Visitors to Louisiana sometimes see its natural beauty more clearly than those of us who have lived here a long time. That thought came to mind as I visited recently with Denis Clavreul, a French nature artist who divides his time between Paris and the city of Nantes, where John James Audubon spent most of his childhood before coming to America in 1803.
The historical connection inspired Clavreul to retrace Audubon’s journeys through the United States, including his time in Louisiana. Clavreul’s project, undertaken between 2003 and 2018, has resulted in a beautiful new coffee-table book, “In the Footsteps of Audubon,” which includes Clavreul’s own bird paintings and writings from his odyssey.
I met Clavreul during his most recent return to Louisiana, which included a book signing in St. Francisville and a talk in New Orleans. Clavreul, whose stop by The Conundrum Bookstore coincided with his 68th birthday, is a much different artist than Audubon. While Audubon created carefully staged tableaus with his paintings, much like a movie director, Clavreul’s style is leaner and more spontaneous.
Fellow bird artist David Allen Sibley says that while Audubon’s pictures are like stories, Clavreul’s watercolors are more like poems, capturing their subjects with a vivid economy of expression.
Clavreul told me that he likes to make many sketches of birds and insects in the field before he creates a painting. “Each sketch is a piece of knowledge,” he said, noting that he urges art students to use buy cheap sketching paper so they’ll feel free to use a lot of it.
Along with chronicling wildlife in his visits to Louisiana, Clavreul also wanted to learn about the people here. In the coastal community of Point aux Chênes in 2005, he met Jay Naquin, an oyster fisherman, and his cousin Richard, a crab fisherman. Though Clavreul is fluent in English, he didn’t need it as much in his chats with the fishermen, who usually spoke Cajun. “What a pleasure to hear these people use old French so naturally,” Clavreul writes in his book.
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