Legacy of Love
A young woman’s masterful contribution to ornithology is a testament to family devotion.
“I am going to die and if you and Lizzie want to, you can go on with the book just as if I were alive,” she told her only sibling. “Mother will help.”
The next day, Gennie’s soul took flight, but so did her family’s determination to finish the 32-year-old’s ambitious life’s work. The book that began as a means to mend Gennie’s broken heart became a healing journey for her grieving family — and has been praised as a contribution to the field of ornithology equal to or even surpassing iconic wildlife artist John James Audubon.
Cuyahoga Falls author Joy M. Kiser has chronicled this tender story of art, science and a Circleville family’s love in her Ohioana Award-winning book, America’s Other Audubon (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). For Kiser, it began with a small exhibit label at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History — and Gennie’s penetrating brown eyes.
In 1995, on her first day as the museum’s assistant librarian, Kiser passed a display featuring Gennie’s photo and a copy of Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio. In scant few lines, the label noted Gennie’s family spent eight years painstakingly completing the text and drawings following her unexpected death from typhoid fever.
Sitting in her own nest, watching birds at the feeders outside her home on the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Kiser explains that she looked into Gennie’s face every day after arriving at work, haunted by the questions not answered by the label.
“I had to know: What kind of person motivates an entire family to do what Gennie’s family did?” Kiser recalls. “And what kind of family was that?”
Kiser, now an advancement research specialist at Kent State University, began a 15-year journey through historical records and Jones family archives to uncover the story within the story.
Gennie’s father Nelson was a physician and ardent amateur naturalist. As a child, Gennie often rode along as he called on his patients. On those buggy rides through the countryside, Nelson taught his daughter the fundamentals of ornithology. They gathered nests for their burgeoning collection and rescued injured birds. Howard soon joined their adventures.
Gennie’s mother Virginia didn’t share her children’s fascination with nature, but nurtured their appetite for learning — objecting only when the morning singing from the house’s bird cages grew loud enough to wake the neighbors, writes Kiser.
One day, Gennie found a nest she couldn’t identify. Poring through her father’s reference books, she realized no one had published a book devoted to nests and eggs. The need to fill this gap in American ornithology came up frequently in family conversations.
Genevieve grew into a tall, brilliant young woman. She excelled in science, math and music, sewed her own clothes and was an accomplished painter. But when her parents ended Gennie’s romance with a suitor because of the young man’s recurring drinking problem, she grew sullen. To lift her spirits, they proposed she begin work on the book the family had always talked about. Gennie agreed.
“I think she was looking for meaning in her life,” Kiser says. “She was 30, she’d lost what she thought was her only chance to be married … I’m thinking she tried to settle on something that she thought would be significant and meaningful.”
It would be a lavish, expansive and expensive work. The drawings would be full-scale, hand-colored and depict in all their wild beauty the nests and eggs of 130 species of birds that nested in Ohio. Nelson devised a business plan to sell the book in installments by subscription to finance the otherwise insurmountable printing cost. Howard would collect the nests and compose the field notes. Gennie’s closest friend, Eliza Shulze, would assist with the drawing and coloring.
The women learned lithography through correspondence with the book’s Cincinnati publisher. Every twig, every blade of grass, every speck in every eggshell was drawn with a wax pencil on a 65-pound stone. The stones were crated and shipped to the printer — sometimes making several round trips until the artists learned how to keep the pencils sharp and the lines crisp. When the family dining room became a jungle of nests, Nelson built a second-story studio in the barn behind the house.
The first installment of Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio was roundly praised. The American Ornithologists’ Union didn’t admit women to its ranks, but that didn’t stop co-founder William Brewster from offering this review of Gennie’s Wood Thrush nest: “… (It) is in its kind a perfect masterpiece. I find that my eyes dwell on it long and lovingly every time that I open the work and glance through its pages.” The subscription list climbed from 20 to 39 and included the names of a former president — Rutherford B. Hayes — and a future president — a young naturalist named Theodore Roosevelt.
With the first installment garnering critical acclaim and work on the second complete, Gennie died. After weeks of grief and deliberation, it was the unlikeliest of all who decided to pick up Gennie’s pencil where it fell: her mother Virginia.
Eliza stayed long enough to teach her the basics of lithography before leaving for art school in New York. A casual artist at best, Virginia willed herself to learn. Soon she produced drawings “every bit as lovely, exacting and accurate as her daughter’s,” writes Kiser.
Howard and Virginia, too, were struck with typhoid fever, but survived. Virginia’s eyes were weakened, but she continued to draw. Howard’s heart was damaged, but he still rode into the country to collect nests. Nelson spent his entire retirement savings — $25,000 — to see 90 copies of the book to completion.
“It’s amazing that they persevered and overcame those things — and even more amazing is the fact her mother took it up when she had no interest at all in such a project or in birds,” Kiser says. “It didn’t bring her pleasure to look at the nests, the way it did Gennie.”
While Eliza’s and Virginia’s work convey technical perfection, it was Gennie who could see the artistry in each bird’s twig-mud-and-grass creation.
“It was her love of the subject that made her drawings different. Eliza didn’t love the nests, she loved her friend. Gennie’s mother didn’t love the nests, but she loved her family,” says Kiser.
After the deaths of Nelson and Virginia, Howard locked the studio where the family had worked. It remained sealed for 32 years — as if what was accomplished there had made it a sacred space. Howard lived to 92 and spent his life promoting Gennie’s book. Today, only 27 known copies exist, making it extraordinarily rare — and valuable. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History copy that inspired Kiser was appraised at $80,000 in 1998.
Unlike many of us, Kiser says, Gennie never got a second chance at love or a career. She didn’t have the opportunity to go to college or marry and start a family. Gennie’s life ended just as it was beginning. But her family made sure her spirit and talents would be remembered. And now, America’s Other Audubon makes Gennie’s work widely available for the first time in 133 years.
Her life’s work has gone on, just as Genevieve Jones said to her brother, as if she were alive.
America’s Other Audubon is available at bookstores and from Princeton Architectural Press at papress.com. Kiser’s upcoming appearances include the Buckeye Book Fair in Wooster on Nov. 2 and the Aldus Society at the Thurber Center in Columbus on April 10, 2014. For information, visit americasotheraudubon.com.