Joy Kiser: LibraryThing Author Interview
Joy Kiser is a writer/editor for the federal government. She was previously the librarian for the National Endowment for the Arts, and for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Her book, America's Other Audubon was published earlier this year by Princeton Architectural Press. It is an introduction and partial reprint of a rare book of ornithological artwork.
What first got you interested in Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio? What attracted you to the book, and what surprised you the most as you researched its history?
When I walked into the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio to begin my new position as assistant librarian, volume one of Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio was exhibited in a Plexiglas display case at the foot of the stairway that led to the library on the second floor. A label, about three inches high by five inches wide, succinctly explained that the book was the accomplishment of the Jones family of Ohio: the daughter, Genevieve, had conceived of the idea and had begun drawing and painting the illustrations with the assistance of a childhood friend; the son, Howard, had collected the nests and eggs; the father, Nelson, had paid the publishing costs; and after Genevieve died, the mother, Virginia, and the rest of the family spent eight years completing the work as a memorial to Genevieve.
The book was on exhibit for several weeks. Each morning as I climbed the stairs, I would gaze at the label in the case and then into the faces of the members of the Jones family, whose photographs had been tipped onto the page adjacent to the illustration being displayed in the exhibit case. I became increasingly bewildered that eight years of work could be summed up on such a tiny label in so few words, and with such a lack of emotion. I found Genevieve's face almost haunting—her large, expressive eyes full of expectancy and hope. Was this book the only thing that was left to represent her life? What kind of person was she that she would inspire her entire family to devote so much of their own lives to completing her undertaking? I had to find out. I hoped to one day publish her story as an historical narrative but not reproduce her family's entire work because of the expense. But that was what Princeton Architectural Press was willing to do, with an encapsulated version of the story I still hope to write.
The first six years of my life I live in an apartment above my father's TV repair shop in the small city of Barberton, Ohio. I remember that in black and white. I never saw the clouds or a sunset or sunrise and there was no grass. My earliest memory (I was probably about 3) is of my Mother carrying me to the next apartment building to play with the little girl who lived there and seeing a small brown bird fluttering its wings in a scrubby tree in the vacant lot. I suddenly realized there were whole communities of living things outdoors that were beyond the control of the grownups and did not have to account to them.
When we moved to the town of Norton, Ohio, when I was six, it was like the moment in "The Wizard of Oz" when everything suddenly turns into color. There was lots of green grass and trees, an orchard full of what seemed like gigantic fruit (it took both hands to grasp one peach), wildflowers of every color, snails, toads, tadpoles, caterpillars, praying mantids, butterflies, and not only brown birds but blue, orange, yellow, and gray ones. My Father's orchard had plenty of nests and I quickly learned how to climb trees (after only about three falls on my back that knocked the wind out of me) to see the eggs or baby birds. It was Wonderland to me. I felt an immediate kinship to Gennie. I never knew another girl who was interested in climbing trees to look into nests. And I felt sad that she had so few opportunities. I have had lots of second chances but most of them were necessary because of my own poor choices. Gennie didn't seem to have any second chances and none of her choices could have saved her from her fate.
I was surprised to learn that Howard Jones colored two copies himself, and numerous single plates, when he was in his 80s. Rare book dealers told me that the copies Howard colored work would be worth less than the originals because they were not colored by the original colorists.
Tell us about Genevieve Jones, the driving force behind the book. What inspired her to undertake the project? And the publication history of the book is fascinatingly atypical: can you describe for those who might not have yet had the chance to read America's Other Audubon how the production/publication process worked?
As a six-year-old, Gennie began accompanying her father when he visited his patients and continued to do so into adulthood. During those early buggy rides, Nelson taught her the basics of ornithology, and with the assistance of an English Cocker Spaniel named Archos, they searched for birds' nests and collected eggs to add to their natural history cabinet for further study.
