Wallace Oscar Hughes was a renowned wildlife artist. He is best known for his paintings of birds and his work as an illustrator, photographer, and art director for Florida Wildlife Magazine.
Wallace Neighberg was born in Salt Lake City, Utah on August 22, 1918. Abandoned by his biological father, the young boy was proud to take the last name of the kind man who adopted him and married his mother. Raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Wallace remembered his youth fondly. On hot summer nights, his parents slept on the porch. Wally and his sister, Dot, slept on the lawn. Before they had a television or even a radio, the family entertained each other with songs and jokes. His favorite -which he repeated often- was "Where does this road go? I've lived here my whole life and it hasn't gone anywhere!"
Wallace was an enthusiastic outdoorsman. Even as a child, he was fascinated by nature. He led his friends on expeditions to catch butterflies and sketch birds. Inspired by the artwork of John James Audubon, the adolescent artist taught himself to draw by studying animals and copying pages from a wildlife field guide, The Birds of North America.
When he was in high school, Wally achieved local celebrity as a baseball player. Fans came "from far flung counties to see his legendary curve ball." The athlete's life took an unexpected turn when he was arrested for hunting without a license. The shy boy was terrified by his punishment; He was sentenced to speak to middle school students about wildlife and nature conservancy. During one of those assemblies, Wallace was heckled by a young girl, Wanda Jean Otto. She approached him after his talk and they were later married.
Wallace served as a medic during World War II. Upon his return, he and "Rocky" built their family in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The couple sold their artwork at craft fairs but, to make a better living, Wallace also accepted a job at the Mohawk Zoo. His wildlife expertise earned him a position as the Curator of Birds. He was the youngest in the history of the zoo. The enthusiastic zookeeper wrestled occasionally with the zoo's bear cub. He and his wife even adopted the zoo's baby Reesešs monkey, Miss Spunky. It lived in their home, wore diapers, and terrorized the Hughes's two sons, Vaughn and Vance.
Wallace was recognized for several murals that he painted for the zoo. At the time, he was one of very few artists who specialized in wildlife. He was soon offered a staff job at a state-sponsored magazine, The Oklahoma Game & Fish News. Throughout his entire life, the artist remained enormously grateful that - even during the Great Depression - he never once had to ask for a job. His art and knowledge earned him "more work than I can remember." This included commissions from magazines, museums, book publishers, state governments, and even a toy manufacturer.
He later accepted a job as the art director for Florida Wildlife magazine. For more than thirty years, the magazine featured his paintings, cartoons, photographs, educational illustrations, and essays about hunting, camping, and wildlife conservation.
The artist spent his later years caring for his ailing wife. When he eventually retired from Florida Wildlife, he continued to work occasionally as a freelance painter and illustrator. One of his proudest accomplishments was the illustrated signage that he created for the Junior Museum, a zoo in Tallahassee, Florida. The artwork was taken from his enormous body of work and it was used throughout the state of Florida. His magnum opus was Oklahoma Bird Life, an illustrated guide to the birds of his home state.
Throughout his life, Wallace was excited to share his knowledge with young people. He is remembered by many as a superb baseball coach. He led his granddaughter, Lali, on morning hikes and taught her how to feed birds. He brought birdseed with him and, even in his backyard, he could call a variety of birds and animals with his inimitable whistle. He advised aspiring artists with their drawings and paintings and suggested ways that they might use those skills to make a career. Wallace inspired his nephew, Robert Taylor, to become an artist when he taught the boy how to draw an eagle's head. Wallace's eldest son, Vaughn, made his living as an illustrator for the Tampa Tribune. His son, Vance, works as a landscape and wildlife painter. His grandson, Henry Hughes, is an animator. And his eldest grandson, Rama, is me, an illustrator and art teacher.
Wallace Hughes passed away on June 12. Beyond his legacy as an artist, he will be remembered for his quiet, grateful spirit. He welcomed wonder and mystery into his life and he encouraged his grandchildren to enjoy their youth and have adventures. You can find a selection of his artwork on flickr.