The Process of Creating our Animal Art Exhibit

by Karen Whitecotton, Curator of Collections, Oklahoma History Center

The History Center is currently partnering with the Oklahoma City Zoo for Enriched: Animal Art from the OKC Zoo a display of eleven pieces of animal art created by various animals from the zoo.  While it sounds pretty tame, the process was amazing and there were a lot of great experiences along the way!  Why zoo art?  There is something incredibly fascinating about seeing a work of art done by an animal and exploring that creative process.  It is a truly unique part of the animal enrichment process.

All artwork created by animals is a part of a process called enrichment.  It includes many other activities besides painting and is intended to mentally and physically stimulate animals.

The exhibit concept started about a year ago when I approached the zoo to inquire about getting a piece of their animal art donated to our art collection.  A small group of us met and discussed the proposal and an exhibit idea was formed.  However, with the Oklahoma @ the Movies exhibit gallery remodel about to start, we had to postpone our plans.  Fast forward to this summer and the exhibit was back on the table.  We planned to feature twelve pieces in the Chesapeake Event Center.  We ended up with eleven pieces in the C .A. Vose Sr. Wing, which allows for more accessibility for educational programming.

This is a favorite picture from the painting sessions. Divet, one of the female Red River Hogs, ran and jumped into the camera to greet Karen. (Photo courtesy of Karen Whitecotton)

My vision was to create an exhibit where every piece of art was captured during its creation, both on film and video.  We started scheduling days with the zoo (they would call us and let us know when they had keepers/curators that were ready for us) and we would head that way.  I learned to keep a change of clothes in my car!  There was a team of three of us who went to the zoo to document the entire process: one person took notes, one took continuous photographs, and one filmed.

We filmed several different animal species, which included a South American three-banded armadillo, three-toed box turtle, Red River hogs, Asian elephant (and little baby Malee!), Eastern black rhino, Muluccan cockatoo, Woma python, and an archerfish.  Yes, a fish!

Each animal painting process was completely different.  Some animals have a definite thought process behind their painting, while others simply enjoy the tactile sensation of the wet paint as they slither around on the canvas.  My favorite was probably the two female Red River hogs, Clove and Divet, that reminded me so much of my late dog.  They ran up to the fence to great me and Divet stuck her snout right up to the camera lens and I got an amazing picture of her!  They were so friendly and so much fun to watch wallow and paint the canvas, and paint their keepers!  Another favorite was the Eastern black rhino, Marsha.  You could see the thought process at work in her face when she would take a step back and cock her head and look at her painting.  She likes to paint self-portraits— I have already seen two of them and they are uncanny!  On that particular trip, we were lucky enough to get to pet another rhino, Chandra, a Great Indian rhino.  That was a once in a lifetime experience!

We organized the exhibit design around the painting process and tied in Oklahoma history along with it, since the zoo has had strong community ties for more than one hundred years.  Each painting is framed with a picture of the painting process and there is a label with a QR code so that visitors can watch the painting process on their phones.

“Enriched: Animal Art from the OKC Zoo” runs through June 1, 2013.

Special thanks to:

OKC Zoo Staff:

Alan Varsick, Assistant Director
Tara Henson, Director of Marketing and Public Relations
Sherri Vance, Assistant Archivist,  ZooZeum
Amy Stephens, Naturalist Instructor Supervisor
Dorothy Forman, Pachyderm Keeper
Randelyon Phillips, Naturalist Instructor & Early Childhood Coordinator
Jaimee Flinchbaugh, Supervisor of Hoofstock
Nick Newby, Supervisor of Pachyderms
Pace Frank, Animal Technician, Hoofstock
Stacy Sekscienski, Curators of Reptiles, Amphibians, and Aquatics
Logan Agan, Aquatic Animal Technician “Aquarist”
Holly Ray, Bird Keeper

Oklahoma History Center Staff:

David Davis, Director of Exhibits
Corey Ayers, Film Archivist/Video Production Specialist
Jim Meeks, Curator of Exhibits
Brian Ward, Graphics
Sara Dumas, Curator of Education
Rachel Mosman, OHS Photo Archivist

Karen petting Chandra, the male Indian rhino, after a painting session with Marsha, Eastern black rhino. (Photo courtesy of David Davis)

Treats for Asha, an Asian elephant, during her painting session. (photo courtesy of David Davis)

Little baby Malee peeking around the corner at Karen, trying to give her a purple kiss! (Photo courtesy of Karen Whitecotton)

Corey and hoofstock supervisor, Jaimee, looking out onto the giraffe feeding from the giraffe house. (Photo courtesy of Karen Whitecotton)

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