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Pioneering conservation artist to be honored in exhibit

Largest collection of works by Charles Schwartz to be displayed at Bass Pro, historical society
Monday, September 6, 2010 | 9:34 p.m. CDT; updated 10:33 p.m. CDT, Saturday, April 16, 2011
Joan Stack, Curator of Art Collections at the State Historical Society of Missouri, takes notes as she observes an illustration by Charles Schwartz on Friday, September 3, 2010. Stack is preparing for the Charles Schwartz exhibit, “Missouri’s Audubon: An Artist in Nature,” which will open at a special event at the Columbia Bass Pro Sportsman’s Center on Friday, September 10, 2010. Stack said the idea for the collaboration came when she saw some of Schwartz’s murals in the store.

COLUMBIA — Charles Schwartz filled volumes with artwork that spoke volumes.

Some of it decorates groundbreaking books that ushered the conservation movement into mainstream consciousness. Some of it adorns the walls of the foyer in the Missouri Department of Conservation’s headquarters, chronologically depicting the state’s wildlife and how humans have interacted with it over the centuries.

If you go

CHARLES SCHWARTZ, MISSOURI'S AUDUBON: AN ARTIST IN NATURE

3 to 8 p.m. Friday, Bass Pro Sportsman's Center

The store will host a wine-and-cheese reception to benefit the State Historical Society of Missouri, featuring guided tours of the exhibit conducted by Joan Stack and Glenn Chambers. Admission is $10. Those who wish to attend can pay at the door or can make reservations by calling the historical society at 882-7083.

9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, Bass Pro Sportsman's Center

The exhibit will remain on display, and local artists will be available for workshops from 1 to 4 p.m. Doug Ross and Frank Stack will demonstrate watercolor, while Jeff Nichols will demonstrate acrylic painting. Art teacher Ann Mehr will conduct children's activities, including clay sculpting, drawing from taxidermy, crayon leaf rubbing and gyotaku, the Japanese art of fish printing. Joan Stack will give guided tours at 1 and 3 p.m.

10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Sunday, Bass Pro Sportsman's Center

The exhibit will remain on display. Artists will conduct workshops from 1 to 4 p.m. Ross will again demonstrate watercolor, while Terry Martin will demonstrate pastel and Glenn Chambers will discuss photography techniques and equipment. Mehr will again conduct children's art activities. Chambers will conduct a guided tour at 1 p.m., and Joan Stack will lead another at 3 p.m.


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And some of it is cloistered in private collections or in storage at the State Historical Society of Missouri, where more than 500 of Schwartz's meticulously detailed drawings and paintings lie in wait, often to be used as elements in an exhibit for someone else.

It was never that the society’s directors — or anyone at all familiar with the conservation movement — didn’t appreciate Schwartz or his efforts to make wildlife accessible. But the hundreds of drawings, watercolors, oil paintings, sculptures and films the late artist created prove difficult for any gallery to contain.

Schwartz translated Missouri’s native animals to pages and canvases, but he also worked to keep the state’s wildlife from being confined to them.

The largest collection of Schwartz's art ever assembled opens Friday at Bass Pro Sportsman's Center with a $10 wine-and-cheese reception and guided tours of the art to benefit the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Schwartz as a scientist

For decades, Schwartz worked at the Missouri Department of Conservation making feature-length films with his wife, Elizabeth Schwartz. When fellow conservation department employee Glenn Chambers took a photograph of a ruffed grouse that ended up on the cover of "Missouri Conservationistmagazine, Schwartz was impressed enough to ask Chambers to join him and his wife.

Chambers was reluctant, fearing he didn’t have the technical ability to make films.

"He said, ‘I can find a lot of people in New York City who can use a camera. You have the biological background,” Chambers said. “He wouldn’t let it alone.”

Eventually Schwartz persuaded Chambers, and the team of scientists focused their energy on creating films that educated the public on subjects they felt needed more attention. Chambers and the Schwartzes spent years on each film, usually showing the life cycle of one particular animal.

