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Local artist Molly Keller spends hours observing birds for perfect painting

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Artist Molly Keller painted a watercolor of a crane dancing as the official artwork for the 2012 Sandhill Crane Festival, taking place this weekend.

Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 7:17 am, Wed Oct 31, 2012.

To represent the Sandhill Crane Festival this year, a Sacramento-based artist painted one of the majestic birds flapping its wings in a dance the cranes use for everything from mating and interacting as a family to protecting their territory.

Artist Molly Keller painted the crane for the festival using watercolors, and spent hours in the field observing the birds.

"I hesitated to try a crane because there have been so many good artists and photographers at the festival," Keller said. "I thought everything that could be said about a crane visually had been said."

Keller is a lifelong artist, taking after her mother, Mary. She majored in Spanish and Latin American literature at University of California, Riverside.

Being a bird watcher, she found her artistic muse and has won two awards at the crane festival.

She recently retired as a third-grade teacher and has spent more of her time painting in the Sacramento area and Bodega Bay.

She first participated at the festival in 2009 when the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators set up a booth. She has entered paintings of jack rabbits and other shore birds into the art contest.

When she was asked to paint the signature artwork for the festival this year, she took several trips to the Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve and the Cosumnes River Preserve, where she spent hours observing the birds. She took sketch paper and binoculars for a closer view of the cranes.

"You have to sit and be quiet for a while. You have to wait for cranes to come in or find a place where they hang out. You're looking for their posture, a pose or a circumstance that is interesting," Keller said.

She also looked at the mounted specimens in the Cosumnes River Preserve's museum. Because people cannot get close to the cranes in the field, the mounted birds helped Keller make sure every single detail was correct.

"When you sign on to paint a bird, it can be intimidating because the experts are going to know if the posture is wrong or if you don't have the right primary feathers. You have to be very careful," Keller said.

As she watched the cranes, she became more and more entranced with the dances they do in the fields.

"It's the sound, their behaviors, the thought that they keep their mates as long as they are alive, and the colors that change with the light during the day," Keller said. "They are just huge birds, and they are ancient. They go back before even humans were around."

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