News Column

'Art Gone Wild' exhibit showcases paintings by Oklahoma City Zoo animals.

August 1, 2014

By Brandy McDonnell, The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City

Aug. 01--Taking a firm grip on her paintbrush, Pearl swipes pale green color across a black canvas already streaked with blue, while her teacher enthusiastically encourages the fledgling artist.

"Good girl, Pearl. Paint. Good. Paint. Good, you got it. Good girl! Good job," praises Heather Down.

Down then rewards the novice artist with a few raw fish and a quick dip in the pool.

Down is the marine mammal supervisor at the Oklahoma City Zoo, and Pearl, 11, is a California sea lion and a first-time contributor to "Art Gone Wild," an exhibition of artwork by several of the zoo's furry, feathered and finned residents.

"This is a mentally stimulating behavior that we've taught Pearl to do. Pearl has learned to hold a paintbrush in her mouth and has freedom to move as she will on the canvas in order to express whatever mood she's feeling at the time," Down said, continuing to praise and interact with the frisky animal.

Opening Friday at a.k.a. gallery in the Paseo Arts District, the "Art Gone Wild" exhibition showcases paintings by Pearl and other zoo animals, with net proceeds from the art sales benefiting conservation efforts like the PanEco/Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, Jatun Sacha Foundation in Ecuador and Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya.

"We wanted the opportunity to share with zoo guests and also people that maybe aren't as familiar with the zoo programs we have for our animals," said Tara Henson, the zoo's marketing director.

"It's called enrichment. Enrichment is something different, unique, that maybe our keepers introduce into the lives of different animals in the zoo. ... It keeps them stimulated. It might encourage natural behaviors. It certainly changes up routine."

Art on the wing

When Zeppy, the salmon-crested cockatoo, gets artistic in front of a new audience, a certain amount of squawking and preening is routine.

"You're just eating up this attention. Look at you. Do you want to paint?" coos bird keeper Holly Ray, offering the boisterous bird a small brush dipped in blue nontoxic acrylic paint and holding out a small red canvas.

Holding the end of the brush in his strong beak, Zeppy strokes the bristles across the red square, stopping occasionally for a snack.

While creatures like Pearl and Zeppy wield paintbrushes, other animals use their feet, fingers, trunks or even their whole bodies to paint.

"They can be temperamental artists. Zeppy is a temperamental artist. There's no doubt," Henson said with a laugh. "It's complete choice ... and it's all positive. There's training that's involved with the relationship that's cultivated with the keeper or the trainer and the animal, and then there's also positive reinforcement. For some animals, it is food reward; for some, it may be physical touch."

The fifth annual "Art Gone Wild" will feature paintings by a veritable menagerie of the zoo's animals, including Asian elephants, rhinos, chimpanzees, okapis, orangutans, flamingos, gorillas and Galapagos tortoises.

Art of the kiss

Over the past year, the critters and their keepers have collaborated on nearly 200 canvases. While a vast variety will be displayed for the opening-night festivities during the Paseo First Friday Gallery Walk, more will be swapped in as "Art Gone Wild" stays on view throughout August at a.k.a. gallery, a new venue for the exhibit.

"It's increased in popularity and awareness each year, which is great," said Henson, adding that the smaller In Your Eye Gallery in the Paseo hosted the exhibit in previous years.

Donations through a candy buffet provided by 42nd Street Candy Co. on opening night will fund supplies and canvases for future animal art projects.

"You won't find a more popular painting to purchase than a Malee kiss. People are crazy about these," Henson said, holding up a 6-inch-by-6-inch canvas adorned with a heart-shaped dab of color, a trunk-tip imprint from the 3-year-old elephant that is learning to paint with a brush, too.

"Different animals have different levels of involvement in the process. Some of it's a thoughtful process; some of it's more of a physicality. It's all enrichment."

The projects also encourage creativity among the human keepers. Archerfish spray water onto watercolored canvases to create patterns, Red River hogs wallow pigment onto their projects, and new artists -- the giraffes -- use their long tongues to push a tennis ball attached to a paint-filled brush.

Ashley Griffith, owner of a.k.a. gallery, took a trip to the zoo to watch the animals paint and was inspired by the keepers' care for their charges.

"It is a partnership, and it's a friendship. It was really something to see them work together," she said. "And if some little kid is watching and it takes a stingray to encourage that child to pick up a paintbrush, then awesome."

Art underwater

Of all the "Art Gone Wild" contributors, the stingrays might be the most surprising. The flat-bodied fish use a special technique designed by Stingray Bay supervisor Michelle Komarek to paint.

First, she places a plastic ball filled with bits of fish and shrimp at the bottom of the tank. Komarek anchors the ball in place with a PVC pipe that has a paint-loaded sponge strapped to the opposite end.

When the stingrays suck the food out of the ball, the motion causes the paintbrush to move across a pale blue canvas animal specialist Monica Cronbaugh holds above the water.

"They have to work for the food, so it's a little out of the ordinary for them; gives them something else to do," explains Jim Brungardt, supervisor of the zoo's experience guides. "Stingrays are really quite intelligent. They have about the intelligence of a cat."

For Hannah Blair, 10, of Moore, watching the stingrays paint was inspiring, since she loves creating art and has been experimenting with ways to paint with her dog, Hattie Mae.

"That was pretty cool. I'm gonna remember this," Hannah said. "I think this has been a really good visit 'cause I got to ... feed the lorikeets and now I get to see the stingrays -- and they paint."


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Source: Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City)

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