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Open Mic: Owen J. Gromme – An Enduring Legacy through a Birder’s Eyes

At the Mic: Susan Ford-Hoffert

The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin, is grateful that Susan Ford-Hoffert – an experienced and well-traveled birder and also a longtime Museum member and enthusiast – took time to share her keen and beautifully written observations about Owen J.
Gromme: An Enduring Legacy, on view through July 2013.


Growing up in rural Wisconsin, the daughter of an avid outdoorsman, I was surrounded by Labradors and German Shorthairs, regularly oiled my leather Red Wing boots and spent hours on the banks of the Wisconsin River. I ate game and walked miles with my father and the dogs, learning the importance of good habitat and clean water to maintaining healthy populations of waterfowl and upland game. I also learned that such healthy environments also benefit sparrows, warblers, and chickadees. Frankly, it benefits all of us.

So loving Owen J. Gromme’s work is a no brainer. Surrounded by his paintings of upland and water fowl – grouse stripping a tree of buds in early winter, geese settling in for the night at Horicon Marsh, sandhill cranes chaperoning their colts in early spring – I am home.

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Gromme knew the importance of ecology long before the first Earth Day. As head curator of birds and mammals at the Milwaukee Public Museum, he was also an avid conservationist. I have an old, slightly musty edition of his Birds of Wisconsin. The plates are a bit faded but they still show a liveliness and affection for his subjects.

My favorite is the first plate – two bald eagles watch as a distant osprey flies away with a good-sized fish in its talons. The birds are rendered  perfectly, but the best part is the energy in this painting. The eagles are MAD! One is launching from its perch with obvious piratical intent. The other, I gleefully imagine, is screaming insults and epithets at the disappearing bird (although given the weak eeks an eagle makes, I’m sure the osprey just rolled its eyes).

Gromme infuses his paintings with emotion but not at the expense of accuracy. I know these places. I have walked those marshes and woodlands and I know these scenes. So I was absolutely delighted to find that eagle painting at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin, as part of Owen J. Gromme: An Enduring Legacy on view in the Museum’s new building addition gallery. It is one of forty-three paintings commissioned in 1965 by the Marshall & Isley Bank for its new Milwaukee building. BMO Harris Bank acquired M&I and in 2011 donated the collection to the Woodson Art Museum. This is particularly satisfying given Gromme’s and the Museum’s history. He was instrumental in organizing the first Birds in Art exhibition back in the early 70s. It is right that his best collection comes home to stay in Wisconsin.

Right now all the paintings are on view through July, something worth a trip to see. Each tells a story – the wolf staring at the tundra swan swimming beyond his reach on a windy winter day; the redwing blackbirds harassing a great blue heron midair, two hawks passing “lunch” to each other on the wing, evening grosbeaks perched like lemony Christmas ornaments in the pines. Walking through the collection can take awhile; I keep finding new details in each piece.

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A recreation of Gromme’s studio dominates the gallery. It’s the kind of place where I want to spend some time – pulling out his many reference books (Birds of Wisconsin is there), posing the artist models of the turkey and goose, fingering the collection of bird eggs, and pouring through all his sketches. It’s a good kind of mess; the kind left by a man who is creative and curious and excited by his subject.

Gromme was born in 1896 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and spent his early years along Lake Winnebago, watching great flocks of geese and ducks on the waters. He was an avid hunter and taxidermist. At twenty-one he worked for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago as a taxidermist. After World War I, he joined the Milwaukee Public Museum where eventually he became the head curator of birds and mammals until his retirement.

Gromme was a charter member of the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology and helped found and organize the International Crane Foundation. He helped form the Wisconsin Peregrine Society that reintroduced the birds to the state. He had his fingers in every issue that affected birds and wildlife in Wisconsin because Gromme loved them and what they represented. He wanted to ensure that every generation had a chance to experience the wild beauty of the natural world. So he did something about it.

As his museum career took off, he began collecting data on Wisconsin wildlife, which gave scientific evidence to population increases and, more often, declines. Gromme became a conservationist and activist early – which meant he was often the first and sometimes only voice calling for better wildlife laws. In the 1930s, he stood with Aldo Leopold to fight for protection of herons and bitterns, who were being exterminated by fishermen thinking the birds were threats to the state’s fisheries. He built and operated Wisconsin’s first hawk trapping and banding station. In 1961, he went to Washington in the fight to save Horicon Marsh. He stood up in the 1970s when chemical insecticides were found to be killing birds. He took on the DNR as well as the Federal Fish and Wildlife Services when he thought they were on the wrong side of issues that touched wildlife resources and refuges. Word has it he could be cranky but, well, he was effective.

The work of this splendid man who died in 1991 doesn’t document the past. It celebrates the present. A pair of sandhill cranes flies into dawn;you can see the underside of one bird and the back of the other. A field-guide-worthy picture. But it’s more – if you give yourself to it, you will hear their trumpets and the buzz of the mosquitos. You’ll feel the cool air on your cheek and smell the dampness of that bog. You’ll feel the love of the artist for this scene, these birds, this wild place – which still exists in no small part because of Gromme’s conservation efforts.

The birds of Owen J. Gromme are his enduring legacy in art and in life.

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