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ART IMITATES wildlife

From the outside, it's a boxy, unexceptional house in a neighborhood a few blocks off Seventh Avenue where a lot of people would rather not go.

But inside, dozens of newly created works of art, prized by collectors around the world, hang to dry.

The house is the home and studio of artist John Costin, whose realistic studies of Florida birds have earned him a comfortable living, an international reputation and even an invitation to the White House.

"I think it's fair to say John is a naturalist with an artist's eye," said Tampa art consultant Marilyn Mars. "His work is about real things, the birds and flowers that we see around us, but it's sensitive to the beauty of the subject."

At age 48, Costin is about two-thirds of the way through what could be called his life's work, a collection of life-sized portraits of Florida's avian wildlife.

They are painstakingly researched and biologically accurate, but Costin stresses that they are works of art, not scientific illustrations.

"There's some abstraction in the backgrounds, the landscapes," he said. "You look at the grasses and things, you'd never see stuff like that in real life."

The art itself is distinctive, but so is the way Costin markets his work. Every time he finishes a new painting in his "Large Florida Birds" collection _ a process that can take months or even years _ he sends hand-painted prints made from etched plates to 115 subscribers, who pay for each piece.

Works from his catalog of 34-by-24-inch paintings belong to museums (including the Florida History Museum in Tallahassee), academic institutions (including the University of Miami) and individual art lovers.

"Artists, if they're smart, will try to find a little niche," Costin said. "I've been lucky enough to find this niche that lets me be an artist and still make a living."

Working from photographs and sketches, Costin creates his work directly on metal plates, etching images with acid. He repeats the process on five plates and paints each with a solid color. During the printing process, the combination of the colors creates the background. Costin then hand paints the birds on each image.

Costin has held one-person shows throughout the United States and in Europe. He opens a show tonight at Center Place, 619 Vonderburg Drive in Brandon. It's a benefit for the Tampa Audubon Society and runs through Feb. 27.

The exhibit will feature pieces from his catalog that sell framed for thousands of dollars apiece, as well as smaller, unframed pieces for as little as $15. He'll also show, but not sell, works from his collection of John James Audubon prints.

Costin gained fame a few years ago when a state government official took notice of his work during a show in Tallahassee. Weeks later, he got a call from the White House, which was seeking artists to create bird-themed ornaments for the 2002 White House Christmas tree.

Costin carved a 6-inch ivory-billed woodpecker, an extinct bird once common in Florida. "I worked on that for 80 hours, two solid weeks," he said. He and his wife, Janet, later were invited to the White House to see it on the tree.

Costin admits success didn't come easily.

Born in Detroit, he moved around a lot with his family. As he entered high school, they moved to Lake Wales. He later attended Polk Community College.

"It took me three years to finish my two-year degree," he said. "I was putting myself through school. Some semesters I'd go to school full time, others I'd have to work to make some money to pay for school."

Initially, he didn't expect to pursue art as a career.

"I never thought I could make a living as an artist," he said. "I didn't even know where to start. But I'm a real good electrician, and I got a good job as a troubleshooter."

He lived and worked in Wyoming for a while, earning a decent living and saving for the future.

"Finally, I just said, "This is not what I want to do for the rest of my life,"' he said. "I'd always liked to draw, and I'd always been interested in art history, so I enrolled at USF and started studying art."

After earning his bachelor's degree, he decided to pack up his art and drive around the country searching for buyers. In every city he stopped at the public library to get a list of the local art galleries and dealers. Then he'd call each one to try to set up an appointment.

It was a grueling process that taught him how to market art and be a salesman.

At the same time, he had been reading about Audubon, the naturalist, who sold his work to subscribers. Costin decided to try that same approach.

Costin researches each bird before beginning the piece. Then he goes out with a camera to photograph the bird in its natural habitat, often accompanied by an ornithologist or some other wildlife expert.

By the time he begins painting, he knows the subject well.

"It's important that I go out and actually see the birds myself and get to know something about them," he said. "I don't want to just digest someone else's vision."

John Costin

AGE: 48

JOB: Artist specializing in Florida bird paintings.

WEB SITE: www.costingraphics.com

WIFE: Janet Costin

CURRENT DIGS: A studio-residence near East Ybor. The house was damaged in a fire, and he repaired and renovated it himself with the help of a county grant.

SMALLEST DIGS: He lived in a van for more than a year while working as an electrician in Wyoming. "I had a little refrigerator in there, and I carried a lot of books around with me."

FAVORITE BIRD: "Usually my favorite bird is the one I'm working on at the time. Right now it's the glossy ibis."

BRUSH WITH FAME: During a visit to the White House, he was greeted by first lady Laura Bush.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT: He grabbed her arm to lead her to the White House Christmas tree to show her the ornament he had created. "I didn't notice it, but Janet said the Secret Service people got kind of nervous."

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