North America’s Wild Places in Fine Art
AMERICA’S PARKS II is an impressive array of 120 jury-selected pieces of art that celebrates the beauty and wonder of wildlife in North America’s protected places. The primary theme of the show is parks of the Southwest (southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico), and both flatworks and sculptures are included. The traveling component of the show is titled, “America’s Parks of the Southwest."
Over 75 of the best nature artists in the country are represented in AMERICA’S PARKS II. Six top awards went to John Agnew, Carel Brest van Kempen, Cheryl Price, Morton E. Solberg, Eva Stanley, and Carol Swinney, and Honorable Mentions went to 26 other artists. But the overall quality of the entire show is phenomenal, and the jurors were surely challenged in their deliberations. Both Agnew’s and Brest van Kempen’s top award-winning oil paintings grew out of a unique art experience arranged by David Wagner, in which 28 artists traveled from around the United States to San Carlos, Sonora (Mexico) for a week in the field. That art expedition led to its own extraordinary show on the Sea of Cortez (the Gulf of California). I was privileged to have been the naturalist on that expedition and daily watched as these incredibly creative people unleashed their passion and brought the local flora and fauna to life in photographs, paintings and sketches.
This second AMERICA’S PARKS show organized by David Wagner is compelling to me for many reasons. I happen to be a Southwest conservation ecologist, so the emphasis on the Southwest, and the Sonoran Desert in particular, is exciting and timely. All six of the top awards were for pieces capturing the spectacular beauty of the Southwest, and 37 of the entries are from the Sonoran Desert Region itself. There are few places in the world with such a high diversity of species and natural landscapes as the Sonoran Desert, from the stunning Sea of Cortez and Baja California Peninsula, to Sky Island mountain ranges and deep tropical canyons. Nearly 2500 plant species have been recorded from the Sonoran Desert Region and, although there are no good estimates of animal diversity, nearly 500 bird species have been recorded from the Arizona portion of this great desert alone, suggesting that the total bird count for the Sonoran Desert Region is around 1000 species. The high diversity of this region is due, in large part, to the fact that it is a maritime desert, receiving two rainy seasons annually, one being a summer monsoon season that brings moisture from the Sea of Cortez. The Sea itself bisects the Sonoran Desert into two nearly perfect halves, Sonora and Arizona to the east, and the Baja California Peninsula to the west. This great desert sea is home to well over 6000 described marine animals, including more than one-third of the world’s whale and porpoise species and five of the world’s six sea turtles (all of which are endangered). The Sonoran Desert is also the only subtropical desert in North America, and we are blessed that it also houses more protected areas than any other similar-sized region in North America, including numerous Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage Sites. But, the Southwest is also under siege, with the fastest-growing population in North America and being strongly impacted by climate warming. It seems both fitting and urgent that these special, threatened wild places be emphasized in a natural history art show such as this.
Many of the subjects in this show are species of special conservation concern in North America, including Gila monsters (captured by Priscilla Baldwin, Kim Diment and Eva Stanley), lesser long-nosed bats (Bryce Pettit), elegant terns (Anne Peyton), bighorn sheep (Beverly Abbott and Morten Solberg), brown pelicans (John Agnew), wild turkeys (George Bumann), roseate spoonbills (Anne Peyton), ferruginous pygmy-owls (Eva Stanley), leatherback turtles (Cathy Ferrell), and mangrove trees (Mary Helsaple). Many of these threatened species are presented as bronzes, which greatly enliven the show.
Not only is the lesser long-nosed bat an endangered species (both in the U.S. and in Mexico), it is a keystone species that makes a spectacular annual migration from southern Mexico to the Arizona-Sonora borderlands, following the spring blooms of columnar cactus that open from south to north, feeding on the nectar and fruit and, secondarily, pollinating and dispersing the seeds of the cacti. The primary maternity roost for this nectar bat is in the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, just south of the border from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (also a Biosphere Reserve), where 100,000 to 200,000 females give birth to that many young every May. The return flight to southern Mexico, with young in tow, relies upon blooms of agaves, including the tequila agave, which also needs this bat for pollination. Speaking as a cactus lover and tequila drinker, I thank you Mr. Pettit, for your exquisite sculpture of this very important keystone species.
Eva Stanley’s wonderful sculpture of a ferruginous pygmy-owl is in its natural Sonoran Desert niche, a burrow in a giant Saguaro cactus. Here, the owl pair mates and then the male brings the female her food for a month-long egg incubation, after which the two take turns feeding the hatchings for another month. Sonoran Desert residents lucky enough to have nesting pygmy-owls in their backyard saguaros thus enjoy this lively “dance of the pygmies” for several months during the monsoon summer.
Pokey Park’s beautiful kit fox is an oversize bronze that catches one’s eye as soon as the gallery space is entered. These sleek, housecat-sized canids burrow year round in the Southwest, relying on cooler underground temperatures to survive the summer daytime heat. They generally don’t need standing water, satisfying their needs with the moisture in their diet of rats, mice and rabbits. Being strictly nocturnal, the presence of these rodent-controlling predators is usually recognized only from the many den holes that can pocket a desert valley floor.
The leatherback is the largest living sea turtle, with shells reaching over 6 ft in length and weights exceeding 1750 lbs. Unlike other sea turtles, these leviathans have leathery shells that are keeled on both top and bottom, enabling them to move through the water with great efficiency and speed, despite their size. Cathy Ferrell’s unique bronze of a tiny hatchling leatherback captures the foam and sand world that this creature must traverse in its beach run to the sea. This is the rarest sea turtle in the Sea of Cortez, and DNA (plus satellite telemetry) have shown that at least some leatherbacks in this region come from as far away as the western Pacific (e.g., Indonesia, Papua New Guinea). Leatherbacks are in serious decline throughout their range, due to nesting beach degradation and egg poaching.
Three artists in this show chose Gila monsters as their subject—two bronzes and one painting. Easy to understand, given the charismatic habits and colorful sculptured skin of these giant lizards. Gila monsters reach over 1½ ft in length, have red-orange-black beaded skin, and store water in fatty tissues in their plump tails. They winter hibernate, but are active spring through fall when they consume large numbers of newborn rodents and rabbits, as well as the eggs of birds, snakes and other lizards. They may consume 50 percent of their body weight in one feeding. These magnificent neotropical lizards are one of only two venomous lizards in the world (the other is the Mexican beaded lizard). The venom is used almost solely in defense, and only rarely in feeding. Although generally slow and lumbering, when threatened this “monster” moves with lightening-like speed to clamp down on the aggressor (occasionally a human), grinding open a flesh wound through which the venom oozes into the victim’s body.
Like the lesser long-nosed bat, elegant terns also undertake long-range migrations. Every spring they fly from their winter homes in Peru, Ecuador and Chile to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Here, they breed mainly on a few protected islands in the Sea of Cortez. These gorgeous seabirds are indeed elegant, in both appearance and behavior—they feed by plunge-diving for marine fishes, and males offer females their catch as part of the courtship ritual.
This spectacular collection of art does not glamorize or idealize the threatened wildlife and wild places of North America. Instead, it presents a broad palate of beautifully-executed portraits of some of the world’s most beguiling places and important threatened species. And it does so with a dignity and decorum that inspires viewers and rekindles their reverence and respect for nature.
AMERICA’S PARKS II premiered in Bolivar, Missouri, at the Ella Carothers Dunnegan Gallery of Art, and from there traveled to The Wildlife Experience in Parker (Denver), and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (Tucson). At the time of this writing, subsequent venues had not yet been determined.
Richard C. Brusca, PhD
Executive Director, Emeritus, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Research Scientist, University of Arizona