Etching artist to bring colorful Florida birds to Tampa Bay History Center exhibit

Brilliant images of some of the birds that help make Florida such a colorful place were created using a centuries-old process. They will soon be at the center of a new exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center. 

John Costin works to fill tiny crevices in a copper plate. He rubs the plate with ink and then, with his bare hand, polishes the surrounding copper until it shines. 

What Costin does with copper makes him a rare bird indeed. His art is etching, and he's done this for 40 years.  

His latest image is of a pair of sand hill cranes. He’s worked on this etching since July. All of his etchings are of Florida birds. The detail in their feathers, feet, and beaks is amazing. 

"You could never get close enough to a bird in the wild to see this," said Costin. 

His etchings start with shades of white, gray and black. He then keeps adding color until birds like herons and egrets and pelicans seem to fly off the paper, exploding with color. 

It’s the result of 40 years of bird watching and a new take on bird etchings. Lots of people remember them from dusty old scientific books. Audubon made hundreds of them in the 1800s. 

Costin has collected dozens of antique etchings from Audubon and others. 

"I like the history of it," he said. "I like to read about the history of these different naturalists and what they went through."

Costin’s life-size images are much larger and more colorful than those from another age, but his work and his collection will be combined into an exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center. 

"One thing we want to express to our audience is that these were beautiful birds, but they also served an educational purpose," said Brad Massey, a curator at Tampa Bay History Center. 

The exhibit will be called "Etched Feathers: A History of the Printed Bird." It opens March 4 at the history center on Water Street in downtown Tampa. 

Costin joked that he is one of the few still creating etchings. He said he surprised the staff of an out-of-town museum that exhibited his work. 

"They were surprised that I was a living artist," he laughed. "They thought I was a dead artist, because nobody does this anymore."

Costin is a rare bird indeed, bringing new color to an old art.