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Hunting down wild and wonderful art at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

One of the finest repositories of stealth art in the Pikes Peak Region is the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. By "stealth art," I mean art that happens to you when you're not looking, art that's seamlessly part of the overall experience. Where else do you find this combination: bronze sculptures to climb on; one-of-a-kind sculptural benches to sit on; a rare antique carousel to ride on; nature-spirited Southwest architecture next to contemporary "installation art"; and work by the sculptor of the new Sacagawea dollar coin alongside paintings by an elephant?

The zoo's bronze deer family has a permanent multicolored patina; the animals' backs are kept brightly polished by generations of children climbing all over them. That this sculpture by Paul Manship had been exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair before its 1934 acquisition by the zoo would have held absolutely no interest to me as a small child in the 1950s. Nor would it have made any sense to me that, in the process of clambering onto it, I was learning viscerally a kinaesthetic appreciation of sculptural form and texture, a sense of good design. It was simply fun -- as it is for kids now, a half-century later.

The zoo originated with Spencer Penrose's personal collection of animals, including his pet elk, Prince Albert. On their frequent trips abroad, while Julie Penrose visited art museums, Spencer went to local zoos. His brother was a director of the Philadelphia Zoo and had, in l903, founded there the first zoo research lab in America. Julie's interest in the arts influenced her husband (their donated Old North End home became the Broadmoor Art Academy, later the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center); their collection ranged from ancient Asian art to the works of local art students.

Much later, Broadmoor Art Academy artists' works at the zoo came to include Lew Tilley's murals in the Bird House and Edgar Britton's bronze plaque (Britton's sculptures include "Orpheus" and "Genesis" at our downtown and east libraries). Another of the zoo's commemorative bronze sculptures is by Glenna Goodacre, a local college student who went on to create the Vietnam Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the new Sacagawea dollar coin. ("Success Is the Best Revenge" was the title of Goodacre's inspiring Commencement address several years ago at Colorado College, where she once received a D in sculpture.)

Carrying riders at the zoo since Penrose installed it in 1937, the newly-restored carousel is one of only three of its kind in existence. Kids still follow the carved forms of the manes with their fingers, gaze into wild eyes and bared teeth, caress the colorful saddles, dream into the landscape paintings as they whirl around. Stylized rainbow, storm cloud, sun and animal forms based on Pueblo and Navajo art still radiate a spirit of wonder throughout the 1951 Thundergod House at the zoo's entrance, though many of the floor designs are currently hidden. The arts, especially sketching and drawing, form a big part of the zoo's education activities, as well as enrichment for the zoo's artist-in-residence -- Lucky, the elephant, whose colorful paintings are a natural extension of her talents in wielding a trunk.

The Colorado Habitat Tree gives kids an opportunity to imagine themselves siblings to a couple of bronze bear cubs or to be hatchling owls in giant eggshells ("Cool!" according to one owl-child overheard on a recent visit). Artists were involved in creating this educational play environment. Like stealth art, it's stealth learning: Children understand the information intuitively through play and imagination.

Similarly, this summer's installation just beyond the bat exhibit shuffles perception around, startling visitors -- more directly than plain informative labels could -- into empathizing with hanging upside-down like bats. A similar installation in a gallery or museum would focus the viewer's attention on shifting perception; at the zoo, the "art" part stealthily serves to help the viewer understand the creatures at hand.

Sculptural benches located all over the zoo resulted from a fund-raiser collaboration between the zoo and the Business of Art Center. Following a juried competition, bench sketches and models were presented to donors who commissioned full-scale benches. Artists received an honorarium, the zoo received a financial donation, donors' names are on their benches, and zoo visitors can rest on realistic, stylized, humorous, or mysterious animal images in wood, sandstone, welded steel, concrete, mosaic, ceramic tile or several materials combined. Five local artists (myself included) created 17 benches; another was made by a student from the Salida area. I take great delight in my work being used; in kids climbing on my benches, experiencing those pieces not as "art" but as play, energy, imagination -- in the same spirit they (and I, long ago) clambered all over the bronze deer.

Our zoo is a leader in stealth art; each year, tens of thousands of people experience art there. Imagine applying this sensible, visionary concept elsewhere too -- inviting and supporting local artists' skills and expertise in the pursuit of an institution's professional mission; integrating art, demystified, into any experience.

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