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Oklahoma City Zoo and a Paseo gallery unleash 'Art Gone Wild,' featuring collaborative paintings created by artful animals and their zookeepers



On display through Aug. 28
In Your Eye Studio & Gallery
3005-A Paseo

As an artist, Asha is still very entrenched in her orange period.

If Oklahoma City Zoo keepers let the 15-year-old Asian elephant pick her palette, every canvas would come up coated in some shade of cantaloupe.

"Some of her favorite foods are that color, so she loves it," said zoo spokeswoman Tara Henson. "Some of the animals you'll notice, particularly the elephants, have certain colors they really like."

Both Asha's solo work and collaborative pieces she painted with her 14-year-old sister, Chandra, will be exhibited alongside more than 50 canvases created by OKC Zoo animals.

"Art Gone Wild" opens 6 p.m. Friday at the In Your Eye Studio & Gallery, including works by sea lions, rhinos, bears, lizards and all varieties of birds, primates and other animals.

Zookeepers began the art project over the winter, Henson said, after she met with local painter and photographer Jeff Gardner.

"We thought it would be great to bring patrons of the zoo to the arts, and vice versa," Gardner said at In Your Eye, where his "On the Road Again" exhibit just wrapped.

While Henson and Gardner both hope mixing audiences for "Art Gone Wild" is good for both zoo and gallery-goers, Henson said the project's biggest beneficiaries are the animals themselves. They not only receive any proceeds from the art sales, and a portion of all sales from the gallery in August, but also learn and grow from the creative process.

Painting is just one aspect of the exhibit, she said, noting the art project is an "enrichment" activity, where keepers introduce new elements into the animals' environments and challenge them with atypical tasks.
For example, Henson said keepers might spray perfume or add feathers to the cat habitat, which helps keep them interested in exploring their surroundings.

"It's always an unusual activity "? something they don't do every day; they may not do it even once a week," she said.

The enrichment activities are chosen to be mentally and physically stimulating, she said, but also help strengthen the bond between the animals and keepers.

As enthusiastic as most of the animals are about art, Henson said the final paintings are very much a collaborative effort with the zookeepers, who assist with color selection and the inevitable art supply-related shenanigans.

Paintbrushes have proven both fascinating and delicious, Henson said, especially for the primates and pachyderms, which loved the new "toys."

"They thought, 'Maybe I should play with them, or maybe I should just eat them,'" she said of Asha and Chandra, who were both moved to the Tulsa Zoo in June 2008 for an extended "breeding date" with a male bull named Sneezy. Moving the pair also allowed the OKC Zoo to finish work on a new elephant exhibit, which will be part of the new $23 million Asian-themed habitat, which opens next year. 

In an effort to work around the pair's elephant-sized appetites, keepers fashioned paintbrushes from food items like bamboo "? a great idea, Henson said, until the brushes were "almost immediately" devoured.

The keepers finally decided to let the elephants use their built-in brushes to paint with, and Asha and Chandra used the prehensile tips of their trunks for bold strokes, filling canvases with their colorful, snort-and-spray technique.

Marsha the black rhino nose- and tongue-painted several canvases herself, while Zeppy the Moluccan cockatoo beaked a standard paintbrush to create his abstract canvas.

"The gorillas and chimps finger-paint," Henson said, "because let's face it: The keepers aren't going to get those paintbrushes back."

But creativity comes with a cost, and like any respectable artist, the animals don't work for free. Thankfully, the commissions are manageable and usually come right from the commissary. Edible treats are the typical fee, she said, although some of the artists present special cases.

Sticking their snouts in a cafeteria tray of sticky, interesting-smelling paint is enough reward for Guinea hogs Fergie and Fancy, while Brofi the hand-raised bush dog is more than happy to paw-print a canvas or two if you pay with attention ... to him.

"He doesn't want food," Henson said. "Just a little love." "?Joe Wertz

top photo A guinea hog paints a canvas held by a zookeeper.
bottom photo Marsha the rhino paints a canvas held by a zookeeper.

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