One year, when Catherine McClung had her popular booth set up at the Ann Arbor Art Fair, somebody ratted her out to the cops.
A disgruntled art shopper filed a police report. It claimed McClung, renowned wildlife artist, was selling photographs of birds and passing them off as paintings.
That's how realistic that duck painting was.
Five things to know about Catherine McClung:
• Former first lady Barbara Bush once stopped by her booth at an art fair while campaigning for her husband, George, and told her, "I love your cardinals." It was a thrill for the politics junkie.
• Her vibrant watercolor tulip, "Splendor," was last year's Tulip Time poster.
• Her freezer once was filled with road kill. She had a license to retrieve dead animals when she started painting so she could study their detail.
• She illustrated a children's book, "The Far-Flung Adventures of Homer the Hummer," by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds. Homer, a ruby-throated hummingbird, makes a perilous journey north from Costa Rica, narrowly escaping a predatory frog and getting trapped in a barn. School Library Journal says, "McClung's soft-focus watercolors are varied and appealing; her birds and flowers are expertly rendered."
• She buys a lot of bird seed, but her daughter says she has a sweet tooth, requiring a weekly turtle sundae on the Grand Haven boardwalk in the summer and a steady supply of Twizzlers.
To see some of her Lenox pieces, go to lenox.com and search on her name.
McClung, 56, paints birds in a sunny studio overlooking Petty's Bayou off Spring Lake.
Her birds seem to be everywhere.
Look through your kitchen cupboards. You might have served a holiday dinner on her art.
Lenox hired her to do artwork for seven patterns of its china, including a holiday line called Winter Greetings that has become a Lenox staple.
She has been to the White House, after creating a bird-themed ornament for the White House Christmas tree.
She has hobnobbed with renowned lifestyle guru Colin Cowie, a regular on the "Oprah Winfrey Show." Lenox hired him to design the New York City showroom to kick off one of McClung's china patterns.
She was featured in an HGTV show about artisans for the Home and Garden Television network.
McClung's birds are on posters, calendars, note cards, wrapping paper and in fine art galleries across the country.
She had no idea painting birds could make a chick so famous.
The Gallery of Frames in Grand Haven started carrying some of McClung's original paintings and limited-edition prints on a temporary basis, but decided to make it a permanent arrangement, gallery manager Elizabeth Collins says.
"It's beautiful, people love it and it sells," Collins says. "Her work is so realistic, you can almost reach out and touch the birds. It's caused a lot of conversation here. People see her work in the window and walk in because they've fallen in love with it."
Of course, McClung is a bird lover. She delights in watching eagles from her living room and complains just a little about the great blue herons that squawk outside her bedroom window late at night.
She can tell you all about the rufous-sided towhee while you're still trying to figure out how to spell it.
"You know what they do," she says, "they shuffle their feet in the leaves on the forest floor to make the bugs fly out, then they eat them."
She prowls the woods and waterways around her home with her binoculars and camera, capturing birds she'll put on paper.
She knows the highbush cranberries in her backyard get sweeter after a freeze, and she knows when to watch for the flocks of cedar wax wings to swoop in and munch.
She knows she can't paint wild birds if they don't show up. Passionate about conservation, she's been the featured artist for the West Michigan Wildlife Art Festival, raising money for the Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation. She has been honored by Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups and painted cover art for the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas. The Natural Resources departments of several states commissioned her to paint bird posters.
Visitors get a kick out of the paint-by-number painting hanging in her spare bedroom. She bought the 1950s flamingos painting at an antique store. It joins her collection of 200 antique bird books, duck decoys and an iron door knocker in the shape of a red-headed woodpecker.
But before she was a bird lover, McClung was an artist.
"I knew in kindergarten that everybody had something they did better than everyone else," she says. "I knew then my talent was art." But it was years before she put it to use.
"It was someone's kind and honest words that put me on this path," she says.
She was born in Toronto, Ontario, and grew up there with her mom, Betty, dad, Ted and two brothers,Lorne and Richard.
She grew up in a hard-working family that valued work more than education. She wore hand-knit sweaters her mom made and mixed her own paste for art projects from flour and water.
She loved ice skating and sledding and once broke her nose sledding down "Suicide Hill."
Art was a hobby, she says -- not something you would ever make a living at. But it was a staple in her house.
Her mother loved every kind of craft. She etched aluminum, tooled copper and made her own candles. Catherine lapped it up.
When she was in high school, the family moved to the Detroit area when her dad took a job at the Ford Motor Co.
McClung went to Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti and earned a teaching degree, working part time at a nursery school and daycare center in Livonia. She was 20 when she married Mike. There were no teaching jobs when she graduated, so she took a job working at an arts and crafts store.