On one of these outings, Gennie found an intricate nest that neither Nelson nor Howard could identify. She searched in her father's extensive library to discover the bird that had built it, only to learn that no one had yet written a book on the nests and eggs of American birds. Gennie remarked that surely someone would have created a book to help people differentiate one nest from another. Howard casually offered to gather the nests and eggs for such a project if Gennie, who enjoyed painting and drawing, wanted to illustrate them. For many years, as Nelson, Gennie, and Howard furthered their study of American ornithology, the subject of the need for such a book came up during family conversations.
Gennie's parents were reluctant to support the undertaking of such an ambitious and expensive project until Genevieve became despondent over a broken engagement. Gennie was sent to Pennsylvania, to experience a change of scenery and have time to come to terms with her disappointment. While she was there, she attended the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia and saw some of the hand-colored engravings from Audubon's The Birds of America (1826–38). She was reminded that even Audubon had failed to chronicle a comprehensive number of bird eggs and nests. On the rare occasion a nest was included in one of Audubon's prints, the nest was more decorative than an element meant to convey scientific information.
When Gennie returned to Circleville, she had grown silent and withdrawn. Her suitor seldom visited, but when he did it was abundantly clear that they both remained deeply hurt. Something had to be done to raise Gennie’s spirits. Nelson and Virginia urged Howard, who had completed his college education and was back in Circleville practicing medicine with his father, to encourage her to undertake the production of the book that had been incubating for years—the book illustrating the nests and eggs of American birds that was missing from ornithological literature.
Publishing a book by subscription was a common means of financing large expensive books in those days. Gennie's business plan was to produce one hundred copies of her book, which would be issued in approximately twenty-three parts and sold by subscription. Each part (three illustrations of nests and eggs with text) would cost $5.00 for the hand-painted version and $2.00 for the uncolored version. The nests and eggs would be drawn true to size, colored by hand with imported Winsor & Newton watercolors, and printed on Whatman's Hotpressed Antiquarian paper—the same brand of paper that Audubon had used for his illustrations because it retained its bright white color indefinitely.
The Adolph Krebs Lithographic Company, a Cincinnati-based publisher, was hired to print the illustrations, and Krebs offered to instruct Gennie and Eliza in lithography through correspondences. The Robert Clarke Company, also of Cincinnati, would print the text.
Gennie and her friend, Eliza, drew illustrations in wax pencil on both sides of sixty-five-pound lithographic stones. Then Howard placed the stones into crates that were shipped eighty-nine miles to Cincinnati, where Krebs' artisans fixed the drawings with a solution of nitric acid, applied ink to the surface of the stones, and printed test proofs to determine the quality of the renderings. When errors were found, the ink was cleaned off and the stones were recrated and shipped back to Circleville for corrections. The first stones made several trips back and forth before the artists conquered the challenges of keeping the points on the wax crayons sharp and the edges of the line drawings crisp.
After Genevieve's death, you write, the book "became the Jones family's transitional object, a physical entity with what they could distract themselves from their heartache and into which they could invest their passion and energy." Her mother, Virginia, even taught herself to draw so that she could complete the illustrations. How long did the book take to complete, and how did the process affect the surviving Jones family members?
Gennie's mother knew how to draw but she copied from book or calendar illustrations and had never drawn from life. She also did have to master the lithographic process, which was new to her. Gennie's brother also learned to do lithography and drew the plates that depict only the eggs. The family worked on the book from August 1879 to December 1886.
Howard, who collected the nests and eggs and wrote the field notes, and Virginia, who completed the drawings on stone and hand coloring, were stricken with typhoid fever two years after Genevieve's death and nearly died. In spite of serious damage to their health, they never gave up and labored until the book was finished. The father covered the publishing costs, which were higher than had been anticipated and were not covered by the subscription price, and ultimately lost his entire retirement savings completing the task in his daughter's memory. The mother lost her eyesight at the end of her life from the effects of typhoid fever and long hours of straining to draw and color the nests and eggs. But neither parent ever complained and considered their work on the book the most important accomplishment of their lives.
