Reimagining the American White Pelican

Illustrator Calef Brown drew inspiration from a childhood encounter with the bird.

Inspired at an early age by Greek and Roman mythological creatures, and also by John Tenniel’s illustrations in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—the Gryphon, the Dodo, the Cheshire Cat—Calef Brown loves to anthropomorphize the animals in his artwork. This coy White Pelican, done in acrylic paint and gouache, evoked a boyhood memory of his first close encounter with a pelican on a Florida pier.

“It seemed somehow prehistoric—a touch of pterodactyl,” Brown said. Even then he was an admirer of birds, encouraged by his father, who taught him to identify them by both sight and sound. Sometime before his father’s death in 2013, the two of them saw an exhibit of John James Audubon’s double elephant folios.

“We were both awestruck by the beauty and virtuosity of the work,” he said. “It’s a cherished memory for me, a moment of shared appreciation of birds and art.”

From his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Brown often works in ink and watercolor, combined with digital processes, to create illustrations for a wide range of publications, including The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated. He also dreams up children’s books with pictures and poems, and titles such as Polkabats and Octopus Slacks: 14 Stories.

See all of John James Audubon’s Birds of America.