The 'Other Audubon': A Family's Passion

In the late 1800s, Genevieve Jones set out to create the first book in America to catalogue the nests and eggs of birds. But when Jones tragically died of typhoid, her family made the remarkable commitment to complete the project. Melissa Block talks with Joy Kiser, who has once again published the illustrations and wrote the story behind their creation in her book, America's Other Audubon.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In 1827, John James Audubon published the first part of his book, "Birds of America." The realism of his illustrations in that book led to a new understanding of bird anatomy and behavior.

Well, a couple of decades later, a little girl in Ohio named Genevieve Jones was on a nature outing with her father and she identified where Audubon fell short.

JOY KISER: She found what turned out to be an Oriole's nest, but at the time, she didn't know what it was, so she just thought she'd come home and look it up in the book and her father let her know that there was no book. No one had ever written a book about the nests of American birds and that's when the seed for her idea was planted.

BLOCK: That idea would eventually turn into a book that would require an extraordinary amount of work, not just from Genevieve Jones, but from her whole family. The Jones' book was completed in 1886. It was called "Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio" and it contained intricately detailed renderings of the nests of nearly 130 species.

Now, Joy Kiser has reproduced those stunning illustrations, along with the story of the Jones family's mission. Her book is called "America's Other Audubon." Joy Kiser told me the project started when Genevieve's parents forbade her to marry the man she loved. Genevieve was distraught, so they proposed a project.

KISER: They realized that she just - she needed something in her life to give it meaning. And, at that time, you didn't commonly think of a woman needing a career, but they realized that Genevieve just needed something.

BLOCK: And it's a huge undertaking. They have to go out and find all of these nests, bring them back and then make what are these...

KISER: Lithographs.

BLOCK: ...incredibly detailed lithographs. I'm looking at one now. This is Genevieve Jones' lithograph of an Eastern Phoebe's nest. It's got five eggs in it, tightly wrapped with twigs and beautiful green moss around the outside. How did she know how to do this? How did she become a lithographer?

KISER: She used to draw. She was used to drawing and she learned how to do lithography by writing letters to the lithographic company in Cincinnati, so she learned that all by correspondence and through trial and error.

BLOCK: I'm trying to imagine, Joy, how a young woman with no formal artistic training creates an illustration and a lithograph as detailed and beautiful and perfect as this Phoebe nest that I'm looking at right here.

KISER: Well, I feel the same way. I think it shows that she poured the love that she wasn't going to invest in her own home and her own children and her own family into creating these homes.

BLOCK: These homes for the birds.

KISER: These little homes for the birds.

BLOCK: Here's where the story takes a tragic turn. Genevieve Jones is struck with Typhoid Fever. She dies at age 32. She's only completed five illustrations and what happens next is truly remarkable. Her family decides they're going to complete the book. They're going to carry out the mission that she started. And, notably, it's her mother who is not an artist, didn't particularly like birds, as I understand it. She's the one who ultimately completes a lot of these illustrations.

KISER: Well, that's really the most remarkable part, I believe, because she had never, ever drawn from life or done anything that required the kind of measuring and attention to detail that scientific illustration requires. And that - if you saw what she created earlier and what she was able to produce for her daughter's book, the transformation is absolutely phenomenal.

BLOCK: Talk about what happens to the mother, to Virginia Jones, in the process of creating this book because it takes a physical toll on her.

KISER: Well, Virginia Jones also contracted Typhoid Fever. She recovered, but her eyes were never the same. But she never gave up. Every time a new nest was brought in with eggs to be drawn, she drew the original, which was very hard on her eyes.

BLOCK: There were only 53 hand-colored copies of these books of birds' nests. You found a couple of dozen that exist today and one of them was the book that you first saw on exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History where you were a librarian at the time. What caught your eye about that? What sparked your imagination?

KISER: My favorite pastime when I was a little girl of six was climbing in the trees in my father's orchard to look at the nests that were there. I felt a strong connection to Genevieve because I'd never known another little girl who was interested in climbing trees or in nests and eggs. And I thought of all the second chances that I've had, but Genevieve didn't seem to have any choices to make and nothing she decided would have saved her from her fate.

BLOCK: And it's a really intriguing thing to think about because your book now is essentially a revival of Genevieve Jones' work. You're giving her, in a way, that second chance.

KISER: Well, that's really what I had hoped to do. Genevieve's story - or telling it - has become my life's work. And I'm very happy that I lived long enough to see this come to be, but I'm always a little sad that all the attention that's coming couldn't be experienced by Genevieve and her parents and her brother.

BLOCK: Joy Kiser, thanks so much for coming in. It's been a pleasure.

KISER: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Joy Kiser's book with the 19th century lithographs from the Jones family is titled "America's Other Audubon."

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