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My painting went big last week – 26 feet long by 12 feet high big!  I was commissioned to add clouds and grasses to the new Zoo Society’s Kohl’s Wild Theatre stage at the Milwaukee County Zoo. It was a bit strange not to include animals but the stage will be filled with birds of prey flying and actors teaching conservation through enthusiastic productions each summer day. My mural is thus meant to be a simple, complementary backdrop.

This was the stage prior to painting:

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The first step was chalking in white the grasses, then beginning the process of layering greens.

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Below is a detail of the grasses in process. Outdoor house paint was my media, sturdy enough to last through weather conditions of all types. Painting outside was not always conducive. Temperatures ranged from quite cool (40 degrees F) to warm (close to 80 a couple times). In both cases, the paint became thick, making blending challenging.

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Despite the physical and technical demands, the zoo served as a very special studio. Lions roared and elephants trumpeted from time to time. One evening included a drama. I could hear a type of screeching. At first, I thought it was a bird, perhaps an owl who had caught prey. The cry was insistent and heart wrenching. I walked to the hippo enclosure, just outside the theater, where the call was originating. A baby raccoon had fallen into it. Mom and her other young looked down at the panicking little creature. Thankfully, the hippos were inside for the night, as the zoo was closed. The baby tried climbing up the rocky walls but slipped down again and again. I thought I was going to have to call zoo staff to get him out. I prayed persistently that God would help him up. Finally, after much running back and forth, on a third attempt, he made it to the top. Mom greeted him then groomed his head. What happened next was most unexpected. Mom and the young one turned to look at me. Then the rest of the family gathered around her to stare. It was a perfect circle of bandit faces. I wish I would have had my camera.

It’s hard to say what is going on in animal’s minds, if not impossible, but they were aware of my presence and appeared to acknowledge it. I told them to be careful and said a thank you prayer to God it ended well. Quietly, the family turned and disappeared into the darkness. That was not the type of experience an artist has in the studio, which is why it is good to get outside and paint.

 

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