The Arts

November 19, 2013

Tony Bennett: The Birding Festival’s Anniversary Artist

Tony Bennett 2

Unaware at the time, Tony Bennett was predestined to be the artist who inconspicuously married the arts with birding at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.

During Bennett’s sophomore year at Texas State University, he was hired to illustrate the field guide Birds of Mexico and Central America published by the University of Texas Press: It was 1972, and the first time these birds were illustrated in color. “It was an incredible opportunity for a kid,” said Bennett reminiscing on the many hours he spent studying and painting that year. What he didn’t know then is that these illustrations would lead him to be the first featured artist of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.

A severe drought hit Marfa, Texas, where Bennett grew up, forcing his family to relocate to Harlingen, Texas, when Bennett was only ten years old. His father loved the valley so much, that he never looked back, but his young son never forgot about his hometown. Bennett was an art loving curious child who discovered his love for birds along the barrel of his BB gun. “I shot a broad-tailed hummingbird, eventually realizing what I wanted was to get close enough to look at it, and once I did, I was so fascinated with its beauty that I never shot any birds again,” he affirmed.

After college he traveled with some friends in a Volkswagen camper through the Panama Canal Zone almost to the Colombian border. On multiple occasions Bennett visited Rancho El Cielo in the nearby mountains of northeastern Mexico and Central and South America, where he spent long hours watching birds, camping and hiking. “This experience turned me into a painter of the forest because I realized they were important too, and some have been destroyed since,” stated Bennett.

Painting, birding and nature became Bennett’s passion, and his home a showplace. In 1990, Bennett’s front xeriscaped yard was featured several times on local newspapers sparking plenty of interest not only because of its unique wild beauty, but because it violated every city code possible. Tony fought the City of Harlingen for the right to keep his native landscaped front yard, and was successful. Soon after, many nature enthusiasts visited Bennett’s yard interested in this new trend in landscaping where watering is not necessary, for as Bennett said; “God put these plants here, and he will take care of them.”

During that time, the idea of organizing a birding festival was circulating among some local birding enthusiasts and the Harlingen Chamber of Commerce. It was twenty years ago in 1993, when the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival was ready to go, and what better choice for the featured artist than Bennett who had become a local celebrity and whose Birds of Mexico and Central America illustrations had received national recognition. He still signs copies of this book, and since then, Bennett returned as featured artist for the festival’s tenth anniversary, and he is back this year for the festival’s 20th anniversary.

Throughout his life, Bennett has painted many hummingbirds including the 135 species that appear in Birds of Peru by Princeton Press (2007). It was no one’s surprise that he chose to paint hummingbirds for this year’s anniversary poster. Bennett’s first festival poster featured Harlingen’s Kiskadee.  

From the very beginning, festival organizers have selected a nationally recognized artist to illustrate the event’s annual promotional poster featuring a different bird species, for art plays an integral part on the festival’s activities.  “Birding is plugged into art, and it stems from the field guides which are traditionally all about art; from Wilson, Audubon and Peterson to our own Tony Bennett,” said Marci Fuller, current Chairman of the RGV Birding Festival, who said she likes referring to Bennett as the festival’s anniversary artist.

Fuller further developed on the festival’s commitment to foster and educate kids in the arts with the help of local educators, and bestowing opportunities for students to meet world recognized artists such as David Sibley and Kenn Kaufman who will sign their field guides during this year’s festival.  Furthermore, the festival’s Birders Bazaar Trade Show is the place to meet talented artists, admire and even purchase one-of-a-kind works of art. This trade show is the only place where people can marvel at the work of Tony Bennett, and have an opportunity to meet this local artist.

The prestigious magazine Birdwatcher’s Digest will feature Bennett’s illustration of an Aplomado Falcon on the cover of their upcoming November/December issue along with his article about the disappearance of this raptor from our area, and its reintroduction in the early 1990s. Bennett passionately spoke about the very few, if any, Aplomado Falcons seen in our region between 1910 and 1993. We need to read his story to find out more about their amazing comeback.

Although field guide illustrations opened the door to Bennett’s journey with art and nature, he considers these illustrations to be “birds on a stick,” for they contain no colored background.  This notion has led him to slowly work his way through painting the birds of South Texas in a more scenic representation; something that will keep him busy for a few months, maybe even years. Right now, he is busy volunteering his time to make the Birding Festival’s 20th anniversary a success.


Beyond Arts Magazine published this article on their November, 2013 issue. Click on the link and read much more about arts in the Rio Grande Valley.

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About the Author

Tapia - Gonzales
La Vida Valle is where I write about "la vida" living in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Life, art and culture, poetry, prayers, travel, and camping! yes, that's my new thing. I blame the heat and high humidity for the madness. Contributions and comments are always welcome .


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