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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: April 8, 2019

Library exhibit lets you enter the endangered zone

Written by: Bob Keyes

“Mountain Gorilla” by Michael Boardman
Images courtesy of Biodiversity Research Institute.

Prepare to be stunned.

A new art exhibition at the Portland Public Library features life-size and realistically rendered paintings in full color of two dozen of the world’s endangered animals, depicted by New England’s top wildlife artists. The detail in some of the paintings brings the creatures into close view, offering direct insight into what these animals really look like and, perhaps, even a window into their soul.

The show is called “A Critical Balance: Artists Take Action” and is presented by the Biodiversity Research Institute of Portland. It is being exhibited in the Lewis Gallery at the library in tandem with another exhibition at the library, “Conserve the Call,” which relates to a loon symposium.

“Sumatran Elephant” by Heidi Broner

Nine artists worked from the red list of threatened and endangered species identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to present intimate portraits of the animals, in whole or in part. Their art has a purpose: to inspire change in environmental practices that will help create conditions where these animals can survive. In that respect, “A Critical Balance” is another among many climate-change art exhibitions on view in Maine this spring and summer.

All the art is for sale, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the conservation work of groups working to preserve these animals.

“We told the artists to paint something from the red list and paint it to size,” said Vermont artist Linda Marabile, who helped organize the exhibition. “We did not specify that it could not be abstract, but it had to be realistic enough that the species is identifiable. It’s an educational exhibition around these special critters that were chosen. We want beautiful art and art that has meaning.”

“Red Knot” by Shearon Murphy, an artist from Winthrop.

Those criteria were well-suited for North Yarmouth wildlife artist, illustrator and naturalist Michael Boardman. “My thought is, since 1970 we have lost 60 percent of animal populations across the globe, both land and ocean animals. That is a horrifying statistic. It scares the heck out of me.”

“As an artist, this is an opportunity to focus on these animals who are most endangered. We’ve got these animal populations that are dropping drastically. It’s hard to get people to care about stuff unless they can make a connection. Art is a way to do that, to build the caring piece of it a little bit.”

Boardman has completed artist residencies at Baxter State Park, Acadia National Park and Hog Island in Maine and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

“North Atlantic Right Whale” by Susan Parmenter.

The show focuses on what are known as charismatic megafauna, or large species that are popular with the public because of their recognizable appeal. Depicted here is the giant Sumatran elephant, in the pose of a trumpeter, the piping plover nesting on a windswept beach, and the fluke of a majestic North Atlantic right whale, about to go under.

Some of the stories told here are positive – such as Boardman’s mountain gorilla. The gorilla population is stable at about 1,000 animals, and its stability is attributed to conservation efforts. Boardman portrays the gorilla looking straight off the paper, directly at the viewer, with brown eyes that are still and steady. Boardman shows the gorilla from the shoulders up, the body obscured by brush.

He became interested in gorillas as a young boy growing up outside of New York City. He was a frequent visitor to the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History. At some point, his parents bought him a book that could answer all his questions about gorillas, because he quickly exhausted their knowledge. In 1997, after college, he traveled to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to see gorillas in their wild and natural environment.

There, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he began to understand the impact of conservation on endangered animal populations. Gorilla tourism is an important industry, so the government has worked to preserve their mountain habitat, he said. And at the same time, preserving that habitat has benefited the local farmers and agriculture in general, because the mountains are a good source of water. “The gorillas are considered a national treasure and their population is actually increasing, so it’s a little bit of a good news story there,” Boardman said. “And it’s a good example of an endangered species bringing in capital and protecting a vital resource.”

He also portrays a snowy owl and black rhinoceros.

Winthrop artist Shearon Murphy painted animals very small (the rusty patched bumble bee) and very large (a caribou). But it’s her painting of the red knot, a small bird that migrates from South America to the middle and high Arctic, that grabs attention. First, it’s a beautiful painting of an elegant and mighty creature. But the story that accompanies this painting helps explain the complexities of conservation and the interdependence of biological systems.

During their migration, the birds depend on the eggs of horseshoe crabs that accumulate on the beaches of Delaware. The crab population is declining because crabs are a bait resource and are being over-harvested. As a result, the red knots are stressed because they don’t have enough food to support their migration. Murphy was taken by their story and how the biological health of “one little critical point where the animals pass through” has do-or-die consequences to the species. She was also impressed be the heroic nature of the bird. “It’s a tiny bird that makes these epic migrations, thousands of miles in a stint,” she said.

“A Critical Balance: Artists Take Action”

WHERE: Lewis Gallery, Portland Public Library
WHEN: Opens Friday, on view through May 25

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