Close up of the large Lewis Cross painting in the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Close up of the large Lewis Cross painting in the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

In the course of my passenger pigeon work I have become a big fan of Lewis Cross. He is an obscure painter whose work is best known in Michigan, where he lived and died. From the perspective of art historians, he is a naive painter with some talent but probably not outstanding. But in the world of the passenger pigeon art he may indeed be unique in this important respect: unlike Audubon and Wilson say, his intent was not to create technically accurate images but rather to convey the awe he felt when he witnessed the huge flocks of passenger pigeons as they coursed over him. He  painted them in what Walton Ford refers to as expressive natural history, but unlike other artists who have adopted this style, he knew the birds in life. He did not want people to forget this remarkable creature: “There are not many of us left who remember the pigeons as they were then. Maybe some of my work is not artistic but it is historical.”

Passenger pigeons figured in a number of his paintings, several of which I have seen on-line. I have now seen three in person. Back in April 2011, Lizzie Condon and I visited the LakeShoreMuseumCenter in Muskegon and saw one superb example, along with the stuffed pigeon that Cross used as his model. (http://www.birdzilla.com/blog/2011/05/30/p3-in-michigan-lizzies-and-joels-marvelous-adventure/) On the weekend of December 7, with two friends from the Field  Museum in tow, Josh Engel and Amanda Ziegler, I headed up to the beautiful Grand RapidsArt Museum where we met Cindy Laug of GrandValleyStateUniversity who helped me make connections and who acted as our guide for the second adventure of the day.

The museum has two Cross paintings. The large canvas we wanted to see is not on display so we were fortunate that Associate Curator Cindy Buckner graciously showed us the painting. It is a huge piece, about seven feet high and 12 feet long. Whatever weaknesses Cross had as a draughtsman, he did capture better than anyone those descriptions of what Aldo Leopold called, the feathered tempest.

Cross had a flair that went beyond his paintings. He built a large house out of concrete blocks and situated it on the family holdings overlooking Doremo Bayou. Cindy knows the Seys, the present owners and made arrangements fro us to visit. Mrs. Hey is a  local historian and authority on Lewis Cross, whom she knew when she was a child. As you climb the steps to the family’s living quarters, you are met by another large Cross painting of passenger pigeons on the wall. Mr. and Mrs. Hey were very generous with their time and told us how the house and surrounding lands had changed over time. An eerie touch was the knowledge that Cross, infirm and losing his eye sight, took his own life and tumbled to the bottom of those stairs.

The painting that greets the visitor to the home Cross built and stairway to the upstairs living quarters.

The painting that greets the visitor to the home Cross built and stairway to the upstairs living quarters.

 

Josh, Cindy, Mrs. and Mr. Hey, and Amanda.

Josh, Cindy, Mrs. and Mr. Hey, and Amanda.

 

We dropped Cindy off at her car and Josh, Amanda, and I headed for Ann Arbor where we were having dinner with Ralph and Janet Finch and Sara Cole. I had met the Finches last year: he is a former newspaper editor and avid collector of 19th Century glass shooting targets. Back in the old days, people used live passenger pigeons and other birds as live targets for trap shooting meets. Passenger pigeons became unavailable and attitudes changed so people switched to the glass balls and then later to the “clay pigeons” that are used today. He publishes a newsletter on the glass orbs called OnTarget!

Also joining our party was Sara Cole, a graduate student at U of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. I met her last spring in the university’s  bird collection where she volunteers. She is yet another who has been moved by the pigeon story which she has known since childhood. For a while, she generously acted as Project Passenger Pigeon’s web-manager, uploading new material to our web-site. She had not finished semester duties yet and needed to complete a paper, so after dinner we dropped her off and then headed to our motel. A terrific weekend following in the wake of the wandering migrant.

Dinner in Ann Arbor, Amanda, Josh, Janet, Ralph, and Sara.

Dinner in Ann Arbor, Amanda, Josh, Janet, Ralph, and Sara.

3 Comments to “To Grand Rapids and Cross”

  1. Edward Pfeiffer says:

    I am reading your book A Feathered River Across The Sky after reading a review in The New Yorker. It is well written but a heart-breaking read! I have to put it down from time to time due to rage and sadness but then go back to read a little more and I have now advanced to the last great nestings. Sadly I can see parallels to what’s happening to wildlife in Africa and in the oceans. Not to mention the denial of global warming!

    When will we learn?

    I was always interested in this story. I had read an excellent article about a place called Pigeon Hill near Lake Placid in the Adirondacks in Adirondack Life magazine of a few years ago, where Passenger Pigeons may have roosted. The writer opined that it was primarily hunting and commercial exploitation that killed them off. So I knew the story of their extinction in general but never in this detail. Thank you so much for writing this book.

    Ed Pfeiffer

  2. Joel says:

    Thanks so much Mr. Pfeiffer. Hopefully, when learning of stories like the passenger pigeon, some people will pause to at least consider the consequences of unbridled exploitation of resources. Maybe they will proceed a bit more carefully.

  3. Edward Pfeiffer says:

    Thanks Joel,

    For finding me here. I thought I’ d kind of posted my comments off the beaten track. I need to correct the citation to the Adirondack Life article. It was about 10 years ago. The title was “In Search of Something Lost” by Edward Kanze and the place that he bushwacked to was near Lake Placid called Pigeon Roost.

    Ed Pfeiffer

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