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John Ruthven: Modern Audubon and 'a Cincinnati treasure' dead at 95

Skilled artist, naturalist – and storyteller ‘second to none’
Cincinnati wildlife artist John Ruthven among Ohio senior honorees
Posted at 10:54 PM, Oct 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-12 07:09:41-04

As a boy, John Aldrich Ruthven took a sketchbook with him everywhere, capturing animals and scenes of nature, especially along the banks of the Ohio River, where he loved to hunt and fish. He passed away Sunday, Oct. 11, at the age of 95.

Ruthven became a world-renowned wildlife artist, often described as the “20th-century John James Audubon,” using techniques pioneered by Audubon a century earlier: thoroughly researching and sketching his subjects in great detail before turning to his final paintings of animals ranging from snowy owls and cardinals to Bengal tigers and bald eagles.

The naturalist, author, lecturer and painter was born on Nov. 12, 1924, in Cincinnati’s Walnut Hills neighborhood. After graduating from Withrow High School in 1942, Ruthven joined the U.S. Navy and served in World War II as a second-class petty officer on a destroyer escort, the USS. J.R.Y. Blakely.

Returning home in 1946, he enrolled in the Art Academy of Cincinnati and began his career as a professional artist. Shortly thereafter he opened a commercial art studio in Cincinnati, aspiring to a career in art focused on his love of the natural world. In 1960, his “Redhead Ducks” painting won a national competition for a Federal Duck Stamp. The wildlife preservation organization Ducks Unlimited designated him as its first artist of the year in 1972. Over the years, Ruthven’s paintings contributed for prints have raised nearly $2 million for the organization's efforts to protect and preserve wetlands in North America.

"John Ruthven was a dear friend and one of the greatest naturalists to ever live in our area," said Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. "He carried a tradition that goes all the way back to John James Audubon, who lived here 150 years ago ... John was a kind and very generous man."

Ruthven’s creativity was not limited to nature. From his studio, he worked on numerous commercial products, including Play-Doh, invented in Cincinnati. In the 1950s, Ruthven conceived of the modeling clay’s little boy mascot, used to promote early sales of the popular childhood toy.

In 1964, he and his wife, Judy, moved to an 1836 house on farmland he purchased for $19,000 near Georgetown, Ohio, consisting of 165 acres of land with an old barn, four ponds and a running creek. For decades he took daily tramps throughout the wooded property greeting familiar trees and animals.

His paintings have been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Presidential Palace in the Philippines and many museums worldwide. In 1994, his work was honored with a retrospective at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History featuring 100 of his most important works, including “Eagle to the Moon,” commissioned by former Ohio Gov. James Rhodes to commemorate Neil Armstrong’s historic moon landing.

In 2004, President George W. Bush awarded Ruthven the National Medal of Arts for his accurate and beautiful wildlife art and in recognition of his contributions as an artist and naturalist to conserving America’s natural treasures. The medal is the U.S. government’s highest honor for an individual artist’s achievement. Even at age 90 he was still painting five hours a day, creating as many as a dozen works each year. He often said, “As long as I can lift a brush, I will paint.”

In 2014, his iconic painting of “Martha – The Last Passenger Pigeon” was translated into a striking 6,000-square-foot mural on a six-story building at Eighth and Vine streets in downtown Cincinnati. At age 89, Ruthven climbed on scaffolding with high school apprentices from the ArtWorks public art program to add finishing details to the image of Martha, who had died a century earlier at the Cincinnati Zoo, leading a spiraling flock of a species now extinct.

“John’s painting of Martha is a perfect example of his uncanny ability to tell a story using personal experiences to create unique compositions that educate us about nature,” said Bill Hopple, former executive director of the Cincinnati Nature Center.

Tamara Harkavy, founder and former CEO of ArtWorks, worked closely with Ruthven during the execution of the mural featuring Martha. She remembers the artist as “a Cincinnati treasure.”

“As a storyteller, he was second to none,” she said, citing both his artistic skill and his devotion to teaching. “I learned so much about Cincinnati by listening to his stories about how he roamed the riverfront as a young boy or carried his gun to school for show-and-tell. He painted a picture with his words, just as he painted his incredible images of wildlife.”

In 2013, the Cincinnati Nature Center bestowed its Wood Thrush Award on Ruthven for his lifetime dedication to land conservation and stewardship.

“John made a huge impact for a variety of organizations in the region,” said Hopple. “Through his talents, he generously supported conservation efforts in our region and around the world.”

Ruthven painted American eagles for three presidents: Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He had commissions from Colonial Williamsburg, John Deere & Co., Procter & Gamble and the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum, but he also had an important commission closer to home: His wife Judy charged him with painting portraits of her cats.

“Judy loves her cats,” he told an interviewer in 2014. “Every time one dies, I paint a portrait. We have cat portraits all over the house.”

DeVere Burt, former director of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and himself a painter, calls Ruthven “a special man, celebrated as an important artist and beloved in his hometown. He was a curious and intuitive naturalist, keenly interested in the rare and unusual in nature. He was also a prolific and innovative artist, often compared to his hero, John James Audubon. He was a talented raconteur, an exceptional storyteller, and always in demand.”