There's an almost solemn hush to the "Kim Steininger /Bird Photography" exhibit at the Chester County Historical Society.

Anything in the way of visual pyrotechnics is put aside in the quiet coupling of bird photos and actual stuffed owls and raptors here. Stuffed creatures glower at us from their perches, providing "Hitchcock touches," as if from an old movie - but with a difference.

Clearly environmental art - art having to do with nature - is establishing itself firmly across our land. Lately there's space for dream and feeling filtering even into some of our Historical Society exhibits. And this show would be a good example of it.

A passionate involvement in things she sees and feels about our endangered bird population characterizes this Chadds Ford photographer's work. Her color pictures give a jolt to photography that's all style and no heart.

Instead, an exposition of truth to nature being filtered through sensitive eyes comes across in Steininger's photos. Such subjects, rather than spectacles observed from afar, are often close-ups demonstrating a deep personal engagement.

In this way, Steininger took a prize-winning picture of an owl flying straight at her at close range. By snapping that photo, then ducking, she created a creature image whose shock value is absorbed in larger feelings of compassion and curiosity. Perception rather than preconception is the guiding idea in such photos here.

The result is an abrupt divorce from the marriage of antiques and fashionable taste many visitors fully expect every Historical Society display to be.

Chester County Historical Society, 225 N High St, West Chester. To March 23. Tue-Sat 10-5, Sun noon-5. Adults $5. 610-692-4800.

Parry Barn, New Hope

. Joseph Crilley of Carversville takes the subjects of his 66 often-small new oils from his European travels and his summers in Nova Scotia. A former 101st Airborne paratrooper at Normandy on D-Day, Crilley is straightforward and direct in an unassuming way, and his work has an engaging immediacy.

Although suggestive of photo-realism, his technique avoids that approach by its moderately vigorous painterliness.

Crilley's landscapes speak immediately of human events. And rightly so, for his concern is more with the interaction between art and life than with art alone. The sheen and glisten of his paintings plus their pleasing content are unabashedly romantic. Color has always been Capt. Crilley's trump card, and he continues to play it winningly here.

Parry Barn, 52 S Main St, New Hope. To Dec. 30. Wed-Sun 11-6. Free. 215-297-0879.

Audubon Center

. All seven oils and six drawings by Adrian Martinez at the Audubon Center take man and his surroundings as the measure of art, have a rich regional flavor, and are concerned with narrative about American culture and natural history.

Reading between the lines,

The Artist

is about a local luminary unnamed but surely George Catlin, who painted many of the earliest portraits of American Indians, while

The Botanist

is apparently of John Bartram at work.

Strong in character and ambitious, such works suggest a refined sensibility in paintings that manage to generate meaning and restore something of our old unblemished notion of history painting, using a muted palette.

This small show by Downingtown artist Martinez is interesting both for its educational value and as public acceptance of a type of art too seldom publicly displayed.

John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, 1201 Pawlings Rd, Audubon. To Jan. 11. Tue-Sat 10-4, Sun 1-4. Adults $4. 610-666-5593.

Contact art critic Victoria Donohoe at The Inquirer, 800 River Rd., Conshohocken, Pa. 19428.