All Creatures, Great And Small

Desert Critters Are On The Loose At Tohono Chul Park.

By Margaret Regan

THE ANTS ARE marching all over the wall at Tohono Chul Park, and they're big ants too--the size of kittens.

Review This particular colony won't give anyone the creeps, though. That's because its members are art ants, welded together out of cut steel and found objects by sculptor Ned Egen. They're part of a lighthearted show all about the desert's critters, Creepy, Crawly, Wild and Woolly, in the park's Exhibit Hall. This kid-oriented exhibition is running in conjunction with animal programs offered at the Tucson Pima libraries this summer, and a corner of the gallery is outfitted with drawing paper and colored pencils for young artists inspired by the creature art.

Egen's insect menagerie is the most endearing collection in a show that's high on the cute-o-meter. His dark, shiny ants are all antennae and spindly legs. His flying killer bee is cleverly crafted of coiled wire, and his scorpion and spiders are ingenious amalgams of unidentifiable spare parts.

It's summertime and the art world's easy, so artists can turn their fancy to ants and javelinas and gila monsters, subjects that don't usually pass muster in serious art spaces. The exhibition gathers together about 20 professional artists, but they're more or less on summer holiday, unabashedly turning out fun pieces that depart from their more serious work.

For instance, Su Egen, who is married to Ned of the ants, is a weaver who just won a big prize at the Tucson Museum of Art's Arizona Biennial '99. The museum award for best work in fiber went to Egen's tapestry "Optically Speaking," a disciplined black-and-white abstraction that revels in optical illusions. At Tohono Chul, though, she's gone totally local, totally carefree, with a couple of animal weavings that she's too smart to have submitted to a high-brow museum show. "Entwined (Rattlesnakes)," an elegant tapestry in lime green and black, pictures an intricate coil of snakes. "Celebration of the Sun (Lizards)" likewise goes in for desert creatures, stylized lizards set among geometric bands.

No question about it, the artists plainly enjoyed letting go of high art and making cute animals instead. Creepy, Crawly aims to counteract the undeserved bad reps of desert denizens, and the artists pitched in by highlighting the downright lovableness of all Sonoran creatures great and small. Sheila Chambers signs on with an irresistible "Blue Javelina." An astute winter visitor to Tucson once christened this extravagantly weird creature a Hallelujah pig, and Chambers has given it the colors that a Hallelujah animal deserves. Her monotype and pastel piece ratchets up its colors from monochrome to hallucinogenic blues, pinks and yellows.

Victoria von Elbe stylizes coyotes in "Defiant Five (Coyotes)," an exuberant woodcut in yellow, orange and black. Kristin Muench uses papier-mâché and paint for a whole herd of animals, including a cheerfully polka-dotted gila monster in orange and blue. Bats are honored in a series of painterly monotypes by Chris Bondante, who makes the animals even more fun by naming them in four languages. "Pipistrello," the Italian bat, is a barely visible gray in a landscape of purple, blue and yellow, while the French "Chauvre Souris" has sparkly glitter radiating out from its screaming-yellow body. The pinkish-gray "Die Fledermaus" (German) is full of scary teeth, and our own Spanish "Murciélago" is an orange flash against a khaki sky.

Some of the exhibiting artists are illustrators who work the animal trade all the time. They range from the well-known--Paul Mirocha, who shows a fine colored-pencil javelina scene from the upcoming book Moon of the Wild Pigs--to the new-to-me Kenneth Spengler, who drew the pictures in the children's tome Way Out in the Desert.

If art animals are simply a summer spree at Tohono Chul in the northwest part of town, they'll be an all-the-time attraction at a new nature gallery in the West University neighborhood. The inaugural show at the Tucson Audubon Society's Hausman Gallery is, not surprisingly, big on birds. The "gallery" is really just a meeting room behind the shop, its walls given over to pictures, its artists tending toward the amateur. Nevertheless, photographer Charles Hedgcock, who's also in the Tohono Chul show, exhibits some fine black-and-white photos of magnified bugs, including a giant water bug that's not for the squeamish. Debra Little's colored pencil drawings are deft renderings of quails and prickly pear blossoms.

Though the two shows have little in common otherwise, they both assert a joyous pleasure in animals. And a couple of Tohono O'odham baskets at Tohono Chul serve as reminders that the creatures who live among us have always served as inspiration for artists. The earliest known human art, painted on the caves of Europe, depicted the bison and deer that kept our ancestors alive. Animals still decorate the works of native artists, as the work of the anonymous Tohono O'odham basket-maker attests. Coiled around her baskets of yucca and devil's claw are unmistakable images of her fellow desert dwellers: the centipede, the bat and the rattlesnake.

Creepy, Crawly, Wild and Woolly continues through Sunday, July 15, in the Exhibit Hall at Tohono Chul Park, 7366 N. Paseo del Norte. Gallery hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. The suggested donation is $2. For more information call 742-6455. The Tucson Pima Library programs on desert animals continue at various times at the Main Library and at various branches through July 22. For details, call the Main Library at 791-4393 or your local branch. A show of nature photographs, paintings and drawings continues through Saturday, August 7, at the Hausman Gallery of the Tucson Audubon Society, 300 E. University, Suite 120. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with extended hours until 6 p.m. on Thursdays. Free admission. For more information, call 629-0510. TW

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