Internationally acclaimed painter Jeff Long, known primarily for his abstract works, has lately taken up his brush in defense of Western birds and other wildlife. Referencing the classic bird illustrations of John James Audubon, Long’s monumental and highly detailed paintings depart from the master by including elements of the ecological challenges each species faces. His works are on display at Berkeley’s David Brower Center in a show entitled “Promise and Peril: A Study in Diversity“, which runs through May 8th.
BN: What is your connection to the Bay Area?
Long: I came to California from back east in 1973 to do graduate work in painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now called CCA), and earned my MFA three years later. I became comfortable in California very quickly, securing my first gallery representation shortly after I arrived; and I got my first museum job—as a curatorial assistant at the Oakland Museum—in 1974, while I was still working on my MFA.
I’ve always enjoyed the Bay Area because of its proximity to the mountains, and for many years, I was a serious backpacker and hiked most of the ranges in California, Nevada, and Utah.
BN: When did you get your first museum exhibit?
My first museum show was in 1979 at the Oakland Museum, when I was no longer working there. It was called “New Images of Bay Area Artists” and featured artists who were dealing with the balance between Abstraction and Representation.
BN: How did you become a painter?
Long: It was my father’s influence: He was an artist and the art director for Time-Life in New York. The atmosphere of our home when I was growing up was very artistic, so both my brother and I followed in his footsteps.
My formal training started at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). At first, I majored in illustration, although I eventually explored both photorealistic painting and abstract art. In a sense, this body of work that I’m showing right now is a return to illustration.
BN: What prompted this recent return to illustration?
Long: I’m really interested in wildlife and nature in general. So I wanted to assign myself an illustration project in that field, and right now, I have the time to do that. I wanted to complete Audubon’s record of birds in America. While Audubon did depict many species endemic to California, like the California condor and California quail, he never actually travelled further west than North Dakota. So I decided to fill in the blanks and start with local species where I live in Lake County near Clear Lake, like the yellow-headed blackbird.
That’s where the idea started for me, but it soon became both deeper and more narrowly focused: Although each of these species appeared “innocent” to Audubon, almost every one of them has since acquired a back story imposed on it by humans. For instance, Audubon simply depicts a white pelican as an example of a species, while I add narrative, something about the impact of human history. The pictures are scientifically accurate, but they also have a story. Because the more a person is informed about nature, the more he or she realizes that each species has been impacted by humans in some way. Of course, sometimes there is a conservation story here as well.
BN: What have you liked about doing this project?
Long: These pieces are more content driven, more literary and intellectual than my abstract work, so they’ve opened up a dialogue. People are more comfortable with it and it draws a wider audience. I give presentations about the show and hundreds of people come. And they engage me with questions. I’m not used to this kind of response at my abstract art gallery openings.
But this kind of work is time-consuming, labor-intensive and meticulous. It takes a certain kind of sensibility to handle that. Some of these watercolors are ten feet long and I do them with a very small brush. For this body of work, I have worked all out for fifteen months and produced nineteen paintings.
BN: What is your favorite outdoor destination in the Bay Area?
Long: Las Gallinas Creek in San Rafael. It’s a tidal creek and that empties into the southwest corner of San Pablo Bay near China Camp. The landscape includes both the creek and tidal marshes. In winter, it’s a great venue for migratory birds. Of course, Point Reyes is always up there on my list, too. I especially like the free-ranging herd of tule elk above Limantour.
And then I have a small ranch near Clear Lake in Lake County, just north of the Bay Area. I have a blog, The Konocti Post, about nature and other things in that area. It’s definitely more lyrical than political and helps keep me in touch with nature there.