The beauty — and sorrow — of an empty nest

The lithographs in Joy M. Kiser's "America's Other Audubon" are works of great beauty and scientific accuracy. But behind them is a tragedy — the story of a hugely ambitious undertaking begun in heartbreak and completed in grief.

The art book reprints, in nearly full size, "Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio," a massive project undertaken by a young woman and her family in a small Ohio town in the 19th century. The 68 hand-colored lithographs became an important scientific resource.


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"The level of observation and the accuracy of representation is unparalleled," said Leslie Overstreet, curator of natural history rare books at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. "You can actually trace every single stick that wove its way in and out of the others, with bits of yarn and odd bits of reed grasses pulled in to support the side of nest."

Ornithologists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History have been consulting it to identify specimens for more than 100 years, she said. The Cornell University Library, known for its ornithology collection, calls it "perhaps the loveliest and most accurate portrayal of birds' nests ever published."

But the book is almost unknown. Only about 90 copies were made. One of them is owned by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where 15 years ago Kiser became the librarian and saw it on display.

"Over a period time I just became fascinated with the people in the pictures in the exhibit," she said. "I always loved nests when I was a little girl. I used to climb trees to watch what the birds were doing. It never occurred to me than any other little girl would be interested in that."

That little girl was Genevieve Estelle Jones, of Circleville, Ohio.

Gennie, as she was known, grew up around birds' nests, Kiser writes. Her father, a physician, was an accomplished amateur ornithologist who often took Gennie and her younger brother with him to look at birds and collect nests and eggs to study.

"Collecting nests and eggs was a very popular pastime in the second half of the 19th century," Overstreet said. "It was an entree for people into the study of natural history and simply engaging with the natural world around them."

Gennie's father knew the top scientists and ornithologists in the field. Members of both sides of the family drew and painted together, illustrating their own scientific papers.

She excelled in school and after high school was tutored in French, Greek and German. When her brother went to Hobart College, he sent her copies of his textbooks to study at home. She mastered chemistry, algebra, calculus and the Greek and Latin poets so well that she surpassed him. But her accomplishments and intellectual capabilities left her lonely.

"She just couldn't find anyone to connect with on her own level," Kiser said. "She was probably intimidating to most of the other young men in her town."

She was also extremely tall: 5 feet 10 inches, unusual for a woman then.

When she was nearly 30, she met a talented musician and literary critic who was not intimidated in the slightest. Their affection was mutual, and a match seemed imminent. However, the man was also an alcoholic, Kiser wrote. Gennie's father gave him several chances to stay sober, but when the suitor failed them, he reluctantly forbade his daughter to marry him.

"She was heartbroken," Kiser said. "She finally found a person she felt she could really make a connection to, and yet she couldn't proceed."

Enter the nests.

Worried when Gennie became withdrawn, the family urged her to take up a project she had conceived.

She had seen hand-colored engravings from John James Audubon's "Birds of America" at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. They made her wonder why there was no similar comprehensive collection of illustrations of American birds' nests and eggs.

The family rallied behind it. Her brother, Howard, collected nests for her to paint. Her father sold subscriptions. A close friend joined her in starting to make the illustrations, drawing them in wax pencil directly on flat lithographic stones.

The work of printing and hand-coloring was overwhelming, but Gennie and her helpers persevered. Then, however, came the tragedy.

After completing only five illustrations, Gennie was stricken with typhoid fever. At 32, she died. Her family was devastated. The book became more than an ornithological enterprise. It was now a memorial.

To honor Gennie, the family decided to finish it. They took up the project, now limited to the birds of Ohio, with a dedication that took years and cost her parents, who had to hire assistants to hand-color the illustrations, their entire savings.

Her mother, who had never done scientific illustration, learned how. Though her eyes had been permanently weakened when she came down with typhoid fever herself, she made the drawings through the pain. She ended her life blind.

But in 1886, "Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio" was finished.

It never approached the success of Audubon. Only 39 subscriptions to the hand-colored books were sold, which didn't come close to offsetting the costs. The family bound some copies into luxurious volumes, but by then the country was in a depression.

"People just couldn't have that kind of luxury," said Kiser.

Even the finest illustrations of bird nests have limited appeal, Overstreet said: "The nests are much less visually striking than the birds themselves."

Kiser has confirmed the existence of only 26 complete hand-colored copies (the two owned by the Smithsonian were used for her book's reproductions) and eight uncolored or incomplete copies.

Now a writer and editor in the public and governmental affairs office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms inWashington, D.C., she spent 15 years researching the story. She has grown so close to the descendants of Gennie's brother, Howard, like his father a doctor, that she spends some holidays with them.

The family is deeply grateful to Kiser for telling the story, said Steven Jonnes, one of Howard Jones' great-grandsons (his branch of the family spells the name differently).

Howard Jones "spent the rest of his life trying to keep the prints in the public eye and promoting them," said Jonnes, a unit chief with the FBI who lives outside Washington, D.C.

To Jonnes, it is a story of "the tragedy of (Gennie's) death, and ... her mother's sacrifice for her deceased daughter," he said.

When the book won a bronze medal in the Women's Building Library exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, Gennie's mother was asked how she managed to learn how to paint so well:

"She said, 'My daughter died shortly after it was started. I did it in her memory, and for her sake, I made it as perfect as possible,'" Kiser said.

"It's an American story," said Kiser, who hopes to follow this up with another book on the family saga. "It's not only about nests and eggs, but about Yankee ingenuity.

"What they accomplished is pretty unique and special, and the American people deserve to know about it."

Barbara Brotman is a Tribune columnist.

America's Other Audubon

By Joy M. Kiser, Princeton Architectural, 192 pages, $45

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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