The Bird Artist
By Babs Rodriguez
Photos by Ron Jenkins
Hope is the thing with feathers for a career that is poised to take flight
Some of the birds are busy nesting; others scan the horizons or shrug between fluffy siblings. But it is a magnificent white dove, frozen in flight yet humming with energy, that introduced us to K.B. Ribelin during a trip to the neighborhood garden store. When the lifelike giclee print caught our eye, we jotted down the artist’s name and invited ourselves to her home for some bird-watching.
We find K.B. to have a spirit very like that of her Warrior Dove — when least expected, her calm and cautious demeanor explodes with a lively telling of her story. The photorealism of her watercolors is even more impressive given that the self-described bird artist only seriously tackled the medium just over two years ago. But her interest in art dates to childhood.
“I had a bent for art as a kid. I’d paint in front of the TV as I watched Bob Ross,” she says, recalling after-school hours in Fort Worth’s Fairmount neighborhood. Later, she dabbled in other mediums, including pencil drawing, with lessons from noted instructor Helen Silvestri (who started art programs at the then Fort Worth Children’s Museum).
Despite her leanings, K.B. decided not to study art in college. “It was always a pleasure for me; I didn’t want to be graded on it.” While obtaining her degree in political science at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi, K.B. met her future husband, Nathan Ribelin.
She and Nathan, who had a career in IT as well as a 24-year stint with the National Guard as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, imagined raising their family in K.B.’s hometown. “I always knew I wanted to come back to Fort Worth,” she says. When they returned 15 years ago, their oldest son was 2 weeks old. Three children followed (the youngest is 5), and the Ribelins eventually settled into a home in Wedgwood. There, in 2019, K.B.’s penchant for painting birds came home to roost.
When she spotted watercolor prints of colorful flora and fauna by artist June Jurcak at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, the hinged tin of paints from K.B.’s childhood popped open in her mind. By the time the pandemic hit, she had joined her children in lessons. “I never gave birds a thought when I started. At first it was about finding a kid-friendly art activity.” She found an online tutor, and everyone in the family started painting. “I wasn’t good at the loose style. I did a little every day, but it wasn’t until I moved into more controlled styles that I began to really enjoy it.” The busy mom had only what she calls “pockets of time” in which to practice her art. The first bird she painted, the fancy red-collared Anna’s Hummer, proved that meticulous detail was her métier. But it also redefined the time commitment for painting in a style that spoke to her heart. The artist sometimes worried whether she would remember what to do when she sat down to paint.
She managed to paint a handful of birds, but then six months passed before, in October 2020, after she’d put the littles to bed, a window of time opened up. K.B. says the work flowed out of her as the sixth bird, the extraordinarily cocky tufted coquette hummingbird, took shape. Although she didn’t finish, she felt everything click. “I just sat and painted and painted.” Later, she learned that it was during those same hours that her husband died from injuries suffered in a traffic accident while driving to a guard drill in Mississippi.
“Then, I didn’t want to finish that painting, ever,” she says. But about six weeks later, she knew it was time. Tufted Coquette Hummer now hangs on her home gallery walls along with 64 other framed paintings. Two more have been recently completed.
Her subjects continue to be birds of all shapes and sizes, but hummingbirds remain favorites. “They are like little flying jewels,” she says, “and there are so many of them. I never want to paint the same bird twice.”
Each painting, from the pale-headed rosella on a rusty water spigot to an inverted galah reflected in water, displays a philosophy of sorts. “I love the process,” she says. “There’s always the point when it gets messy, ugly, and I have to push through. I keep going. And there it is, finished.”
The paintings are inspired by photographs K.B. finds on Instagram (she always asks for the photographer’s permission). But within the picture-perfect images, she somehow breathes life into each bird. That ability has attracted a following. Creating a business out of her art was not something K.B. ever imagined, but as interest grew, she crowdsourced friends for information on printing. Then one day she walked into Archie’s Gardenland to show buyer Gina Archie her giclees. They have remained in stock ever since.
“It blows my mind that people want my art,” K.B. says.
The career she never imagined for herself has proved to have wings. A Facebook group called 5 Sparrows Studio has close to 2,000 followers. “I don’t have a studio, but I do like alliteration,” she says, noting the name also harkens to the size of her family and a Bible verse. “It’s been such a journey to figure all of this out. I didn’t know I would need art so much,” she says. “But then it came back to me when I needed it most.”