Lichtenstein’s Oriole, circa 1981-85, by brothers Scott and Stuart Gentling. Photo: Courtesy Gentling Study Center

Consider the flammulated owl, a diminutive bird measuring only 6 inches tall, with a wingspan of 14 inches. Its fluffy feathers speak to its name: “Flammulated” means “little flame,” or “of a reddish color.” The plumage provides the perfect camouflage for the mountainous pine forests where the owl makes its home.

Birders prize a flammulated owl sighting because the owls only feed on insects at night. During the day, they hunch close to the trees, difficult to spot. The low “hoot” of the male is described as “ventriloquial,” as it can be almost impossible for humans to locate the bird from the sound. The flammulated owl, with its wise gaze, is my favorite Gentling.

Each of my family members has a favorite Gentling. From the time my 8-year-old daughter, Nora, spotted a giant book called Of Birds and Texas at the Austin Public Library, we’ve spent countless hours paging through the bird paintings of Stuart W. and Scott G. Gentling. As boys, the twin brothers, who moved from Minnesota to Fort Worth when they were 5, fell in love with the work of John James Audubon, the ornithologist and painter. The Gentlings proceeded to devote their lives to creating jaw-dropping watercolors of bird life (Stuart passed away in 2006; Scott in 2011). The brothers were well known in Fort Worth, where they lived together in a home they filled with art and endowed with a “party wing.”

Last fall, Nora and I headed to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, with the hope of seeing our favorite Gentling paintings. The museum had reopened after a six-month renovation. We were there for the debut of the Gentling Study Center, featuring an exhibition of 23 watercolors called Seeing in Detail: Scott and Stuart Gentling’s Birds of Texas.

Gentling Study Center at the Amon Carter Museum
3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth.

“Scott and Stuart Gentling were beloved members of our community,” says Janelle Montgomery, the new center’s curatorial assistant. “The first priority of the center is to situate the Gentlings in the larger narrative of 20th-century art, and then, more selfishly, we want to [showcase] our entire archive.”

Nora and I brought our long-overdue library copy of Of Birds and Texas along on our road trip. (The cheapest used copy on Amazon goes for $300, so we figured a few months of late fees were a bargain.) As I drove, Nora made a list of the paintings she hoped to see “live and in person.”

I adored the zany stories that accompanied the Gentling paintings. Alongside the reproduction of each watercolor in the book, the brothers include notes about the painting’s origin. The brothers write of selling an actual Audubon painting to finance the completion of Of Birds and Texas, and the story behind the flammulated owl painting is almost as fabulous as the work itself.

The brothers jokingly write that while they were usually “sedentary,” they had been “kidnapped” by a friend and taken to the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. There, after a “torturous” hike to a “valley paradise” called Boot Springs, they camped next to a crew of “bird persons of the professional kind, young graduate biologist types dressed appropriately in khaki shorts and khaki shirts with various patches sewn on for status.” The birders were there to add one rare item to their “life lists” of bird encounters: the flammulated owl.

As the sun set and it began to thunder and rain, the Gentlings cozied up in their pup tent, declining to go “flammulating” with the birders, who set off into the cold night. The birders had tromped off when, from directly above their tent, Scott and Stuart heard a soft hooting. They pointed their flashlight into the ponderosa pine branches above to see “a small gray bird sitting quite still but blinking its large brown eyes in the glare of our flashlight.” The brothers had seen the beautiful owl, unlike the professionals, who later returned to the campsite frozen and disappointed.

A magnifying glass is provided to show the impeccable detail on a purple gallinule.

Nora and I arrived at the Amon Carter, a gorgeous museum designed by celebrated architect Philip Johnson. Before going upstairs to see the Gentling paintings, we stopped in the museum’s research library, a warm space staffed by the personable Samuel Duncan, head of research; and Jonathan Frembling, Gentling curator and chief archivist. In the library is the Gentling Study Center, a room created with an endowment from the Gentlings, featuring their work and other artists’.

“The center is designed for scholars to come into the museum and do research on the museum’s holdings, which include art, archives, and library collections,” Frembling explains. “To do serious research, this is the place.”

The museum has established the Gentling Fellowship to support ongoing research and scholarship. In the dazzling Fort Worth museum scene, which includes the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Kimbell Art Museum, the Amon Carter hopes the new center will advance it as a research institution.

“We now have a unique and purposefully designed space to allow anyone to make an appointment and come in to see specific pieces of art and the associated artist’s archive,” Montgomery says.

In the Gentling Study Center, Nora and I found a copy of the original Of Birds and Texas manuscript. We carefully examined the Gentlings’ 40 bird paintings and preparatory materials. Then we went upstairs to check out the paintings in Seeing in Detail, which opened last September. The show has since closed, but the study center features permanent works on a rotating basis, and a career retrospective on the Gentling brothers is planned for mid-2021.

We were offered magnifying glasses, and with good reason: The Gentlings’ attention to detail is awe-inspiring. Hundreds of tiny brushstrokes were used for each feather of every bird. And as the exhibition materials explain, “Behind each bird, a world in miniature—a city skyline less than a fingernail high, cabins that could fit within this ‘o.’”

My daughter and I each took a magnifying glass and rushed to see the paintings we had admired for so long. There was her oldest brother’s favorite Gentling, the house wren, which the Gentling brothers depict in intricate detail resting on a cowboy boot. We saw my husband’s favorite, the black-crowned night-heron, set against a glorious backdrop of the Brazos River at night. Nora saw her favorite, the purple gallinule. And of course there was the flammulated owl, perched high above the Chisos Mountains.

We gasped as we took in the watercolors. We had never appreciated the intricacy of the paintings before. Nora held up her magnifying glass and marveled, “This is just so beautiful! I never knew before how beautiful.”

Next to the exhibition entrance, floor-to-ceiling windows flooded the room with sunlight. The recent renovation replaced carpet with wood floors and walls with movable modules. Special lighting had also been installed. I imagine the Gentling brothers would be delighted about their elegant new home.

Yet as glamorous as the Amon Carter Museum is, and as important as the Gentling Study Center might become, I still like to think about Stuart and Scott in a pup tent in the Chisos Mountains, warm in their sleeping bags as rain falls in the purple Boot Springs valley. I picture one of the Gentlings nudging the other as he hears a deep hooting sound. I can just see the brothers opening their tent flap, peering outside, training their flashlight on the pine tree above as my favorite Gentling, the flammulated owl, comes into view.

From the April 2020 issue

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