Robert Verity Clem

by Paul Donahue

With the recent passing of Robert Verity Clem, the world lost a great man, the ornithological and art worlds lost one of the greatest bird painters of all time, I lost a good friend, mentor, and source of inspiration, and the birds lost one of their greatest, most passionate, and most sensitive admirers.

I feel incredibly privileged to have known Bob Clem. Since I first met him back in 1972,  apart from the birds themselves, Bob has been my most important source of artistic inspiration. If I could paint like any artist in the world, bird artist or otherwise, it would be him. I can hardly look at a shorebird or stretch of beach or dune without thinking of him, and his artwork has had a profound effect on my appreciation of these creatures and places. Shorebirds are far and away my favorite birds, and in no small part because of Bob’s art. Every time I sit down to paint a shorebird, or any other bird, I can hear his advice playing in the back of my head….. “the color of everything we see is affected by reflected light…..everything has a soft edge to it, even the blade of a knife…only paint what you can see…stay away from tiny pointed brushes” (the last point being something I’ve failed at miserably).

Returning from a canoe trip to Monomoy in November 1972 to watch the wintering Gyrfalcon, Clare Walker Leslie and I stopped at Winty and Andrea Harrington’s on Morris Island in Chatham. I already knew of Robert Verity Clem from The Shorebirds of North America. I had spent many, many hours poring over Bob’s paintings and drawings in Manomet Bird Observatory’s copy of the book, but had never met him. Winty and Andrea, however, knew Bob well, and as Clare and I were both drawing and painting birds, they urged us to meet him. With Winty’s help, Clare arranged a meeting and a few days later we found ourselves in Bob’s studio in Chatham. For me, it was a life-altering experience.

On his drawing table was a half completed painting of a small group of Harlequins feeding in a rushing river in Iceland, a piece inspired by a scene he saw on a recent trip there. We spent a little while talking about his painting and Iceland, then turned to the artwork that Clare and I had brought along for his review.

For Clare’s artwork, Bob had abundant praise. Maybe it was because Clare was a beautiful young woman, maybe it was because her work was that much better than mine. In any case, with me, it was a different matter. I had brought along a collection of what I considered my best drawings and paintings, and Bob spent an hour or so mercilessly criticizing them. I still remember vividly his remark about one painting he especially disliked. When I asked him what was wrong with it, he replied, “There’s nothing right with it.”

His harsh criticism was hard for me to hear, very hard, but I suppose it was necessary. At one point in his annihilation of my work he told me that he knew he was being very tough in his criticism, but if it discouraged me from painting birds, then I wasn’t meant to paint them in the first place….and if I was meant to paint birds, then his words wouldn’t stop me. Luckily for me, I wasn’t discouraged.

Over the next seven or eight years I made annual pilgrimages to Bob’s studio in Chatham. Each time I would bring along my best recent work, and each time he would figuratively rip it apart. Every so often, rarely, there was praise for a painting or an aspect of a painting, and I was able to depart from his studio without feeling completely devastated.

Always one of the highlights of visiting Bob was seeing the painting he had most recently completed, or the half-finished painting still on his drawing table. By the time I met Bob he had moved away from the gouache paintings of the shorebird book era and was working exclusively in transparent watercolor. I never ceased to be awed by his mastery of the medium. Watercolor is a difficult medium to master, to say the least, and very, very, very  few painters of birds or any other subject ever attain the level of virtuosity exhibited by Bob. Most watercolor paintings are collections of loose washes with splotches and strokes of bold color here and there, or, alternatively, muddy messes. Bob’s watercolors, on the other hand, are exquisitely textured and detailed, with subtle gradations of color. Eschewing the use of white or other opaque paints relied upon by most bird painters, his light tones all emanated from the white of the paper.

