Person of the Week
Michael DiGiorgio: Illustrating the World of Birds
Mike DiGiorgio presents his illustrations and paintings of birds from around the world in his exhibit, From Field to Frame: The Avian Art of Michael DiGiorgio, at the Connecticut River Museum through Thursday, May 3. At the museum, Mike stands in front of a mural he painted depicting nature in three seasons on the Connecticut River. (Photo by Susan Talpey/The Source)
Central America Bittern and Heron Plate by Michael DiGiorgio)
Yellow-throated Toucan by Michael DiGiorgio)
Growing up, Michael (Mike) DiGiorgio spent his weekends lost in the woods near his hometown of Schenectady, New York, with just a sketchbook and pencil for company.
“As a boy, I was always fascinated by birds, probably because they fly. My family would go on picnics and at the end of the day they’d have to send out a search party for me because I’d be somewhere in the woods looking at birds,” he says. “I discovered I had a talent for drawing, and artists always draw what they love, so naturally I started to draw birds.”
Over many decades, Mike, who now calls Madison home, honed his artistic skills on the shoreline. An exhibition of his favorite illustrations and artwork, From Field to Frame: The Avian Art of Michael DiGiorgio, is now on display at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex. He is excited to speak with fellow bird and art lovers at his talk, “Journey of a Bird Artist,” on Friday, April 13.
“Whatever I’m doing, I’m looking at birds, and everywhere I go, I sketch birds. It’s just the way I’m built,” he says. “Birdwatching is a fast-growing hobby. People enjoy being out in nature and seeing what they can find. I like the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the world of birds and how important they are in nature.”
A Life’s Work on the Walls
From Field to Frame features three different stages in the evolution of Mike’s work: sketches of his early work with studies of individual bird species, detailed bird illustrations published in field guides, and watercolor paintings of birds in their natural environment.
“In my exploratory work in the sketch books, I’m learning about the subject. The sketches show how I learned to illustrate various parts of each bird and then developed my skills,” he says.
Now affiliated with Yale University, Mike regularly borrows bird skins from the extensive collection at Yale’s Peabody Museum, as well as the Museum of Natural History in New York, to ensure his illustrations are accurate.
“Artists and scientists use the skins to study birds. The colors of a birds may change after they die, but having the skin helps me to illustrate the plumage and the flesh,” he says.
Mike’s collection includes bird paintings from his travels to Ecuador, Panama, Belize, Costa Rica, Trinidad, England, Ireland, Scotland, and Italy.
“This is the type of painting I enjoy the most. It’s a recording of the experiences I’ve had and the birds I’ve seen,” he says. “It’s the work I love and it comes from the heart.”
Mike’s watercolor paintings have graced the covers of seven issues of Bird Watchers Digest magazine—from his first in 1996 to his most recent in 2012. The publication’s owner recommended Mike to the publisher of Peterson Field Guides, and he was commissioned to contribute to new editions of the esteemed book series.
“I got my first big break with supplemental drawings, the detailed illustrations that are separate from whole bird such as a study of the beak, the feet, or a wing,” he says. “When I’m illustrating for a book or a field guide, the goal is for the audience to be able to identify the bird from the picture, as it’s important to be as accurate as possible. The new generation of bird watchers are very technical and they are looking for very specific marks on sub-species of birds.”
Mike’s favorite illustration project is the one he’s currently working on, The Birds of South America field guide series with Robert Ridgely and Guy Tudor, now in its third volume. Mike previously worked with the team on the Birds of Brazil book series.
“These are the top people in the field and I’m pleased to have them overseeing my work,” he says. “As an illustrator of field guides, you are assigned a family of birds to illustrate, according to rank, so the more experienced artists get the sexy birds like the toucans and the parrots—the birds that people travel to South America to see. No one wants to get the shore birds or the gulls. In this book, I’m doing the toucans,” he says, smiling.
A Passion for the Natural World
While Mike’s passion for drawing birds began early, it took decades to reach a professional standard. After graduating high school, Mike studied agronomy soil science at the State University of New York at Cobleskill and art at Potsdam, before working as a greeting card artist. In 1985, Mike moved to Connecticut for a job with the classroom magazine, Weekly Reader, in Middletown, where he learned computer graphics and design, and in 1990, he found a new home in Madison.
“One of the big draws was being so close to Hammonasset Beach and the access to the shoreline. We go there all the time and it’s a great place to watch birds,” he says.
Mike’s early artistic inspiration was Don Eckelberry, described in his New York Times’ obituary in 2001 as “a prolific illustrator who was one of the country’s foremost bird painters.” In his 20s, Mike’s illustrating idol became his mentor.
“In his work, Don Eckelberry captured the soul of the bird. When you see one of his illustrations and then see the bird in real life, they are exactly the same,” he says. “For me, it was like meeting a movie star. Luckily for me, he enjoyed meeting and helping young artists, so I met with Don several times a year until he died. He was my main source of inspiration and encouragement, and that’s really when my work took a leap forward.”
In addition to his freelance illustrating projects, Mike teaches drawing, art appreciation, and two-dimensional design at Middlesex Community College in Middletown.
“You’re insane if you think you can make a living out of drawing birds, but I won’t give it up. When I’m painting is when I feel most alive. I’ve spent my whole life painting birds, but it’s a still a labor of love. My wife, Kate Davis, is a talented writer and poet, so fortunately we’re two artists who understand how it works.”
With the natural scene of the Connecticut River outside the window of the exhibition, Mike is pleased to show his artwork at the museum—and it’s not his only artwork here. In 2016, the museum commissioned Mike to paint a permanent mural depicting local wildlife, above and below the water, in three seasons: summer, fall, and winter.
A self-described environmentalist, Mike is also a member of the Madison Land Conservation Trust.
“As a bird illustrator and wildlife artist, in a way I feel like Frederic Remington who painted the [American Old] West because it was fading away. The birds I paint may not be around much longer and in the future, someone may look at my work and say ‘Oh, that’s what is once looked like.’ My first-person observation may be the closest they will ever come to seeing it.
“My greatest hope is that my work inspires people to become bird watchers and to want to go out and save them. I’ve been out in the woods my whole life and I can see the changes and the bad things that are happening to our environment. If people start looking at birds, the best result is that they love the natural world and want to protect it.”
From Field to Frame: The Avian Art of Michael DiGiorgio is on display at the Connecticut River Museum, 67 Main Street, Essex, through Thursday, May 3. There is an artist talk, “Journey of a Bird Artist,” on Friday, April 13 at 5:30 p.m. The museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 adults; $8 seniors, and military and their immediate family members; $7 students; $6 children 6 to 12 years; and children under 6 years free. Free museum passes are available to residents at many local libraries. For more information, call 860-767-8269 or visit email@example.com.