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Art is for the Birds

I love to go to art museums! Some of my favorite memories are of rainy days spent indoors in the company of Monet and Chagall. Then, naturally, there is the obligatory cup of tea and slice of cake in the peaceful museum café and the final exit through the gift shop. Even the Vatican Museum has one, and it’s a doozy! The odd art appreciation and “hands on” classes in college encouraged my desire to not only observe artworks created by the masters, but to have a go at it myself. I cheerfully report not that future generations will be spending their rainy days at the museum observing my creations, but that I have spent many, many days applying color to lovely thick and creamy art paper. The process is thoroughly satisfying, even if the resulting work is not. So…it comes as no surprise to me that many people who create art and love animals have combined the two into one experience. Hence the title of this blog: Art is for the Birds. In a recent edition of the wonderful “Art News” based in New Orleans, I read a fascinating article entitled “Birds Do It, Bees Do It: Taking Animals’ Art Skills Seriously”. It seems that the perception of animals as art-makers has come a long way since the late ‘50s, when Desmond Morris put Congo, the painting chimpanzee, on British TV, and later in a famous art show at London’s ICA. Today animal artists are not viewed so much as novelties, but as sophisticated creators with skills and senses that can enhance projects in ways humans never can.

Well…having read up on this interesting aspect of an already favorite pastime, it was not long before Jenna and I rounded up our materials and gave art making a try using our resident artists, Duke the St. Bernard and our beloved Vinny. In a way, I regret that there was no video record made of the two hours that we spent crawling around the floor at the Center attempting to manipulate paper, paint, paws and people into something resembling art. Suffice to say that everyone involved needed a good wash afterwards—and it took two scrubbings with mop and bucket to restore the floor to its original condition. We did, however, come away with one or two usable paw prints; one of which became an adoption gift for Duke’s new family. They were kind, if perhaps a little baffled, when we told them that Duke had painted them a picture, and that it was flowers! I think if they squinted they might have been able to discern that the smudges of pink, yellow and green vaguely resembled an “impressionist” vision of something flowery. Not having learned my lesson, I immediately repeated the process with my daughter’s most tractable cat, Finney. He was cooperative and reasonably unconcerned when we dipped his paws into non-toxic colors. He drew the line, however, at applying said paws to paper, preferring rather to jump on Cathy’s nicely made bed and decorate her sheets. Fortunately, Cathy is a fan of abstract impressionism! We modified our “method” and eventually were able to use Finney’s front paws in the manner of a rubber stamp. My daughter is now the proud owner of an original Finney flower rendition—cornflowers and daisies. She framed it and it is now on display for mystified visitors who politely ask if she has acquired a grandchild or two with artistic leanings. But back to Art News…I understand now that Jenna’s and my method getting paint on paper is not the “preferred” one.

Consultants at the National Zoo tend to capitalize on natural behaviors to encourage their artists to express their style using a variety of methods and materials. For example, sloth bears who feed by blowing away dirt on the forest floor and sucking up termites, were given a straw-like apparatus to blow paint onto the canvas. Frogs (!) received an organic paint-like substance created from the powdered algae mix they use as food. The resulting splats have a Jackson Pollock-ish quality to them. Apes are adept at holding brushes and seem to take naturally to dipping into color and applying it to canvas. Though treats are sometimes used to encourage animal-art makers, zoo staff describe their movements as voluntary and instinctive. “Animals can choose whether or not they want to participate,” Courtney Janney, a keeper on the Asia Trail at the National Zoo, explained. “They all do, willingly, so they’re enjoying it on some level.” The zoo uses the resulting artworks to raise funds for enrichment programs for the animals. Apparently apes, elephants, reptiles and large birds such as macaws are the most common species to create animal artworks, but such unlikely participants as bees, spiders and even snakes are represented. Painting horses, cows, chickens and other farm animals are represented, as are dogs (tail art), cats (ditto), and monkeys. The monkeys, I have been informed, prefer finger painting. There is, of course, some controversy surrounding the benefits to the artist of such creative activity. Elephants in captivity have long been offered paint as a form of behavioral enrichment. The question, naturally, is whether the activity of painting itself is enriching apart from the positive reinforcement given by staff members during the activity. Scientists seem to conclude that the “benefits of this activity appear to be limited to the aesthetic appeal of these paintings to the people viewing them.” The elephants draw the same painting each time and have learned to draw it line-for-line.

Who knew? There is an immense body of work covering the many aspects of animal art-- its, uses, methodologies, pros and cons. And here we just thought it would be fun to dip paws into paint and have at it! I am unsure as to whether this project will ever have “legs”. In my imagination I envisioned a multitude of interesting artworks, nicely matted and framed, complete with the artist’s bio and photo. Such artwork, auctioned at the Chili Cook-off or the upcoming Mead and Cider Tasting, could supplement the Center’s budget, I thought. Well—perhaps. Since I know now that Pooh is a better writer than I, maybe he could give me a tip or two. Perhaps he could be persuaded to create a painting of his own. I am pretty sure that we have not exhausted that remarkable cat’s talents. Come to think of it, I have two new artists in residence—Max and George, my newly adopted kittens. They might be easier to “work with” than a 100-pound bundle of doggie energy. Time to collect the paint, paper, mop and bucket…

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