Project: Alphabet Animals-1991
Dimensions: 7’ x 7’/ 8’ x 8’ (x 10 canvases)
Medium: Oils on Canvas
Location: In various collections
Elephant, Lion (2 in collection of St. Leo’s School Oakland), Zebra, Tiger (In collection of SF Zoo)
Jaguar (in collection of Kristi Holohan)
Koala Bear, Camel, Giraffe, Bear (St. David’s school, Richmond)
I'd gotten to know Merritt Sher, with Terranomics while I was painting some Orca whales for the Whales and Friends store in Oakland, at 2nd and Clay.
He mentioned wanting some art to energize the Fashion Island Mall in Foster City, and had liked the giraffe and zebra murals. The idea was to paint some large canvases on site in the mall, with the public, under my direction, being able to pick up brushes and do some painting, as a hands-on art experience. The murals would be put on display temporarily, and I would get to keep the canvases, and receive a nice performance fee as well.
The canvases were set up at an indoor plaza area in Fashion Island, near a fountain. Some of the businesses there were struggling and some were thriving, but in general the paintings got a very good response from a friendly crowd, and I was able to work with a lot of children. I painted about one animal portrait per month, working three days a week, and generally got about a two square foot area completed during each session.
About 5 months into the 8 month project, while painting an elephant canvas, an older retired gentleman approached me, captivated by the artwork. We struck up a friendly dialogue, he told me about his work and his family, and we joked around. He'd look forward to my painting sessions, which usually lasted about 6-7 hours with a break in the middle. We'd talk for an hour or so every day, and this went on for weeks. One day, after lunch, I saw him approaching alone, carrying a long, blanketed object, and figured that he'd been shopping.
Suddenly, he threw off the blanket, uncovering a hunting rifle. He pointed it at me and the painting, and started yelling for everyone to get back and move away. Nobody screamed, and it immediately became clear that he wanted a picture of himself, aiming the rifle at the elephant! Security guards sauntered over and wanted a look at the rifle, but got the joke immediately, laughing and examining the old weapon, then giving it back to him. We took pictures, no problem, end of story. He went home and no arrests were made. He never came back to the mall either, but you never quite forget when a person aims a gun at you. Definitely a pre-9/11 kind of story!
At the end of the project, I put a few of the canvases around on display, which led to other commissions, a few shows, and a couple of sales. But the best part was meeting Jack Castor, the lion tamer at the San Francisco Zoo. Jack had heard about the portrait I painted of a tiger named "Sedova" through Rick Mannshardt, my giraffe photographer friend. Jack had been in the service, and seen action in Truk Lagoon in WWII (one of the deadliest fights of the war). He was blasted off the deck of a battleship and brought back to S.F. to recover for over a year. While recuperating, as a joke, a friend brought him a want ad from the paper for a "lion wrangler", saying "if you can survive Truk, you can handle this, no problem." Jack took the challenge seriously, and became the longest-running big cat employee at the zoo. Jack LOVED Sedova, and raised the cubs at home, which was unheard-of in the 1940s and '50s.
After spending time with him, I donated the big painting of Sedova to the zoo, and they had it mounted in the old lion house there for years. The Associated Press picked up a story about the canvas called "The Scaredy Cats" and it ran in about 110 different papers worldwide. It said that some of the other tigers there would stare at the canvas and think that it was a real tiger! The well-written article is still accessible online.