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Audubon print among gifts to Plainfield public library

Courier News, April 10, 2011

PLAINFIELD — In accepting a series of donations from a defunct community group, the Plainfield Public Library is adding to its archives equally fascinating relics of local and American history.

The donations include a print illustrating the family tree of late city resident Catherine Webster, whose lineage is traced back to the 1600s, plus an original 1828 print of a black-billed cuckoo … part of legendary American naturalist and painter John James Audubon's ground-breaking "Birds of America'' book series.

That series, consisting of 435 images compiled during a span of 13 years as part of Audubon's stated goal of depicting every bird native to the United States, includes hand-colored, life-size prints made from engraved plates. The cuckoo print will join two other original Audubon images, depicting the American flamingo and the golden eagle, currently hanging in Rooms 6 and 7 of the library's lower wing.

"It's very cool,'' library Director Joe Da Rold said. "We're thrilled.''

The donations were made by the defunct Ladies Home of Plainfield, which was founded by Webster in 1910 and served as a residence until its closure in the 1990s. Webster was a part of the Randolph, Vail and Laing families, all pioneers of Plainfield, making her family tree a "remarkable addition'' to the library's genealogy collection, Da‚Rold said.

Both donations were made last year, when the family tree and the Audubon print each were in less-than-ideal condition, Da‚Rold noted. But thanks to a Plainfield Cultural and Heritage Commission grant, not only was the library able to have both items restored by the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia, but the funding also paid for the restored Audubon print to be framed and matted by a city institution: the 142-year-old Swain Galleries on Watchung Avenue, Plainfield's oldest surviving retail establishment and New Jersey's oldest privately owned art gallery.

"It's always exciting when you can work on something like this,'' gallery owner Ann Swain said, adding that she previously had framed each of the library's other two Audubon prints about a decade ago. The latest project, featuring 22-karat gold-leaf trim and a handmade frame, took about six weeks to complete, according to Swain.

"It really gives it more depth,'' said Nancy Piwowar, the treasurer of the Cultural and Heritage Commission. "And it's good that it'll be able to be seen by people.''

The print was one of Audubon's more unusual works, depicting a pair of cuckoos … one about to snatch a flying bug out of the air … against the backdrop of a blossoming Southern magnolia flower, parts of which appear to have been nibbled away by the insects.

Piwowar said the commission, which during the last decade was revitalized by late former City Councilman Ray Blanco, annually is able to distribute a handful of grants to fund cultural or historical initiatives. This project, she added, was a no-brainer.

"We try to be frugal and be realistic,'' she said. "Catherine Webster did a lot for this city, and it's good she'll be remembered.''

Mark Spivey covers Plainfield, North Plainfield, Warren, Watchung and Green Brook. 908-243-6607; mspivey@njpressmedia.com

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