The Art of Wildlife Education

Animal-art exhibit at Boston's science museum is informative and lively - sometimes literally. MUSEUM SHOW

`OOOH, wow! Look at that!'' About 25 youngsters are clammering around a rectangular glass case, peering at a tightly curled rattlesnake. These children have come to Boston's Museum of Science to see the 1989 exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists. What they've found is an out-of-the-ordinary educational art experience that encourages viewers - young and old alike - to get involved and learn.

The museum has turned a collection of animal art into an opportunity for education. Activities surrounding the exhibition use many approaches to learning: ``auditory, visual, tactile,'' says Roberta Gongwer, project manager at the museum.

The Society of Animal Artists' 29th Annual Exhibition provides most of the visual stimulation. The collection of this international organization's work includes 90 pieces of art, from oil paintings to porcelain sculpture. The animal images make the display room seem alive with creatures. A colorful tiger stalks one corner while across the room an alligator floats half-submerged in bronze.

Some of the exhibits actually are alive, turning the museum into a small zoo. Live animal demonstrations, including a lesson on the natural history of the animals, are given four times a day during the week and five times a day on weekends.

On this quiet weekday, the caged rattlesnake is joined by Bob, the boa constrictor who is wrapping his massive body around the waist of Caroline Dopyera, the instructor for today's snake demonstration. Ms. Dopyera's talk focuses on debunking the various myths people have built up around snakes.

Children aren't naturally afraid of snakes, she says. ``It's a learned thing.''

As the children intently watch Bob's every move, Dopyera explains how and what snakes eat and compares snakes with people: People are slimier than snakes because they sweat and snakes don't; people shed their skin a little bit at a time while a snake sheds his all at once.

After the demonstration, the audience is invited to come up and touch Bob's smooth skin.

``He isn't slimy at all,'' says one small visitor as she tentatively runs her finger across the snake's scales.

Demonstrations are also given with porcupines, turtles, owls, ferrets, and parrots. All these animals are represented by the art.

Plaques identifying the artist and title include a red dot to designate an animal that is endangered or threatened. Twenty-one works depict endangered or threatened species.

``We just hope that it stimulates an interest to find out more,'' says Ms. Gongwer.

A program of five lectures adds to the educational value of the exhibition. These events are cosponsored by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and continue to make the connection between animal art and the issue of wildlife preservation.

On weekends, an animal art activity area is open. ``It is primarily aimed at children, although we find that adults very much enjoy it,'' says Gongwer.

A large world map is provided with stickers of many endangered animals. This is designed for preschool children to match the drawings of animals to the part of the world in which they live. It also provides a geography lesson for older students.

About 100 photographs of endangered or threatened species are provided along with some facts about the animals. Participants select an animal to draw on their own. ``So they are an animal artist that day,'' Gongwer says.

``I like the idea of the art exercises for the children,'' says Joseph Vance, Jr., president of the Society of Animal Artists. ``Maybe we'll get a couple of up-and-coming members that way.''

The Society of Animal Artists was founded in 1960. ``It was mainly for fellowship, to share information and interest,'' says Mr. Vance. Three decades ago, not many people were drawing animals; those who did were considered illustrators, not artists.

``Today there are probably 500 or 600 people in this country who regularly produce animal art and make some kind of living out of it,'' says Vance.

Commercial success has brought its own challenges: ``It's drawn just about everybody - whether they know the field and the subject, whether they know the anatomy of what they're painting, whether or not they can paint or sculpt,'' says Vance.

The society has gradually taken on the role of promoting animal and wildlife art as fine art. The annual exhibition is an effort to raise awareness of animal art by displaying the member's work at various cities.

The 29th annual exhibition includes work from 81 of the society's 230 member artists. They range from the well-known Charles Frac'e to Zimbabwean newcomer Larry Norton, whose work won an award of merit.

A jury of seven to nine society members selects the collection each year. The 1989 selection includes a variety of mediums and subjects - from insects to buffalo.

Several of the pieces commemorate the wildlife affected by the Valdez accident in Alaska. ``Still Not Listening'' is a powerful wood sculpture by Leo and Lee Osbourne depicting shore birds mired in oil on the rocky shore. Kent Ullberg's ``Requiem for Prince William Sound'' is a majestic bronze sculpture of a helpless hawk.

``It's accomplished what we set out to do.'' says Gongwer, ``To spark interest so that people will take more seriously the environmental concerns that are endangering our wildlife.''

The 29th annual exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists will be at the Boston Museum of Science through Jan. 15. The 30th annual exhibition is expected to be held at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in September 1990.

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