Try as I would, I had no idea how he achieved the effects he did. On one of my visits, sensing my frustration, he picked up a brush to demonstrate his technique. Working on a clean sheet of paper in my drawing pad, with no reference to photos or specimens, and with no preliminary pencil work (something no other bird artist I know would forego), he began making what appeared at first to be random grayish brush strokes on the paper. Working fast, over the next ten minutes he laid down a mosaic of these neutral gray brush strokes, with each stroke bringing the emerging bird form into sharper focus. When his mosaic was complete, he waited a few minutes for the paint to dry, then switched over to brighter colors. In rapid succession, still working fast to avoid disturbing the neutral gray underpainting, he applied thin washes of blues and browns over his slate-gray mosaic. Magically, the dark markings rose through the colored washes, and a bird came to life on the paper. The whole process could not have taken more than 15 or 20 minutes. He proclaimed the bird a “Pin-tailed Cotinga”, a fictitious species named in memory of a recent trip to Panama, and made me promise to never attribute the painting to him. The little painting remains one of my prized possessions.

On a pilgrimage to Bob’s in January 1975, he was frustrated with my very limited experience in working from freshly dead birds. Freshly dead birds are the ultimate reference material for bird artists, making it very clear how all the many feather tracts shift and overlap as the bird’s head, wings, legs and tail are moved from one position to another. This is very hard to see on a live bird as it flips and flops and struggles to get free. Mounted birds don’t show this either - there’s nothing deader-looking than a mounted bird. Not even good photographs, static as they are, show the interplay of the feather tracts. Many important bird artists throughout history, including Bob in his earlier years, have made extensive use of recently expired birds.

Since I had been reluctant to go out with a gun to bag models of my own, to make a point, Bob decided to procure a freshly dead bird for me. He grabbed his pellet gun from the closet, opened the window to his backyard, and took aim at a Mourning Dove on the bird feeder. He waited until the dove raised its wings over its head, then placed the shot high on the bird’s flanks, in a spot which would not show when the wings returned to a relaxed position. Retrieving the specimen from the backyard, he laid it ever so gingerly on his kitchen table, being careful not to disturb the powdery bloom on the bird’s dorsal plumage. I was then instructed to guard it carefully until I got back to my studio.

On another visit to Bob’s in 1977, we were talking about falcons, and Bob brought out a box of slides to show me a few of his falcon paintings. In the slide box there was also a slide of a Gyrfalcon painting by the renowned bird painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes. At one point Bob noticed me holding up together slides of the Fuertes Gyr and one of his own Gyr paintings. He quickly snatched them from my hand, telling me it was unfair to compare his work with that of Fuertes, implying he would never measure up to the great Fuertes. I am a great admirer of Fuertes myself, and appreciated his genius in portraying feathered creatures in paint, but to my eye, Bob had nothing to fear in the comparison. Bird art is somewhat like science, with each generation of bird painters learning from those who went before them. Bob had carefully studied Fuertes’ work, gleaned what he could from it, and moved on to an even greater mastery of the feathered form.

After the late 1970’s, I lost touch with Bob. My admiration for him and his work had not wavered in the slightest, but I was growing increasingly uneasy that maybe I wasn’t living up to whatever expectations he might have had for the improvement of my work. Just the same, I was always on the look out for Bob’s paintings.

In the 1980’s I spent a year living in New Haven, Connecticut. One day I was walking by Merwin’s Art Shop on York Street and spotted in the front window a large painting of a saltmarsh scene with a small Merlin perched on a driftwood log. I instantly recognized the style as Bob’s and when I went in to inquire about the painting, I discovered a dozen of his works on display inside. From then on, I made periodic stops at the gallery to see if any new paintings by Bob had come in. On one of these visits I met up with Robert O. Muller, the former owner of the gallery, and learned that he had a large private collection of Bob’s paintings up at his farm in Sandy Hook. I promptly invited myself up for a look.

When my wife Teresa and I arrived at Robert Muller’s the next day, we were led into the main house. The first thing that struck me was a large gouache Clem painting of a couple of Buff-breasted Sandpipers walking around in the Hudsonia moors of South Monomoy. Looking further, I saw that the walls of the house were lined with Bob’s paintings, almost all gouache paintings from the era of the shorebird book or earlier. We sat around while our host finished his lunch, promising he would show us the main collection afterwards.

