Wednesday, May 22, 2013 —
In addition to seeing one of America’s best collections of plants and animals, visitors to the North Carolina Zoo can also enjoy one of the most extensive collections of artwork at any zoo in the United States.
The park’s art collection, now valued well in excess of $2.5 million, is as diverse as its plants and animals. Each piece is designed to support the zoo’s conservation mission. To this end, each artist becomes a communicator, an educator and an environmental activist who uses his or her work as a mirror to reflect back to us those elements in nature that we may no longer see or even think about – to help us reconnect to the natural world.
The collection’s first major piece was a 30-foot clay mural for the Sonora Desert exhibit, completed in 1993, depicting the flora and fauna of the desert Southwest. Since then, the collection has grown to include more ceramic murals, marble, steel, bronze and wood sculptures; photographs, prints, paintings and even original stories and poems.
Zoo visitors are treated to an art extravaganza even before they enter the gates. The centerpiece of the art collection, “Elephant Group,” greets visitors on the zoo’s approach drive. It’s a life-size bronze sculpture of four African elephants by New York artist Peter Woytuk. The four pieces, each weighing about 7,000 pounds, have become an icon for both the N.C. Zoo and Randolph County.
Some of the artwork is meant to leave the viewer with subtle messages. One sculpture, “Sum of the Parts” by Winston-Salem artist Dempsy Calhoun, graphically demonstrates the biodiversity of healthy ecosystems, as well as the devastation of species extinction. Some sculptures in the collection benefit the sight-impaired by helping them identify the animals through their sense of touch. But some pieces are there simply to delight and uplift visitors.
Acquiring new art for the zoo is an ongoing process. Most of the money to purchase artwork comes from donations given to the N.C. Zoo Society, the zoo’s non-profit fund-raising organization. These funds come from corporations, organizations and individual donors. Some pieces are donations from the artists, and others are purchased through state repair and renovation funding and state funding for the arts.
At least one piece of the zoo’s artwork is already a prizewinner. The ornamental iron gates at the zoo’s Africa entrance has won an outstanding craftsmanship award from the National Ornamental & Miscellaneous Metals Association. The piece is a series of eight gates depicting African plants and animals that visitors will see on their visit to the park.
The zoo’s newest major piece is a sculpture made of maple saplings designed and built by internationally acclaimed Chapel Hill-based artist Patrick Dougherty, with help from the zoo staff and volunteers. This piece adds a new dimension to the NC Zoo's KidZone exhibit with a unique outdoor sculptural entrance.
In the near future several additional sculptures will be installed including a kinetic piece at the Marsh exhibit called Murmuration by Carborough artist, Mike Roig, a large scale granite Inuksuk at the entrance to the Rocky Coast and a small bronze polar bear by Charlotte artist, Chris Gabriel.
Many pieces in the collection have interesting and heart-warming stories about their construction, acquisition or funding. For example, Renewal, a small giraffe sculpture, was the dream of an Asheboro woman whose personal fund raising made it a reality. The 6-year-old son of her friend had recently died of cancer, and her dream was to make a sculpture to memorialize the child. Another, Catamount, a bronze sculpture sited in the Swamp exhibit, was funded in 2002 through the estate of J.C. Raulston, who in 1995 saw a sketch for the sculpture while judging the final proposals for another zoo sculpture, Zoological Egg Rest.
All these works of art are a part of the zoo’s larger arts programming that uses art as a sensory bridge in an effort to connect visitors to the zoo experience and to expand their appreciation and awareness of the natural environment.