt, and Dale Zimmerman. Lacking photographs of most of the species, he used the MCZ’s collection to research specimens. Seeking a better grounding in art, he moved back to New York to attend Parsons School of Design in the fall of 1981.

Historically, as soon as field-guide publishers could reproduce illustrations of birds, they did. One of the earliest American primers, Florence A. Merriam’s Birds Through an Opera-Glass (1889), featured etchings, and Frank Chapman, arguably the most important figure of early field guides, published his Birds of Eastern North America in 1895 with some full-color plates.

Nature photography was on the rise even then, although it would be decades before single-lens reflex cameras were in wide use, Coe notes; the arrival of telephotos with auto-focus capability, and of technology enabling ornithologists to digitally manipulate bird images, took even longer. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds (1977) was the first comprehensive and “wildly popular” book to use photography, he notes—but the pictures were stacked three to a page, and were not as easily understandable as illustrations. There’s still a good argument for the illustrated art form, he says: “As an artist, I can decide how many birds go on a page, the sequence, how they’re going to be positioned, so that your eye goes from species to species and understands which are the young ones, how they mature, and why they’re paired.” Moreover, field photography is much less consistent than artists’ drawings can be—in terms of lighting, poses, angles, and context. Coe can assemble and present images and text that enable viewers to “understand, just by looking, what the information is.”

While at Parsons, in 1983, Coe took a semester off to complete a lucrative commission for The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding, a three-volume setby John Farrand. In 1986, he was offered a contract to write and illustrate his own companion set, on the Eastern Birds and Western Birds of America. By then, he and Scharff were about to get married (they met in sixth grade and were at Harvard together, but started dating only after graduation) and move from Brooklyn to Hannacroix, because Scharff had moved Citizen Action’s main office to the state capital.

There, a four-year project to complete both bird books stretched into seven, and produced only one. Coe and Scharff were busy fixing up the farmhouse, and their son, Jonah, was born in 1992. “I didn’t realize you had to pay attention to deadlines—you don’t think that way when you’re 30,” says Coe, pausing. “Maybe some people did, but I didn’t, and I was very determined that this was going to be my legacy. I wanted it to be a really good book.”

Eastern Birds was released in 1994, and remains a solid go-to for learning birders, even though it went out of print in 2012. The illustrations are biologically accurate—and really beautiful. The birds are arranged taxonomically, and within their natural habitats—the water-colored background landscapes are also by Coe.

“There’s nothing spontaneous about painting like this,” he says. More design than art, each plate had to be carefully planned, each step in the process precisely executed. “It’s so technical and I like doing it, and I’m quite good at it. A number of people have told me these are among the better plates that have been done of American birds,” he says. “But the time and the focus that go into it aren’t fully appreciated by the publisher, or the authors, and it’s definitely not paid for the time it takes.”

Coe advises a student capturing boats on the Hudson River.
Photograph by Stu Rosner


Coe was halfway through the scheduled companion Western Birds when, within 14 months in 1995-1997, both his parents and his grandfather died, his daughter, Rachel, was born, and his publisher, Golden, was struggling financially. “Everything happened at once,” he recalls. “Looking back on those years, I see them as an early mid-life crisis. I burned out.” Already the primary caregiver at home, he focused on settling his parents’ estate and his own young family, and stopped making art for nearly three years.

On a summer day in 2000, he went to Olana. The former home of American landscape painter and Hudson River School progenitor Frederick Church, it is now a museum and educational center. Coe had dropped his son at a day-camp session there, and even though he hadn’t painted landscapes in oil since moving upstate, had brought along supplies, figuring he’d occupy himself instead of driving home and back. He set up an easel behind the house and painted “that commanding view of the Hudson River facing south,” he recalls. “And in one afternoon, I was totally smitten.”

Coe’s version of the same scene 
Photograph by Stu Rosner

That painting, and several others, sold at his first show the following year, convincing him that his new artistic career might succeed. Then he was offered his first exhibit at the Museum of American Bird Art, Finding a Place for Birds. For several years he painted outdoors almost exclusively, then discovered that by bringing his works into the studio, a more controlled environment, “I could make better paintings,” he says, laughing. Yet the “inspiration for every painting [still] comes from being outside,” he adds—“seeing the evocative lighting effect, or a charming motif, or getting a great look at a particular bird.”

Out by the pond on a late sunny afternoon, the green frogs are making their guttural “banjo twangs,” as Coe calls them. “And there’s a pileated woodpecker,” he says, raising his binoculars. “It has that red crest. In the winter, they’ll come right into the yard. Now they’re making that drumming sound”—not for food, but to claim territory. Three birdhouses at the edge of the lawn are for house wrens, tree swallows, and bluebirds. These species typically nest from April through July; Coe considers them, and all the birds that migrate through his yard, “returning friends.”

Bluebirds are a particular favorite. “That amazing blue on their backs. Their cheery and wonderful warbling song, more like a murmur,” he says. “When I was a kid, bluebirds were rare. They were at the top of my list, and it took me years to finally find one.” He watches as a playful pair pass by, dart among the leaves, then perch on the branch of a catalpa tree to sing. Perhaps he’ll paint them, too.  

Read more articles by: Nell Porter Brown

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