"There was no getting into it lightly with Charlie,” Chambers said. “Once he decided he was going to work on an animal, he did the absolute in depth of whatever it was about.”

Schwartz published and illustrated a number of books and collaborated with his wife for what is perhaps his best known work, a handbook called “The Wild Mammals of Missouri.” It remains the all-time best seller of the University of Missouri Press more than 40 years after its publication.

Joan Stack, an art curator for the historical society who is helping prepare an upcoming exhibit of Schwartz’s work, noted that every section in the book addresses the control and management of Missouri’s natural resources. Schwartz was not against fishing, hunting or agriculture, Stack said, but he did advocate for respect toward and good stewardship of the land.

Schwartz as a conservationist 

Not that the growth of agriculture didn’t give Schwartz pause.

"Charlie had such a deep insight into the ecology of these critters,” Chambers said, “and he had such deep insight into what made them click.”

David Murphy, executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, said Schwartz could recognize suitable habits for particular animals off the top of his head.

As more prairie land became used for agriculture, “he could read the handwriting on the wall,” Chambers said.

Chambers said Schwartz was instrumental in raising money for Design for Conservation, a campaign that sought to add a one-eighth-cent sales tax to be dedicated to conservation. Schwartz created a painting called “Missouri Canadas,” which depicted wild geese, and made copies available to the campaign’s donors. When the issue came up on the state’s ballot, voters passed the measure overwhelmingly.

Schwartz found other ways to fit subtle political messages into his work. Stack pointed to a drawing he did of a deer looking at the state capital’s skyline.

"I think there’s an implication there that government has a role to play,” she said.

Schwartz as an artist

Schwartz’s abundant knowledge of wildlife and his passion for conserving it poured into a prolific portfolio of artwork.

"Every form of life that you can think of in the state of Missouri — or anywhere else in the country — he’s drawn,” Murphy said.

And he’s drawn them correctly.

“The anatomical qualities of his artwork are always just impeccable,” Murphy said.

But Schwartz managed to show more than what his subjects look like. He communicated something about their personalities as well.

"It's more than just the scientific aspect of the animal," Stack said, pointing out the intricate detail in a playful drawing of a squirrel. "Photographs are not enough to get these attitudes right."

About half of the Schwartz drawings kept at the historical society relate to "Wild Mammals of Missouri" and are accompanied by multiple detailed drawings of each subject's skull and feet, some of them even showing closeups of the animals' teeth.

But Stack said the art created by Schwartz wasn't meant for scientists alone. He was working to make nature more accessible to everyone.

"This in a way is a way to get the public to know what it's about," Stack said of his artwork. "It's definitely a modern attitude toward respect for the land."

Some of his work contains subtle jabs at those who disrespect the land as well. Chambers described a sculpture in which Schwartz decided to add a wolf relieving itself on a trap.

"Charlie had a little bit of a sense of humor," Murphy said, adding that even when Schwartz added humorous details, he still recreated wildlife with remarkable accuracy.

Schwartz’s work as an exhibit

Stack said Schwartz's work is well known among conservationists, but the historical society is collaborating with the Conservation Federation and Bass Pro to bring a new level of appreciation to Schwartz's contributions to the movement.

Bass Pro will display his art beginning with the reception and guided tours Friday evening and a public exhibition with art workshops for children and adults Saturday and Sunday. The exhibit will then move to the historical society on the east side of Ellis Library at MU, opening Sept. 14. Schwartz's work will remain on display until January.

Schwartz, who died in 1991, has had his work featured in exhibits previously, but not to the extent it will be celebrated this time.

"I think this is the first retrospective exhibit of his work," Stack said, adding that the historical society is trying to show a fuller picture of Schwartz as an artist.

"I see Charles Schwartz as this wonderful manifestation of both our aesthetic history and our conservation history," she said.


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