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Duluth man goes from counting birds to painting them

The onetime Hawk Ridge bird counter is now trying to make it as a full-time artist.

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Artist and well-known birder Karl Bardon talks Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, about some of his artwork while standing in front of a blue jay painting exhibited at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH -- After spending two months counting migrating raptors in tropical Panama, Karl Bardon flew home to Duluth on Saturday, Dec. 4, just in time for real winter — 7 inches of snow and below-zero wind chills.

But Bardon was already excited about his first artistic inspiration from the trip — painting a broad-billed motmot, or momotidae, a warm-weather tropical forest bird common in the rainforest of Panama.

“I had such a great experience with this bird when I went for a walk in the woods. He just held there for me and I got an amazing photo. And I said right then, boy, I really want to paint you,” Bardon said. “So I am.”

Karl Bardon poses Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, with some of his artwork that is exhibited at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram free

You may know Bardon as a Northland birder extraordinaire and, for a dozen years, the head bird counter at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth. But for the past few years, with a few bird-counting jobs in far-flung places thrown in, Bardon has been focusing on his other love, painting, and working to become a full-time, self-supporting artist.

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It’s not that big a stretch.

Bardon uses his incredible knowledge of birds and their habitats, thousands of hours observing bird behavior and then his dazzling bird photographs as the basis from which to paint his favorite thing in the world.

Birds.

"Common Redpolls," a 2020 acrylic-on-canvas painting by Duluth artist Karl Bardon. Contributed / Karl Bardon free

In some cases Bardon will gather dozens of individual photographs of a single bird species and then use them as models to paint a collage of sorts — an entire flock of jays or redpolls, each a unique bird.

“It’s all related; it’s all part of the same expression,’’ Bardon said of his birding and painting.

In some cases, Bardon works fast, completing a painting of a warbler in a single day. In other cases, he’s worked on pieces, in fits and spurts, over several years.

“I put things away sometimes and come back to them with a fresh perspective,’’ he said.

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"Harlequin Ducks Taking off," a 2018 acrylic-on-canvas painting by Duluth artist Karl Bardon. Contributed / Karl Bardon free

Bardon, 56, lives in a tiny cabin in the woods outside Duluth. He has an art degree from the University of Minnesota, but didn’t really use it at first, instead focusing on his work as a field ornithologist studying and counting birds. He grew up in the Twin Cities suburb of North Oaks and was introduced to birding as a small child by his father. He says he’s been watching birds “virtually every day since.”

If he’s not out watching, photographing or counting birds, he’s probably in his studio painting them, “attempting to translate the strong impact of these experiences into my art."

"Hopefully, these paintings will have some of the same impact on the viewers as they have had on me," he said.

Bardon was hired by Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in 2007 to count raptors, continuing an official count that began in the early 1970s. But Bardon also started counting song birds in Duluth, the first organized effort to keep track of those flights. As do hawks, eagles and other raptors, songbirds pass over Duluth by the tens of thousands each fall as they avoid flying over Lake Superior.

Before coming to Hawk Ridge, Bardon counted waterbirds at Whitefish Point, Michigan, and at Avalon Sea Watch near Cape May, New Jersey, as well as raptors at Veracruz, Mexico.

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"Blue Jays in Migration,'' a 2021 acrylic-on-canvas painting by Duluth artist Karl Bardon. Contributed / Karl Bardon free

For the past two months, he was at Bocas Ridge, in the hills above the Caribbean Sea on the narrow Panamanian isthmus of land over which millions of birds fly between North and South Americas on their migrations. Bardon was invited down this year to help draw attention to the area as a birding hotspot. The fact he counted some 2 million birds, including 200,000 in one day, might help.

“Most of them were turkey vultures, rough-legged hawks and Swainson's hawks,” Bardon noted. “It’s like 10 times the counts we get at Hawk Ridge, or more.”

Bardon’s painting of the motmot bird probably won’t be the only one inspired by the Panama trip. In fact, he hopes to go back in late February to count the same birds flying north.

In the meantime, he’ll be painting, and keeping track of his paintings now on display at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth through Jan. 10, some of which have been selling off the wall.

“I’ve already had to replace a few,” he said with a smile.

"Short-eared Owl at Montezuma," a 2021 acrylic-on-canvas painting by Duluth artist Karl Bardon. Contributed / Karl Bardon free

The News Tribune recently asked Bardon some questions about his transition from ornithologist to painter.

Q: You’ve said in the past that you grew up watching birds with your dad. You have clearly been a lifelong birder, but when did you start painting birds?

