By Mary Ellen Riddle / Correspondent
January 1, 2021
During her lifetime, Molly the river otter was more than a cute, aquarium resident — she was an abstract painter. For seven years until her death at age 18, she experimented with color, reacting differently to each one, until eventually it became obvious which was her favorite: hot pink.
Molly’s work is on display with paintings from five other critters in an exhibit called “Animals That Paint: Paws, Claws, Scales, Tails and Trunks” and can be seen from Jan. 11 to March 31 in the Nautilus Gallery at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.
Providing enrichment to animals through painting has been going on for decades across the globe. The artwork has been used to raise funds for aquariums and zoos. Three paintings created by a chimpanzee named Congo sold at an auction for $26,352 in England in the 1950s. While the work is not created to stand up to professional critique, it does supply physical and mental stimulation for the animals, warms the hearts of animal lovers, and supplies precious memories for staff who work with the “artists.”
The North Carolina Aquarium has been using animal enrichment since about 2011, according to Elizabeth Huber, the husbandry curator. “We are always looking to meet our animals’ physical, psychological and emotional needs,” she said in a recent email. “Enrichment is anything that is added to an animal’s environment, which stimulates an animal’s natural behavior or provides variety in their daily routine.”
From an art perspective, there is a strong argument that animal paintings fit the description of naïve art, which is defined as work created by someone who has no formal education or training. It is notable for its lack of insincere sophistication and puts Molly the river otter in the company of artists such as Henri Rousseau, Alfred Wallis and André Bauchant.
For Molly, in the beginning it was about receiving a treat as a reward for painting. But after a few sessions, she was all in. Just the sound of the paint bottles opening excited her. She was so enamored with the activity, it was hard to get her to leave the painting area, say aquarium staff. Molly died in 2019 and her painting “Pink Perfection” celebrates her talent and memory.
Al, a juvenile American alligator, also enjoys painting at the aquarium and is debuting a piece called “Scales and Tails.” During an enrichment session, the large reptile walks through the paint using his tail, body and legs to create his masterpiece. After the enrichment activity, Al gets a bath, so the nontoxic children’s paint doesn’t get into his scales.
The quarterly exhibits in the aquarium’s Nautilus Gallery have featured art of the natural world. This includes everything from deep-sea creatures to clouds, in a wide range of mediums, according to Kitty Dough, exhibit media tech. “Contributions have come from different countries and different centuries and, with the opening of ‘Animals That Paint: Paws, Claws, Scales, Tails and Trunks,’ from different species,” she said.
Animal lovers will rejoice with another dose of critter-related art this winter. Just as the aquarium exhibit highlights a variety of species and emanates a love of animals, so does “Animals in Art” scheduled for display Feb. 1 to 27 at Seaside Art Gallery in Nags Head.
Like the aquarium exhibit, there’s an altruistic aspect Seaside’s exhibit, which showcases paintings, etchings and sculptures of domestic and wild animals.
“A portion of each sale from the show and of any art in the gallery that features an animal will be donated to our local Outer Banks Coastal Humane Society,” said gallery owner Melanie Smith in a recent email. Smith has a warm spot in her heart for the annual exhibit.
“I’ve always loved animals, especially dogs,” she said. “Growing up, we always had pets: guinea pigs, white mice, rabbits, fish, birds and a cat. But it was when I was 6 years old when my parents gave me a puppy for my birthday that my heart was stolen.” Smith has been hooked ever since and understands the value of the animal and caretaker relationship.
During the pandemic, pets set an example for us of joie de vivre, Smith says. She created the February exhibit to celebrate the special bond between animals and humans artistically. The entries are submitted by local, national and international artists and can be seen at the gallery or online. Smith says the gallery has been hosting the show for nine or 10 years, and past exhibits have featured oil, acrylic, watercolor and gouache paintings, etchings and sculptures. Think images of elephants, bloodhounds, pelicans and kittens to name a few.
One of the artists, Lee Mims, comes to her craft via a childhood surrounded by nature. She was raised on a farm in Raleigh, which instilled a lifelong love of animals and the outdoors. She delved deeper into the natural world by becoming a geologist. By studying the chemistry involved in geology, Mims grew to understand pigments and how to mix them to render lifelike images. In time, she moved from geology to training horses, and an influx of requests to paint horses, pets, and children’s portraits called for opening a studio. Over the years, her oil paintings have appeared in many wildlife and fine art shows in the eastern United States. Mims created a stunning scene in oil for a past exhibit called “Mattamuskeet Tapestry,” featuring two elegant waterfowl flying over water.
With two animal related shows on tap for winter, there’s no excuse to be cold or even lonely during this pandemic. Warm the cockles of your heart by viewing in person, or in the case of the Seaside show, from the comfort of your home, artistic love statements from — and to — the animal kingdom.
Mary Ellen Riddle has been writing the Coast’s art column for more than 27 years and brings to her work a BFA in painting from East Carolina University and a profound passion for the role the arts play in society.
What: “Animals That Paint: Paws, Claws, Scales, Tails and Trunks,” paintings by animals
When: Jan. 11-March 31
Where: Nautilus Gallery at the North Carolina Aquarium-Roanoke Island, 374 Airport Road, Manteo
Contact: 252-475-2311; ncaquariums.com/roanoke-island
What: “Animals in Art” exhibition
When: Feb. 1-27
Where: Seaside Art Gallery, 2716 Virginia Dare Trail S., Nags Head; https://seasideart.com/collections/animals-in-art-show
Contact: 252-441-5418, seasideart.com