Taking A Different View

Sometimes the best thing someone can do is to get away from his normal environment and venture into some new way of looking at things.

In similar manner, sometimes the best way to really know and understand someone else – even an old friend – is to see him or her in new and different surroundings.

One of Western New York’s best friends has been naturalist and nature artist Roger Tory Peterson. Now the Peterson Institute, on Curtis Street, in Jamestown, is inviting us to spend some time, seeing his artistry in a form which is different from the familiar field guides to birds, on which his reputation was made. The RTPI has reached into their permanent collection to place two exhibits of Peterson’s artworks on their walls for us to experience.

”The Art of the Line” does not include the famed field guides to birds. Instead, in the downstairs galleries, it shows us illustrations which Peterson created in black and white. All but a very few of the images in the exhibit are original works of art, and most of them have never been shown to the public before.

Most of the drawings were created to illustrate five different publications, and since illustrations in color make a publication much more expensive, it has always been desirable if an artist could create illustrations in black and white. Also, in understanding form and substance, it can easily be distracting to see colors involved, and stepping back to the form without color can be an education in itself.

In the upstairs galleries, the institute is inviting us to examine original drawings and paintings from Peterson’s less known, but still highly admired ”A Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Northeast and North Central North America.” The flower guide was published in 1968, 34 years after the original Field Guide to Birds, which made his a household name in our country.

I’d like to try to tempt you down to our city’s easternmost reaches, to see these works of art, and share with you information which might help you understand and appreciate what you’ll be seeing, if you make the effort.


The namesake of the RTPI was born in Jamestown, in 1908. He studied drawing in New York City, and was known not only for his mastery in combining natural beauty with scientific accuracy in his creations. Furthermore, his writing is extremely readable, and makes the study of nature enjoyable, as well as intellectually stimulating.

The Roger Tory Peterson Institute is located at 311 Curtis St. in Jamestown. To reach it from downtown Jamestown, drive east on either Falconer Street. or East Second Street, toward the Village of Falconer.

When you reach Curtis Street, turn left and drive along the western edge of the campus of Jamestown Community College. When you pass the college’s outdoor tennis court, begin to make note of the left side of the road. Shortly you will find a large sign, announcing the Peterson Institute. The building itself is not clearly visible from Curtis Street, but if you turn left at the sign, you will see it very soon. There is a large parking lot with no charge for parking.

The beautiful stone and wood building is open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., and Sundays from 1-5 p.m. It is closed on only a few national holidays. If you want to phone, for more information or to be sure they’re open before you make the drive, their phone number is 665-2473.

Admission to the building is $6 for the general public, $4 for students and children, and free to members of the Institute. While you’re there, especially once warmer weather comes our way, you will want to allow some extra time for wandering the forest trails, surrounding the building, visiting the butterfly gardens, and generally joining in its celebration of the wonders of nature. Visiting the surrounding grounds is without charge.

It is obviously one of the most beautiful places in our community.


As you walk into the main entrance of the RTPI, you will find yourself looking directly into a small gallery which contains the remains of a prehistoric Mammoth, which was discovered near Randolph, N.Y. At the door of the Mammoth exhibit, turn right, and you’ll be looking into the largest of the Institute’s galleries, which they call the Green Gallery.

There are approximately 50 drawings in the black and white exhibit. The drawings were made by Peterson as illustrations for four of his books which are in addition to the famed field guides. These are ”How to Know the Birds,” from 1949, ”Wild America,” from 1955, ”The Bird Watcher’s Anthology,” from 1957, and ”Penguins,” which was written in 1979. Rather than group the drawings according to which of those books they illustrate, the Institute has chosen to group them according to the areas of our country which are illustrated.

There is a wall of illustrations from Florida, one of images from the Southwestern U.S., one of the Maritime Provinces of Canada, and in the hallway outside the Green Gallery, one of Western New York and nearby areas.

On the opposite side of the Mammoth exhibit from the Green Gallery is a gallery of images made during Peterson’s several trips to Antarctica. There is a life sized model of an Emperor Penguin, demonstrating how very large those birds can grow. Making these images took Peterson decades.

Most of the images are of birds, but there are plants, aquatic mammals and fish, rock formations, and even people in these images, as well. In many cases, to get the precise lines he needed to form these images, Peterson would paint a wash of India ink on a very hard illustration board, then when the ink was dry, he could cut away tiny scratches, with a sharp stylus, allowing the white of the board, showing through the black ink, to form the shapes of his illustrations.

In 1954, Peterson published a field guide to the birds of Britain and Europe. Helping him to see all that was there and to understand it was an English naturalist, James Fisher. The easy written exchanges between Peterson and Fisher made for especially interesting reading, and the year after their European guide was published, Peterson invited Fisher to come to North America, where the two continued their dialogue in their 1955 publication, ”Wild America.” It is interesting that when you know something very well, as Peterson knew the nature of North America, you may well be unaware of how that reality might be different than the expectations of someone who does not know the area well.

The combining of the writings of Peterson and Fisher create what might be the most interesting of Peterson’s 23 publications.


Peterson created more than 1,500 illustrations for his Field Guide to Wildflowers, of which more than 1,300 were actually used in the book. The illustrations are usually India ink and gouache, on illustration board. The exhibit at the RTPI include some of those which weren’t used, as well as many who were. There are 18 illustrations in the exhibit, some representing a single specimen and others demonstrating a number of images on the same page, for easy comparison.

I was told that Peterson was asked by his publisher to arrange for the Wildflower Guide, and he hired both a writer – Margaret McKenny – and an illustrator, but when problems developed, he took over the illustrations, himself, a project which took him years. He used the same system with the flowers which he used in the bird guides: he would group together on the same page, images of similar flowers, then he would use small arrows to point out the differences, among the similar plants. For this guide, he developed a series of symbols, each of which represented a family of plants. This made it possible for the user of the field guide to quickly identify the family to which the plant belonged, and to see other plants from the same family.

Furthermore, all of the plants are grouped by color.

There is posted a description of Peterson’s methodology from his creation of the guide. It says he would travel around, making quick sketches and hasty drawings of different plants. Then he would carefully dig up examples of the plants and place them into a large metal box and take them back to his motel or tourist camp. There he would remove the normal electric bulbs from their sockets and replace them with a 200-watt daylight bulb, so that he could both examine and reproduce the qualities of the plants.

Peterson has won international fame by his ability to combine extreme accuracy with easy understandability for the eager novice at nature study. His illustrations are beautiful, but they never achieve their beauty by sacrificing accuracy.

The exhibit provides a pleasant and attractive visit for area residents, in both the worlds of nature and of art.