By Elizabeth Coss
The Mahoning Valley’s forests and parks allow for a diverse ecology, but for John Guy Petruzzi, to survey and document birdlife is also an opportunity for art.
Petruzzi, an art professor at Youngstown State University, has volunteered at Mill Creek MetroParks since 2013. For the past decade, he’s kept a record of sightings of both native and non-native birds through photography and paintings for the park.
“The paintings represent a much more personal process to me … there’s a symbology that I’ve developed that isn’t as necessarily as perceivable to an outside viewer,” Petruzzi said. “The photos are more artifacts of my process of going out in nature, experiencing wildlife, making observations and being able to take that documentation home.”
A variety of symbols, such as loss, can be found in Petruzzi’s work. He explained that because of climate change and habitat destruction, loss is everywhere historically and continually.
“The longer you pay attention, season after season, you start to recognize different changes in bird populations — and certainly with climate change — we’re seeing all sorts of crazy things happen in terms of diminishing bird populations,” Petruzzi said.
Some of Petruzzi’s work is on display in Fellows Riverside Gardens’ Gallery Room. His exhibit “Field Marks” features birds photographed not only in Mill Creek — but also semi-local, rare and out-of-state sightings.
Petruzzi said the most extraordinary bird he’s documented was a gyrfalcon, which is featured five times in the gallery.
“[The gyrfalcon] is the world’s largest falcon — and it usually lives in the Arctic — and one hadn’t been seen in Ohio in almost 30 years,” Petruzzi said. “Just up the street from the Mill Creek Wildlife Sanctuary, I found an immature gyrfalcon in February 2021 [and] it came back the following winter.”
One of Petruzzi’s paintings on display is a watercolor and acrylic painting titled “Phantom Limb,” highlighting the ivory-billed woodpecker — a bird whose existence is debated upon by the birding community.
“Some people believe it’s extinct, others believe there’s just a few left — so in this painting I’ve created an absurd or surreal amount of ivory-billed woodpeckers,” Petruzzi said. “Once you know about our extinct species, it’s hard to be in nature and not start to feel their absence.”
His photography is also featured throughout the newly renovated Ford Nature Center through promotional materials such as informational displays and backdrops.
Petruzzi said he grew up in the area and it’s an honor to give back to a place which has given him a lot.
“I grew up going to Mill Creek Park, going to the Ford Nature Center,” Petruzzi said. “To make a contribution to the efforts they do there in terms of raising awareness for the park and environmental conservation, I’m honored to do that.”
Petruzzi earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts from YSU before becoming a professor. Now at YSU and Westminster College, he teaches both painting and drawing courses.
Reflecting his love for nature and art, Petruzzi said he tries to get his students to incorporate the environment into their lives as well as their art.
“A lot of people aren’t even aware of the sort of variety of wildlife we have in our area. Anytime I can share that with my students and get them to connect with our local habitats and broaden their connection with nature, I take satisfaction in that,” Petruzzi said.
Petruzzi’s art will be on display in the Gallery Room of Fellows Riverside Gardens until Oct. 1 and all pieces are available for purchase through his website, johnguypetruzzi.com, or his Instagram @johnguypetruzzi.
For photography, Petruzzi has a separate Instagram @jgpbirds.