On Sunday, artist John Ruthven died at the age of ninety-five here in Cincinnati.
Many of this week’s tributes have called Ruthven a modern-day Audubon. The similarities between the two go beyond their painting styles. Both were naturalists and sportsmen, both earned international respect and acclaim, and both had relationships with today’s Cincinnati Museum of Natural History & Science. Ruthven’s vision was his own, though, inspired by the woods and waters of his native southern Ohio.
When he was a boy, long before he won the Federal Duck Stamp competition in 1960 or the National Medal of Arts in 2004, decades before he designed and help paint the towering mural honoring Martha, the last passenger pigeon, at Seventh and Vine in downtown Cincinnati, he lived in urban Walnut Hills. His family didn’t have a car, so he took the streetcar to his hunting spots around town. He’d ride home next to commuters with a .22 on his shoulder and rabbits—that night’s dinner—hanging off his belt. He donated his first specimen to our natural history museum, a hummingbird, when he was just ten years old. He sketched scenes from nature in Ault Park and Eden Park, public greenspaces that inspired the curious young Cincinnatian.
His family didn’t have a car, so he took the streetcar to his hunting spots around town. He’d ride home next to commuters with a .22 on his shoulder and rabbits—that night’s dinner—hanging off his belt.
I last saw John Ruthven at his home just outside Cincinnati before COVID hit Ohio.
He was one of my late grandfather’s closest friends and a role model for the rest of us, as he has been for so many others. He was still drawing and painting for hours each day when we got together, and he was excited to hear my plans for the spring morel and turkey seasons. We talked about going for a walk in the woods together. At ninety-five, he was slowing down, but he radiated the energy and curiosity that powered him through at least 50,000 miles, in his estimation, and thirty-five pairs of L.L. Bean boots as he explored his 165-acre farm in Georgetown, Ohio. (Click here to read a charming piece about hiking with Ruthven by John Faherty, which ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2014.)
We grew up turkey hunting at his farm. I didn’t understand it at the time. My dad, my brother, and I would wake up before dawn on chilly spring mornings, drive a couple of hours down the highway, walk slowly through the forest in the predawn dark, and then lean against our designated trees for hours as the sun rose, listening to the woods wake up as we tried not to fall asleep. I remember seeing turkeys at least once, but we never brought a bird home. It was not an impatient ten-year-old’s idea of a good time.
I always learned something on the walk back to the house, though, as one of the most enthusiastic naturalists I’ve ever known pointed out interesting mushrooms, outstanding trees, or the remnants of the previous year’s black walnuts, pawpaws, or persimmons. That kept me excited for those early-morning trips, even as I began to suspect that turkey hunting might be more of a ritual than a sport. Years later, I became a more ambitious turkey hunter. I learned to pick up and move every hour or two, to army-crawl through the woods, to creep along fields stubbled with the remnants of corn and soy harvests. It worked. Why didn’t we hunt like this when I was a kid? I wondered. Now, I think I understand.
Ruthven’s friends will tell you that he was a skilled and experienced hunter, and that he knew every feature of the property that he explored on foot almost daily after he and his late wife, Judy, moved out to the country in 1964.
If we had gone chasing turkeys, we probably would have bagged one. I don’t think that was the reason we hunted together. I think it was the opportunity to experience nature in silence and stillness for hours at a time. “John wanted to get up even earlier than we had to, so we could hear the birds come to life,” my dad reminded me this week. “He would whisper the identity of each new call.” With his eye for detail, I doubt nature ever bored him. He must have adored the woodland patterns of the wild turkey, but an eye like his could find as much beauty in the texture of an old oak or the way the morning sun lit the spring greenery that foreshadowed an explosion of pink-and-white wildflowers. He must have dreamt about mornings like those when he was growing up in the city.
It’s no coincidence that I grew up to love the creamsicle flavor of a native persimmon, the tropical musk of pawpaw, or the thunk of a black walnut on the forest floor in the fall. He taught us to notice and treasure those details. Through his artwork and example, he taught the same lessons to countless people who never knew him.
Without John Ruthven, there would be no Midwesterner. Maybe that’s not saying much, when I could cite many more noteworthy ways that he influenced his community and the world, but it’s meaningful here. His curiosity and enthusiasm inform the whole undertaking. Our modern-day Audobon was excited about this new Midwestern documentary project when I told him about it, and I hope our writers help inspire tomorrow’s modern-day Ruthvens. For now, I’m setting time aside for a long walk in the woods in memory of a great Midwesterner.