Chico Museum curator Paul Russell talks about the current Grayson exhibit
Louisiana native Andrew Jackson Grayson was denied a career in art by his strict school teachers and even stricter father. After all, it was the early 19th century in America, and art was considered, at best, a luxury; at worst, a dilettante’s trifling, the dubious efforts of one with too much time on one’s hands. And so, as many have, he settled into a rather unremarkable life, opening a general store with a modest inheritance from his father’s estate, marrying and becoming a father himself.
But seemingly whatever the perception that long ago inclined him toward art, whatever the spark that inspires a unique view of the world, it still flickered within Grayson. And reignited. For in 1846 he and his young family pulled up stakes and joined the ranks of a wagon train on the Overland Trail bound for California. Along the way, Grayson began keeping notes on the various bird species he observed. And making sketches.
After a few years in San Francisco, Grayson happened onto John J. Audubon’s classic illustrated tome, Birds of America. While impressed with Audubon’s watercolors of Eastern species, Grayson couldn’t help but realize the book did not contain any Western American birds. It was then that he realized his true calling.
Butte County native and the Chico Museum’s current curator Paul Russell didn’t have to undergo quite as much as Grayson did to realize his artistic ambitions. He says he always knew he wanted to work in a museum. Having attended school in the Oroville area, after graduating Russell enrolled at Chico State University.
"[The university] didn’t really have any degrees in museum curating,” Russell points out. Bespectacled, bearded, wearing his hair in a ponytail, the 30-something curator explains how he ended up at Chico Museum. Unable to study what he wished, Russell bided his time earning a bachelor’s degree in art, in lithography—printmaking with sections of stone. However, when he eventually enrolled to work on a master’s degree, it was as an anthropology student. Russell discovered that there were anthropology classes offered at Chico State that taught such things as museum display.
“I actually became the curator for the Museum of Anthropology,” Russell says. “From ‘92 to ‘96, something like that.” When he learned that the curator position was opening at the Chico Museum, Russell applied. And was surprised when he got the job—he hadn’t exactly completed his master’s degree!
Such traveling exhibits as the Grayson show are discovered by Russell through the museum’s membership with the California Exhibition Resource Alliance (CERA). From time to time, the statewide organization sends out information regarding these touring shows to the 10 to 15 small museums that make up its membership. What attracted Russell to this particular show was the fact that it possessed an outdoor theme compatible with this area, featured many birds known to the region, and presented the opportunity to exhibit some of the late Janet Turner’s fine bird portraits, as well as prints by Paul Feldhaus and other locally created bird-related artwork, in addition to displaying Grayson’s own work.
“This is basically a smaller version of a larger show of Grayson’s work from the Napa Valley Museum,” Russell explains. “We looked at it and said, ‘Yeah!'” For the Chico show, Russell obtained an interactive CD-ROM courtesy of the National Audubon Society featuring bird photographs and samples of their respective calls that viewers can summon up with a mere touch of their fingertips.
The Chico Museum exhibition of Audubon of the West: Andrew Jackson Grayson will remain on display through Friday, Feb. 7, before moving on to the city of Ontario, in Southern California.