CREATIVE PEAKS: New West Wildlife
Why it’s time to visit, or revisit, 25 Fables: Aesop’s Animals Illustrated at the National Museum of Wildlife Art.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – For her latest community art project at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, the curator and artist Bronwyn Minton invited 25 local artists to illustrate 25 separate stories from Aesop’s Fables. The result is an enlivening, enlightening show. The exhibit, on display through April 23, was recently acquired by the museum to be part of its permanent collection.
Strategically hung in the King hallway gallery, the exhibit lends a narrative arc to the panels. Viewers can start at one end and read the texts like a storybook from beginning to end, or read them piecemeal jumping back and forth across the hall. Fables are short tales used to teach moral lessons, and certain themes recur among the 25 selected stories. Excessive pride, greed and vanity all fall prey to critique.
Each story features animals that embody human characteristics. The ink on board illustration by Walt Gerald depicts a fox and stork entwined with the stork cradling a vessel of soup. In the fable, the two animals take turns taunting one another with meals served in containers that they cannot fit their mouths into. “Do unto others,” reads a banner in the illustration.
In “The Fox and the Crow” a sly fox tricks a crow into dropping a piece of cheese by flattering the bird. Jocelyn Wasson’s expressive ink on board illustration captures just a hint of the fox’s teeth grinning in its elongated snout. Wasson depicted the crow as full of diverse textures and patterns in its feathers, a kind of crazy quilt appearance not normally associated with the sleek corvids. Close inspection reveals that the fox’s tail is woven with tiny animals—mice, birds, fish, who have perhaps also fallen prey to the fox’s tricks.
The artists for the exhibit were given a board of a set size (20 by 30 inches) and each vertical illustration is in black and white, creating uniformity. The artist list combines a vibrant mix of established and emerging artists, including nationally published illustrator Tim Tomkinson, former Jackson Hole High School art instructor Greg Houda, and Jackson Hole muralist Greta Gretzinger. Minton has curated a number of group shows like, corralling a range of artists from different backgrounds and disciplines.
Painter Emily Boespflug uses charcoal to illustrate “The Peacock and the Crane,” filling the space as she would a painting, with rich textures, muted shadows, a brilliant summer sky dotted with clouds. In the foreground, a crane and a peacock stand together in a Wyoming field, the peacock looking very much out of place with its fancy plumage, while a group of cranes show off their ability to fly to the flightless dandy bird.
In contrast, Sam Dowd takes a minimalist approach to “The Crab and his Mother.” Using cut paper on board, Dowd illustrates the mother crab’s vain attempt to model how to walk in a straight line for her offspring. The crab with her peering, alien eyes can only move side to side across the space.
Because of its limited palette, the exhibit as a whole provides a meditation on shadow and light. Some artists—Matt Grimes, Erin Ashlee, Ben Carlson, David Klarén—take a deliberately graphic style where bold lines and stark contrast convey meaning. Others utilize a detailed sketching style—Olaus Linn, Ben Roth, Emily Poole—creating shadows and subtlety as the animal drama springs forth from the canvas.
A few artists push the envelope of style and media, notably Steven Glass, whose illustration of “The Gnat and the Bull,” combines spray paint, screen print and paint pen. A longhorn bull, its contours blurred from the screen print process, ambles across a checked background, a surreal kind of mashup of urban design and a dry, New Mexico plain. A giant gnat rests delicately on the bull’s horn, ready to take flight. “It’s all the same to me; I didn’t notice when you came, and I won’t know when you go away,” the bull says.
There are so many standout pieces in this exhibit it’s impossible to do them all justice here. Mike Piggott’s bear peeking up at the bottom of a page lined with Piggott-esque trees does not appear to be a predator who almost ate a human, but instead a friendly inquisitor in a scene of human folly. Lisa Walker’s Owl screen print and shashiko stitching on black canvas is stunning— playful, balanced, timeless. Jenny Dowd’s “The Crow and the Pitcher” is as whimsical and elegant as Dowd’s ceramic creations. Henry Raynor Williams’ “The Serpent and the Eagle” is fierce and captivating.
In the context of the museum as a whole, the 25 Fables exhibit illustrates the imaginative, inventive breadth of approaches contemporary local artists contribute to the genre of wildlife art. PJH