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Bringing Rex Brasher’s Watercolors of Birds Back to Life

He had already made up his mind at age 8 that he would paint every bird in North America, a goal that he reached by the end of his life.

The people we most admire can sometimes do things that deeply disappoint us. Such is the case for many ornithologists, who have had to balance their admiration for the bird paintings of John James Audubon with his racism and other offenses.

As a young boy, Rex Brasher was disappointed by Audubon for another reason: He and his father had traveled to see the great nature painter, who had granted them “an audience.”

When father and son arrived, they were told that Audubon would not see them after all, because he was too busy. According to legend, the young Rex Brasher poked his head through a door and saw Audubon at work, painting a dead bird hanging from the ceiling. At that moment, according to the biographical sketch at www.rexbrasher.org/life, “Rex resolved to be better than Audubon.”

He had already made up his mind at age 8 that he would paint every bird in North America, a goal that he reached by the end of his life. Brashers was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but traveled all over the world, living what his website calls “a colorful life.”

In 1911 he bought a 150-acre farm in Kent, Conn., and named it Chickadee Valley. Different histories of Brasher’s life describe several residences and it’s not completely clear whether they’re all the same property or not. But the Rex Brasher website says he had a 116 acre property in the hamlet of Amenia, N.Y., called Wassaic (there is a map of the property at the website); and a biography of the painter says he died at his home in Gaylordsville, which is a town on the southern end of Kent.

At any rate, from his home in the Tri-state region, Brasher continued to dedicate his life to painting every bird on the continent — and reached his goal in 1924, with 874 watercolors that met his exacting standards.

Not that anyone is keeping track, but Audubon only completed paintings of 489 species. And while Audubon painted birds that were “posed” (presumably post-mortem), Brasher painted his in the wild, using extensive notes about the birds and their habitats.

He also wrote text to accompany his drawings. Hoping to gain a wider audience for his work, he published the text and watercolors in a 12-volume book called “Birds and Trees of North America.”

Brasher sold the entire collection to the state of Connecticut in 1941, expecting that the state would build a museum to house and display his work. World War II put an end to those hopes; eventually the University of Connecticut took ownership of Brasher’s work. It is now stored at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center in Storrs; the entire collection is rarely seen.

The painter had two great-nieces, Melode (who died in 2019) and Deborah (who died in February 2021 at the age of 84). The sisters had lived at Chickadee Hill as young girls and again at the end of their lives, and they were founding members of the Rex Brasher Association.

The nonprofit is based in Kent, and last year began a task almost as epic as the actual painting of all those birds: Its members are digitizing every part of the 12-volume “Birds and Trees of North America.” When it’s completed, the pages will be available online. As one can imagine, this is expensive work. The association is seeking donations, which can be made at the website (www.rexbrasher.org).   

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