A: I’ve been interested in art as long as I have been interested in birds, so it's hard to pinpoint when exactly I started painting birds. I spent a lot of time drawing birds when I was a kid, then in high school and especially college I got more into painting birds. But I didn't get really serious about painting birds until I was preparing for my first show at the aquarium in 2014. This was when I started putting hundreds of hours into it.

Q: What moved you to start painting birds, as opposed to simply watching or photographing them?

A: I have always been into expressing myself artistically, so drawing and painting from my experiences with birds has been there all along. It has never been enough for me to just watch birds, I always feel the need to do more with it, to express and share how the experiences have moved me.

"Bay-breasted Warbler," a 2021 acrylic-on-board painting by Duluth artist Karl Bardon. Contributed / Karla Bardon free

Q: How long had you been painting when you realized you were pretty good? When did you sell your first piece?

A: I sold my first painting in high school. But then, after college, I didn't do much with art for a long time when I was so focused on bird field work. I think the positive response I got from the first show at the aquarium motivated me to keep going and get more serious about it.

Q: You see and photograph a lot of birds in your birding and counting endeavors. How important is that knowledge and familiarity of the subject when painting?

A: For me, knowledge and familiarity of the subject is very important, and I am always painting things that I have first hand knowledge of, and scenes that actually happened.

Q: Your photographs are spectacular as well. Do you always paint off of one of your photographs?

A: Yes, I try to always use my own photos.

"Pileated Woodpecker in North Oaks,'' a 2021 acrylic-on-canvas painting by Duluth artist Karl Bardon. Bardon says one of the first birds he was fascinated by while growing up in North Oaks, Minnesota, was a pileated woodpecker. Contributed / Karl Bardon free

Q: Your paintings and drawings seem to run the gamut from ultra-realistic to fanciful, almost whimsical renditions of birds in flight. How do you decide which direction to go with a painting?

A: Some of the pieces that are more realistic were either done as commissions, such as the long-eared owl, or were done for myself to practice painting, such as the boreal owl. I had the boreal owl photo hanging over the kitchen table at home for several years before I thought to myself, "Hey, I should paint that."

I didn't paint the photo exactly, of course, because that would be boring, but I used the photo to make the owl as realistic as I could at the time, and then tried emphasizing how the owl's colors and patterns matched the lichens on the aspens, which is what intrigued me the most about the photo. But my ultimate goal is not to paint ultra realistic paintings of birds.

I have been trying to use my increased skill with painting to better paint the way I feel about the birds I see and the experiences I have had while watching birds.

Q: Your Great Lakes Aquarium showing runs into January. Do you have any other exhibits/gallery showings coming up in 2022?

A: I will have paintings in the combined "Best of Show Winners" exhibit at the Jaques Art Center in Aitkin from May 13 to July 2.

Q: Are you dabbling in any other subjects or are you sticking with birds for now?

A: Just birds!

Q: Do you consider yourself a full-time artist now, or is it still secondary to birding/counting/ornithology?

A: I am trying to transition to being a full-time artist. I would say that right now the field ornithology and the art are about equal.

"Black-capped Chickadees,'' a 2019 pencil-on-paper drawing by Duluth artist Karl Bardon. Contributed / Karl Bardon free

Q: Obviously, your longtime job as head counter at Hawk Ridge was a big part of your life, but what has kept you in Duluth for so many years? Do you plan to stay here?

A: Now that I have been in Duluth so long, it feels like home to me and I don't have any plans to leave. It is an amazing place to see bird migration, and I love the cold climate, the boreal forest, being on Lake Superior, and of course, all the people that I have come to know in Duluth.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jmyers@duluthnews.com .

Artist Karl Bardon talks Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, about one of his newest paintings that is exhibited at the Great Lakes Aquarium. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram free

"Harlequin Ducks Taking off," a 2018 acrylic-on-canvas painting by Duluth artist Karl Bardon. Contributed / Karl Bardon free

Artist and well-known birder Karl Bardon talks on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in front of his painting of harlequin ducks on display at the Great Lakes Aquarium. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram free

If you go

  • What: Karl Bardon exhibit, “A Life of Birds II"
  • Where: Merrill Lynch Fine Arts Gallery, Great Lakes Aquarium, Duluth

  • When: Through Jan. 10; aquarium open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily
  • Cost: Guests who wish only to visit the art gallery and gift store aren't required to pay admission.
  • More info: Go to glaquarium.org.
  • About the artist: Bardon’s work also can be seen and purchased at karlbardon.com . Originals and giclee prints are for sale. He also does commissioned paintings.
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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