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Outsider Aviary

In 1966, Robert W. Smeltzer Sr. (American, 1906-1997) found a copy of John James Audubon’s (1785-1851) “Birds of America” (1827–38). Over the next 25 years, the former electrician and Navy veteran combined his love of birds and passion for carving in an endeavor to reproduce every species in Audubon’s book.

Out of 435 birds in Audubon’s book, the self-taught Florida artist created 242 carvings of birds, along with a few snakes, each faithfully adhering to the colors and markings of a particular species. In most cases, he made them “life-size,” using scraps of mahogany, cypress, cedar and redwood that he either found or had gifted to him from friends. This resourcefulness and ingenuity underscore the essence of Smeltzer’s art. His unshackled creativity, coupled with his lack of a formal art education, impart a slightly primitive appearance to his carvings. As Smeltzer once expressed, “The birds are not meant to be pretty, but instructive.”

In 1993, Smeltzer gifted his complete collection of carved birds to the Appleton Museum of Art. On view in “Outsider Aviary: Robert W. Smelter’s Birds of America” are 36 of his sculptures alongside tools that shaped them and his well-worn copy of “Birds of America,” marked with handwritten margin notes that attest to the depth of his study. Several Audubon prints from the Appleton’s collection are paired with their corresponding carving.

(pictured: : Robert W. Smeltzer’s annotated copy of “Birds of America” on display alongside several sculptures and his carving tools.

Robert W. Smeltzer’s “White-Crowned Pigeon” carving paired with John James Audubon’s “White-Crowned Pigeon” print in the background.)

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