Like a chance sighting of a rare bird, the circumstances under which the exhibit of paintings by Maine biologist and artist Walter H. Rich came to be on display at the Zillman Art Museum in Bangor were a matter of things happening in the right place at the right time.
Kendra Raymond, a Hermon resident, for years has had in her possession a number of gouache and watercolor paintings of wild birds of New England by Rich, who was a family friend and longtime colleague of her great-grandfather, William C. Kendall, in the early 1900s in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries office in Portland.
Rich, born in 1866, was an agent for the bureau between 1913 and 1936. In addition to his scientific duties, he was also an accomplished self-taught artist, creating exactingly detailed paintings of birds, fish and other wildlife. Among his many accomplishments was a book titled “Feathered Game of the Northeast,” featuring 80 original images of various bird species, accompanied by his written observations of each bird.
“Some of the original images painted for that book are what we have here, on display right now,” Zillman education director Rochelle Lawrence said. “It’s not contemporary art, which has been a very unique thing for the museum, since that is generally what we do.”
The paintings were given to Kendall by Rich, who then gave them to his daughter, Minerva, who gave them to Raymond’s father, Ken Warner. Warner died in 2006, and the paintings went to Raymond.
They sat in a closet in her Hermon home for more than 15 years until this past winter, when Raymond’s daughter, Neily, suggested that her mother reach out to Zillman director and curator George Kinghorn to see if he’d have any interest in the images.
As it turned out, the timing couldn’t have been better. The Zillman had recently received a University of Maine Arts Initiative seed grant to create an arts education program with the Cobscook Institute in Lubec — something to do with arts and birds, as Cobscook is renowned for its birding programs and has an educational outreach program with area high school students.
The only problem? The museum didn’t really have any bird-centric art.
“George said, ‘Honestly, you won’t believe what perfect timing this is,’” Raymond said. “They wanted to do something with birds and art, and here we are with these beautiful paintings.”
The two opportunities aligned perfectly. Over the spring, Kinghorn, Lawrence and Amber Roth, a University of Maine ornithologist, worked with the high school students at Cobscook, who each picked a painting and researched the bird species depicted, including woodcock, sandpipers, mergansers, plovers, geese and avocets. Each student wrote a statement for each painting, which are on display next to each image, explaining the unique characteristics of each species.
“It was such an interesting educational expedition for all of us,” Lawrence said. “All of this happened so serendipitously, and it’s so neat that it’s all happened right here in Maine.”
Meanwhile, museum technician Aaron Pyle framed all 17 paintings, in preparation for the exhibit that would become “Of a Feather.” It’s on display through Sept. 3 at the downtown Bangor museum.
Raymond said she hoped she’d made her father, grandmother and great-grandfather and Rich all proud to have his work displayed in a museum.
“It feels amazing, because to my knowledge, this is the first exhibition of his work ever mounted, and it’s 70 years after his death,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing, being the steward of these pieces and sharing them with the world.”
There are five other exhibits on display through Sept. 3 at the Zillman.
They include “Home Fires Burning,” installations by Robin Mandel; “Gemini,” paintings and fabric works by New York-based artist Deborah Zlotsky; “Lions and Tigers and Nick,” hyper-realistic portraits of big cats and the artist himself by New York-based painter Nick Sider; “America on a First Name Basis,” oil paintings of small businesses across the country by Matthew Cornell; and “Time and Time Again,” paintings and mixed media works by Cary Glovinski.
There are also selections from the museum’s permanent collection, both upstairs and downstairs.
The museum is open from Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.