Curator Sara Lynn Henry alongside some of the exhibition’s artwork.
Article written by Brittany Natale
When one lives primarily in New York City there may be less of an opportunity to be exposed to a wide variety of animals on a daily basis. A trip to one of the city’s zoos or a weekend getaway to the Catskills may provide one with a glimpse into the animal kingdom, but the list of creatures met by city dwellers usually does not exceed the typical dog, cat, or if you are unlucky, rat. The tall industrial buildings and busyness of a metropolis has much to offer but some treasures can still only be found in more rural areas.
The WAH Center’s September 2013 exhibition titled “The Animals Look Back at Us” in a sense brought the animals to bustling Brooklyn. Curated by guest curator Sara Lynn Henry, a retired Drew University Art History professor who is currently an Independent Curator and Arts writer, “The Animals Looks Back at Us” showcased animal art created by seventeen artists who all have a special connection with the animal world. Exhibiting artists included: Terri Amig, George Boorujy, Catherine Chalmers, Stella Chasteen, Sue Coe, Lee Deigaard, Mary Frank, Jan Harrison, Gillian Jagger, Nina Katchadourian, Isabelle Kirkland, David Marell, Christy Rupp, Alan Siegel, Janice Tieken, Eva van Rijn and Jess Wallace.
During this exhibition the WAH Center’s nineteenth century building acted as the temporary home for these “animals”, allowing city dwellers and visitors alike to give proper recognition to these creatures. The WAH Center’s historical building was transformed into a multi-faceted arts center in 1996 by Founder and Artistic Director Yuko Nii, whose main mission is to coalesce the diverse artistic community, and create a bridge between local, national and international artists, emerging and established artists, and artists of all disciplines.
”The Animals Look Back at Us” curator Sara Lynn Henry, who was born in wooded northern New Jersey and later spent majority of her teenage years in Indiana, says she was always inspired by her natural surroundings. Henry’s love for flora and fauna, which was instilled in her at a young age, carries on even throughout her adult years. For instance, when given the choice of living in New York City and commuting to her University or living in northern New Jersey by the forested campus near the Great Swamp Wildlife Preserve, she chose the nature setting.
Henry describes how being a professor for thirty years (1977 through 2007) also helped her gain curatorial experience and prepared her for the Art World beyond the classroom. For most of these years Henry taught The Drew New York Contemporary Art Semester, which not only allowed her to be on art’s exciting breaking edge but also forced her to broaden the art she exposed her students to, so as many perspectives as possible could be seen. Henry explains that once one gets past contemporary style modes, or “the -isms” as she calls them, the art can be broken up instead into thematic topics. For instance, art and politics, gender/sexuality in art, and art and spirituality have been vivid subjects.
It was actually when attending a seminar focused on the subject of animals and art, Henry met Jan Harrison, who is equally concerned about nature and is a creator of works inspired by animals. It was then that the idea of “The Animals Look Back at Us” was born. Through Henry’s rigorous exploration of the gallery world and Harrison’s additional fellow animal artist contacts, the premise of the exhibition was created and the animal artists were finally connected to each other in the form of this exhibition.
An interesting detail that Henry came to realize upon near completion of the exhibition preparation was that of the local New York artists, over two thirds of them live in the upstate New York area either full- or part-time. For example, exhibition artists including Mary Frank, Sue Coe, Christy Rupp, Gillian Jagger and Catherine Chalmers, all spend some part of the year surrounded by the beauty of upstate New York. However, Henry explains how this coincidence makes sense: “They are connected to the animals,” she says, “and the animals are here [upstate]”.
Beyond having just a love and passion for these creatures, many of these artists have actually worked alongside or lived with the animals. For example, Gillian Jagger whose passion for horses clearly radiates through her works, has a farm which allows her to be surrounded daily by these loving creatures. Artist Terri Amig travels to farms where she engages the animals nose to nose in order to better interpret them into her art. Lee Deigaard, a native of New Orleans, has a grandfather who owns a farm and Catherine Chalmers actually has personally raised each of the insect creatures starring in her “Safari” video. Henry expresses how because of this “lived experience” these artists think of animals as “fellow beings”, put on the same level as humans, no species lower or higher than the other.
Henry explains how the art included in the show is “purpose art”. “The animals are not there to be admired, they are not there as environmental pleas,” says Henry, “The art is a direct dialogue with the animals for them to be recognized as fellow sentient beings”.
Currently, Henry is surrounded by open spaces and rolling hills, calling Woodstock, NY her home.
The WAH Center is a Brooklyn-based non-profit organization founded in 1996 by artist and philanthropist Yuko Nii. It is a multifaceted, multicultural art center whose mission is to coalesce the diverse artistic community and create a bridge between local, national and international artists, as well as emerging and established artists of all disciplines. The WAH Center is housed in New York City Landmark Kings County Savings Bank, built in 1867, and on the National Register of Historic Places. To learn more visit: www.wahcenter.net.