Howard spent all the rest of his life trying to market and sell copies of Gennie's book. His last act at the age of 93 was to have his assistant and daughter prop him up in bed long enough to sign over ownership of the five remaining bound copies to his daughter, Eleanor. For over 70 years, Howard's children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have had a Genevieve-shaped impression on their own lives and felt the weight of the responsibility of preserving Genevieve's story and to somehow bring their family's book the recognition it deserved. Now that America's Other Audubon has been published they have all been set free of that obligation.
How was the book received when it was originally published?
The three lithographs of part one were completed in 1878, and sample copies were sent out in December to ornithological publications for review. Gennie's and Eliza's artwork was widely praised as equal to—or even better than—Audubon's. Elliott Coues, the editor of the Bulletin of Nuttall Ornithological Club and one of the preeminent ornithologists of the period, wrote, "I had no idea that so sumptuous and elegant a publication was in preparation, and am pleased that what promises to be one of the great illustrated works on North American Ornithology should be prepared by women." William Brewster, the founder and president of the American Ornithologists' Union, responded favorably: "The nest of the Wood Thrush is even more admirably delineated and 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. Please accept my grateful thanks for part I of your beautiful work, and also my best wishes for the future prosperous continuance of a work that is too good to fail."
Part one was mailed to the first subscribers during July of 1879. The response was so positive that the subscription list jumped to thirty-nine—now there were a total of thirty-four subscriptions for the hand-painted edition and five for the uncolored version—and included the names of former President Rutherford B. Hayes and then Harvard College student Theodore Roosevelt.
But throughout the years the Joneses were trying to market their book the country was in a state of economic recession. Few could afford a folio size volume with hand colored plates. At one time there were as many as 66 subscribers but 27 let their subscriptions lapse because they could not keep up the payments.
It's always been quite a rare book; how many copies remain in existence today?
A recent search by a librarian at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology produced 44 hits but most used the same catalog record so they would have to be examined in person to determine their completeness or whether they should be considered a hand-colored or uncolored version. I have personally examined 25 copies and indicated that in my book as the number known.
Do you have a couple favorite plates that you'd like to mention?
Plate 2, the Wood Thrush; and Plate 17, the Catbird. I am partial to the American Robin and its stunning blue eggs. That was one of the first birds I learned to identify and interact with in my father's orchard. It was much more exciting to find blue eggs (like a piece of the summer sky) in a nest than the white eggs with brown spots that the House Sparrows laid.
The first image I saw from Gennie's book was the Wood Thrush nest with blue eggs reminiscent to the Robin's but from a bird I have never seen or heard in person. And I am especially fond of Virginia’s composition for the Catbird nest.
America's Other Audubon is a beautiful book itself: can you tell us a bit about the design and editing process?
Several years ago (2004), The Smithsonian Institution Libraries created a web exhibit that featured an essay about Gennie's book and included scans of 30 of the color plates and for the very first time people searching the internet from any place in the world had access to some of the book's illustrations. It was on that website that Acquisitions Editor, Sara Bader, from Princeton Architectural Press discovered Gennie's art work and realized what a wonderful book it would make. Fortunately, her publisher had faith in her vision and agreed to publish the Jones family's story and all of the art work from the original book. And the Smithsonian Institution contributed high resolution scans from one of their copies of Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of the Birds of Ohio.
The difficult part for me was to have to see the field notes reduced to so few words.
What's your own library like? What kinds of books would we find on your shelves?
Books on: Nature Writing, Natural History illustration, History of Photography, Art History, Horseback riding/Dressage, Military History/American Civil War/Antietam, Garden Design/Landscaping, Woodworking/Home Improvement, Gourd Crafts, Sewing/Quilting, History of Music/Classical, biographies of classical composers, classical sheet music, history of book design, making artist's books, papermaking, hand-bookbinding, world cuisine cook books.
What books have you read and enjoyed recently?
—interview by Jeremy Dibbell
Books by Joy Kiser
America's Other Audubon (25 copies)
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