Leaving the main house, we walked over to an unassuming red barn. From the outside it was just another rural New England barn, but inside it was quite another story. The main area of the barn had been converted into an art gallery, complete with white walls, carpeted flooring and track lighting. Robert Muller was also a collector of Japanese prints, and his collection of these was hanging at the moment. He began to roll up the prints, and once they were safely stowed away, he started bringing out Bob’s paintings.

One by one he placed Bob’s paintings against the wall, slowly working around the room until we were encircled by Bob’s work. The paintings were all watercolor landscapes with small birds. The saltmarsh Merlin I had originally seen in the shop was there, along with dozens of other paintings. Over the years, Muller had snatched up the best of Bob’s work to come through the shop, and his collection was now all here between the house and barn. It was overwhelming - completely overwhelming. I slowly made my way from painting to painting, crawling on my hands and knees around the perimeter of the room. After I had made a circuit, Muller began pulling out still more of Bob’s work, leaning a second layer against the wall…then a third. There must have been a hundred paintings laid out on his gallery’s floor, and I spent two or three hours poring over them. Finally, with other obligations for the evening looming, I reluctantly pulled myself away from the breathtaking collection of artwork. As Muller led us from the barn, I glanced into his storeroom, and saw still more stacks of unrevealed paintings by Bob - dozens more paintings. Had I been invited, I could have gone back to camp out in the barn for another month.

In January 2000, the exhibit of Bob’s paintings at Massachusetts Audubon’s Visual Arts Center in Canton set me on a path to reconnecting with Bob. There I met his partner Louisa Russell for the first time, and she strongly encouraged me to get in touch with him. A few months later, Bob and I made plans to meet up at Betty Anderson’s in Middleboro while he was there videotaping her nesting Northern Goshawks. I was simultaneously thrilled and filled with trepidation. The reconnection after so many years went very well, and after that I made a point of trying to see Bob whenever I passed through Massachusetts.

Bob’s appreciation of birds was always apparent, with the subtlest things about them never failing to capture his attention or delight him - the little shadow created by the parting of the feathers on the breast of a Semipalmated Plover, or the way the little Saw-Whet Owl roosting by his studio would stretch out a leg, then tuck its foot back into its fluffed out belly feathers. Almost a ritual of every visit was time spent hand-feeding sunflower seeds to the Black-capped Chickadees in his backyard. Even a bird so common was worthy of his attention, though he admitted to me that he gave up trying to paint them long ago because they were just too perfect.

When we weren’t talking about birds or about either my paintings or his, we talked about bird art in general. To say Bob was very opinioned on the subject would be an understatement. He knew whose work he really liked and whose he did not, praising the former and leveling tough criticism at the latter. He also regretted and resented how the art world has relegated bird painting and wildlife painting, in general, to a separate category, distinct from “real” art. If the birds were removed from his landscapes, the paintings could be hung on the walls of any art gallery - with the birds included, they were just “wildlife art”.

A recurring topic with Bob was the Shorebirds of North America. Most people I know regard the book as a beautiful blending of art and science, with, especially for the date, spectacularly reproduced paintings. Bob, on the other hand, regarded the book as a disaster, being very disappointed in the way the editors badly cropped his paintings. It was because of that book that he shied away from any future publishing projects, and why he and his work are so little known outside of southern New England. To me it has always seemed so regrettable that such an impressive body of work has largely escaped the wide exposure it deserves.

I wish other aspiring painters of birds could be as fortunate as I was to have the benefit of Bob’s inspiration and advice. My visits and birding excursions with Bob and the time spent in his studio have been among the most cherished high points of each year. The trips to South Beach and Monomoy with him, the areas he loved so much and knew and portrayed so well, shall remain very special days etched in my memory forever. I will dearly miss the time I was lucky enough to spend with him.

29 September 2010