The renowned wildlife artist and Cincinnati native recalls lard-fried rabbit and fresh-caught sockeye.
interview by Bryn Mooth
photograph by Michael Wilson
What’s a favorite food memory from childhood? I loved to hunt and fish; I still do. When I was 10 years old, I wanted to go hunting. Back then, every boy had a gun. My mother told me to save my money to buy one, so I finally saved about 5 dollars, and I went to the store at Peebles Corner where the man sold me a single-shot 22. My mom said, “If you shoot something you’ve got to eat it.” She’d cook whatever I brought home.
One afternoon after school, I got on the streetcar with my gun and went out to Mt. Washington to hunt rabbits. I was always careful at the end of the hunt to clean and gut it out in the field. I was walking back and found an old bleached-out cow skull in the field, so I asked the farmer if I could have it. He said, “Sure, it’s yours.” And so I got back on the streetcar with two rabbits hanging from my belt and this big cow skull! When I got home, my mom cooked those rabbits up in lard, and they were really good.
How did you develop your painting ability? I learned sketching as a 9-year-old at the old Art Academy at the Cincinnati Art Museum. My teacher, Mr. Goddard, taught me something I never forgot: Capture the moment. He encouraged me to paint fast; when you work quickly, it gives you a chance to put the emotion into the painting, which might otherwise disappear.
After World War II, I wanted to resume my career as an artist; I’d painted all through the war while I was on a Navy ship. I decided to go to art school on the GI Bill. So I went back to the Art Academy and enrolled in a life drawing class. I spent a year there.
Your painting of redheaded ducks was chosen in 1960 for the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife’s duck stamp program. How did that shape your career? That increased the number of people who knew about my work, and I started my career then in earnest. That painting harkens back to my love of hunting. I’m going on a duck hunt next week with a good friend—at this stage in life, it’s more about sitting down and waiting for the ducks to come to you.
Does a particular meal stand out from your travels around the world? In my trips to Alaska, I’ve never gotten over the joy of eating sockeye salmon. I traveled to Alaska with [Indiana wildlife artist] Bill Zimmerman when he was working on his book, Waterfowl of North America. We got to Hooper Bay, everybody recommended a local restaurant. We had the specialty, sockeye salmon, and it was in the fall when they were running. We just loved that salmon. It was so fresh.
Born: Cincinnati, 1924
Marital status: Beloved wife of 43 years, Judy, passed away in 2011
Career: John Aldrich Ruthven is considered the “20th Century Audubon.” His paintings are displayed in museums around the country and in countless Ohio Valley living rooms. In 2004, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. At 93, he still paints every day in his home studio.
Bryn’s long career in publishing took a left turn sometime around 2010, when she discovered the joy of food writing. Since then, she’s found professional nirvana as the editor of Edible Ohio Valley, author of The Findlay Market Cookbook, and occasional instructor at The Cooking School at Jungle Jim’s. Find her seasonal recipes at writes4food.com.