Looking for home work
She was a new mom and substitute teacher when "the rat race" got her rethinking her life, she says.
"I was looking for something I could do at home, so I started making these bath puppets."
She showed them to her friend, Cecile, who was a good enough friend to tell her the truth.
"She said, 'Those are nice, but if I could paint like you, that's what I would do.'"
So she painted a blue jay and a pheasant on pieces of old barn wood and tucked them into the crafts shop window. People kept buying them. She painted more barnwood birds and rented a booth at an arts and crafts show in Plymouth.
"I found out people were crazy about birds," she says.
Once she decided to paint on paper and canvas instead, she started selling at fine art fairs and in galleries. In 1989, Lenox contacted her. The company asked her to paint a goldfinch on a collector plate to see how it would sell. It sold like crazy. That led to a series of eight plates, then a series of 12.
McClung could be in line at the grocery store, pick up any women's magazine and see an ad for her plates.
"It was pretty exciting, let me tell you," she says. The heyday of collector plates went on for about another five years. Lenox got out of the collector plate business but they still wanted McClung. Could she do a dinnerware collection?
She gave them Winter Greetings, a stunning wreath pattern of winter greens bedecked with a chickadee, nut-hatch and cardinal. The popular pattern, a top seller, has gone way beyond plates and salad bowls, says Fawn Ostriak, director of concept development for Lenox dinnerware.
McClung's greens and birds are on pitchers, creamers, candleholders -- even bath accessories, Ostriak says. The line has generated more than $40 million in sales so far, she says.
"She's one of my favorite artists to work with," Ostriak says of McClung. "She takes her art very seriously, and she's so positive to work with. Her birds are a timeless motif -- not some trendy look that will come and go."
The line sold out by Nov. 1 of its first season, McClung says. The next spring, Lenox invited her to a big tabletop show on New York's Madison Avenue, where representatives from big department stores go to do their buying for fall.
She was walking to the showroom with a Lenox staffer when the woman said to her, "You know, this show is all about you."
McClung still was processing that when she walked through the door and saw the entire showroom decorated to match Winter Greetings. The company had hired renowned interior designer and event planner Colin Cowie to do the decor. He had live birds in cages and brought in furniture to match her china.
"One thing started leading to another," she says. She laughs. "Sometimes, I feel like Forrest Gump."
Struggling with success
A woman of great faith who actively studies the Bible, she struggles with success and compliments.
"We're supposed to be humble," she notes.
"She tries to keep it on the down low," says McClung's daughter, Merissa Navarre, who tells of the lessons she learned from her hard-working mom.
"It was wonderful to have my mom there when I needed her but to see a woman have a successful career and business," she says.
McClung became a U.S. citizen in 1996. Sheand Mike, who recently retired from a career in sales, moved to Spring Lake two years ago to be close to Merissa and her family.
McClung is a cool grandma who takes her three young grandsons on spooky walks through the woods, where tangled vines become snakes and the wind in the trees gives you shivers. She always brings craft supplies. She can tell you that skinny white flower on the forest floor is called Indian Pipe. And she has a Wii.
But don't call her to goof off on a week day."She's really disciplined," says McClung's husband, Mike, 57. "She's up at 6:30 and by 7 or 7:30 she's at the drawing board. If she's really involved in a painting, it can be seven days a week.
"One day, when we were at the bank applying for a loan for our house, the guy asked her what she did," Mike recalls. "She told him, and he wrote down, 'housewife with a hobby.' Boy, she was mad."
McClung sits in her sunny home studio overlooking the bayou and starts to paint, referring to a photo she took of a snowy egret coming in for a landing at a Sanibel Island nature preserve.
"The sun was blinding off his white wings," she murmurs, dipping her brush into white paint on her palette. "There's a dark area just going down his back here."
She talks about bending light, and how the eye can finish a line that paint begins. Outside, a blue jay swoops past the window, as if to sneak a peek.
It's spring, and McClung is delighting at the renewed activity in her backyard.
"My favorites are the warblers," she says. "They come through in the spring on a warm front. They're there, but most people don't even notice. I'll say to a friend, 'Did you see the warblers?' Usually, they didn't."
She says people are always telling her how lucky she is that she can paint.
"People can do more than they think they can," she says. "Everybody can do more than they think they can."
She never forgets the words of her friend, Cecile, who connected her to her talent. McClung pays it forward.
"Women come to my shows and say, 'You're lucky -- you're talented.' I say, 'You know what? You are, too. You have something you do better than anyone else.'"
Email Terri Finch Hamilton: email@example.com