Scott and Stuart Gentling, arguably Fort Worth’s most famous fraternal twins, were talented artists and lifelong mischief makers.
As youngsters destined to become the Audubons of Texas, Stuart hiked along the Trinity River and with his b-b gun shot a migrating duck. He bagged it, brought it to his Arlington Heights home, stuffed it as a taxidermist would and painted an exquisite watercolor. His brother, using a paintbrush from a model train set, added the finishing touches. The image proved to be one of the twins’ earliest artistic collaborations, a harbinger of their landmark 1986 book, Of Birds and Texas, a boxed portfolio set that weighed 46 pounds and sold for $2,500. (In today’s art market, it sells for up to $16,000.)
The twins’ bird paintings—along with landscapes of weather-beaten barns, a model of an Aztec city and a relaxed portrait of George W. Bush at his ranch — are part of a rich career retrospective at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art through Jan. 9. Titled “Imagined Realism,” the exhibit highlights more than 165 works, most on loan from local collectors who grew up partying with the twins on the city’s West Side. Their friends and patrons had colorful tales, many related in the 300-page book that accompanies the exhibition.
The first bird Stuart shot was not the last. Hunting along the Trinity bottomlands became habit forming. River Crest residents with acreage reaching the river’s edge allowed the boys to hunt on their property and stash the carcasses in their nearby freezers—often for years until the twins were ready to stuff and sketch them. (Young Stuart had learned taxidermy from a correspondence course.)
Brimming with outdoors ideas, the twins showed curious kids how to launch three-stage paper rockets propelled with black gunpowder—that once blew up in their faces.
With a buddy who lived in Westover Hills, they operated a pheasant farm, confident that residents would joke, not complain about the chorus of mating calls. The twins did run afoul of one neighbor, oilman Perry Bass. He caught them pilfering a wheelbarrow full of pea gravel from his driveway. Meekly, the boys explained that their farm needed the pebbles for drainage. The next day a dump truck pulled up to the pheasant farm. Out spilled a mountain of pea gravel along with a note: “This gravel ought to hold you a while. Leave mine alone. Perry.”
The twins operated the pheasant farm until they graduated from Arlington Heights High in 1961. Stuart left Fort Worth for Tulane in New Orleans; Scott studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Before leaving, they gave two pairs of rare pheasants to the Fort Worth Zoo. When they moved back home to Bryce Ave. in the mid-1960s, the zoo returned the favor, promising them the remains of dead exotic birds.
A compositional motif in many of the twins’ paintings was to place something playful or startling in the picture. A watercolor of a marsh bird shows it alighting on an alligator skull. Their painting of a speckled Chuck-will’s-Widow, a nocturnal bird that swallows hummingbirds, has a menacing funnel cloud swirling in the west. The rendition of a barn swallow shows more of the barn than the bird.
A casual portrait of the artists’ friend Brent Hyder, a developer and preservationist, shows him leaning against a doorframe. Behind him rests the helmet of a Greek warrior. When Jane Goodall, the chimpanzee scholar and savior, visited from Tanzania in 1990, she sat for a portrait. In the shadows of the finished painting is a primate’s skull adorned with a headband of seashells and tresses of tangled twine.
Although Stuart and Scott shot migrating birds, and although the exhibit includes small, detailed watercolors of bugs, butterflies and a bat, the twins believed their selective hunting did not endanger any species. They argued that destruction of habitat is what’s lethal.
With wildlife conservationist Harry Tennison, a neighbor and patron, Stuart traveled to Zimbabwe in 1996 with Operation Rhino. The group arranged to transport ten endangered black rhinos to Texas. When the first offspring was born, the zoo named the baby Harry. In homage to his mentor, Stuart painted a picture titled “Portrait of Harry.” Sure enough, it’s a profile of the newborn rhinoceros.
Scott and Stuart Gentling, born on New Year’s Eve in 1942, spent their artistic careers in Fort Worth. Stuart died in 2006 and Scott in 2011. They never sought fame in art capitals on the East or West Coast. Yet the price of their artwork rose, especially after their portraits of George W. Bush were hung at the Statehouse and in the White House. The ceiling mural inside the dome of the Bass Performance Hall, with its cobalt blue sky and pair of soaring eagles, is a testament to the twins’ imprint on the city’s cultural landscape.
(Hollace Ava Weiner, a former Star-Telegram reporter, is an author, historian, and archivist.)