John James Audubon had great promise as a bird artist, but he was driven to reach his full potential because of an economic crisis much like our own.
Audubon's experience in a shrinking economy – and the way he redefined his life to meet new realities – has much to say to a new generation of Americans forced by financial hardship to abandon old dreams and create new ones.
While researching a recent book about Audubon's creative origins, I was routinely reminded of the inspiration he found in tanagers and herons, sparrows and owls, warblers and woodpeckers, ducks and storks. But I also discovered, much to my surprise, that Audubon's career had been curiously advanced by a national economic downturn that sharpened his ambitions.
By 1819, Audubon appeared to have achieved the American dream: a successful business as a Kentucky merchant, a nice house, a wife and children.
But then a dramatic reduction in business credit shook the country, and alas, there was no bailout that year from Washington. Audubon, like many other businessmen along the American frontier, found himself bankrupt almost overnight.
"Drawing birds had been something of an obsession, but only a hobby, until Audubon's businesses failed in the Panic of 1819," writes Audubon biographer Richard Rhodes.
But perhaps sensing that he had little else to lose, Audubon turned his art from an avocation to a full-time job.
The transition proved difficult, but it eventually produced the most famous bird artist in the world.
Audubon conceded the early hardships of his change from merchant to full-time artist, "yet through these dark days I was being led to the development of the talents I loved," he later wrote.
The slide in family fortunes raised new prospects for Audubon's wife, Lucy, too. Forced to help support the family financially, Lucy turned to teaching, also a talent that had, until that point, gone largely untapped.
"People who survive personal disaster often undergo fundamental change," Rhodes writes.
Perhaps Audubon's creative ambitions might have eventually reached their promise without the pain of an economic downturn. But it seems that a national economic crisis was the crucible in which his genius – and Lucy's gifts – found their true shape.
What dormant possibilities lie within the rest of us facing changed lives in the wake of the latest recession?
Few of us can be artistic geniuses, of course. But like Audubon, we might confront hard times and find other wellsprings of ingenuity waiting to refresh our sense of possibility.
In my own home, a new strain of penny-pinching has prompted me to learn to be my own handyman around the house. In doing so, I've found skills I didn't know I possessed.
There is no denying the deep pain many people are suffering in today's recession.
Perhaps the only silver lining is that many of us might be able to look past the peril – and see a new life taking flight.