Taking flight with his art

Green Lake Bird and Nature Club Founder Tom Schultz displays his bird painting, which is inside the “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th Edition.” Joe Schulz photo

by Joe Schulz

Tom Schultz isn’t your typical outdoorsman. He is an expert bird watcher, but he’s also an experienced artist.

Schultz has painted birds for the “National Geographic Field Guide To The Birds Of North America,” since the 1980s, and a few years ago he co-founded the Green Lake Bird and Nature Club with his wife, Wendy Schultz.

His love of the outdoors and his passion for art began when he was growing up in Fond du Lac. One summer stands out as really cementing his appreciation of nature when his school had an outdoor summer science course.

“It had daily outdoor activities with teachers from the area,” Schultz said. “They would take us out into marshes and forests … It was hands-on learning and I think that would influence me as much as anything.”

His appreciation of nature followed him to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his resident advisor was a bird watcher.

Schultz helped his advisor organize bird watching trips for local school children.

“I had a little bit of interest growing up, but I really didn’t grab a hold of it until I started going out birding with him,” Schultz said.

Throughout his college years, Schultz began birding by himself and developing his skills as a bird watcher.

During that period, he also picked up the paintbrush again, after enjoying art in grade school and abandoning it in high school.

“The summer after my freshman year of college I sat down with my bird book, I took out an old watercolor set that we had at home, and I painted some of the birds right out of the book,” Schultz said.

He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology in 1976, the same year he discovered the Birds in Art exhibit at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wis.

In 1981, the museum featured one of his paintings in its art exhibit, and because of the prestige of the art show, National Geographic sent its art director to look for new artists. National Geographic found Schultz.

Tom Schultz’s art is featured in the most recent Leigh Yawkey Art Museum “Birds in Art” 2018 catalogue. Joe Schulz photo

“That led to my work on the first edition of the National Geographic field guide,” Schultz said. “Each time they do a new edition, I get contacted to work as a contractor and do some more illustrations; it’s sort of been an ongoing project for me every five, six years.”

For each illustration, Schultz does meticulous research, examining study skins, which are stuffed birds, for color reference. He also studies dimensions such as wingspan.

“I go down in Chicago to the Field Museum of Natural History and they have a big collection of bird specimens, bird skins,” Schultz said. “I’ll communicate with the two authors about exactly what they want. But I’ll do my own research with the specimen collection and usually select one or two birds I can borrow and then bring home to paint from.”

Schultz began sharing his love of nature with the local community when he co-founded the Green Lake Bird and Nature Club with Wendy about four years ago. They met at a bird club in Fond du Lac, which they continued to go to after moving to Green Lake.

After the Fond du Lac bird club folded, they talked about starting a bird club in Green Lake. After their kids had grown up, they did it.

“We decided to call it the bird and nature club rather just have it be a bird club,” Schultz said. “Birds are fine, and our primary focus, but we occasionally talk about other things also, whether it be frogs or trees or butterflies. It’s a broad range of interests that people have dealing with the natural world.”

The club often goes on “field trips” to locations throughout Wisconsin. Schultz noted trips often take a lot of planning in advance because of weather concerns, but often help people gain an insight into the natural world.

“For me, it’s a really exciting part of the world,” Schultz said. “Humans go about their daily lives, but we’re surrounded by nature and to me, the natural world is endlessly fascinating.”

For more information about how to get involved with the Green Lake Bird and Nature Club, see the club’s Facebook page.