Throughout history, animals have inspired artists and have been the subject of their work. Art often reflects our experiences and world view. It may give us insight into an environment, a way of life or images of cultural significance. And in many cases, animals are a part of the story.
The oldest figurative art, that which represents the real world rather than abstract themes, features animals. A cave in Borneo holds painted images of wild cattle. These cave paintings are at least 40,000 years old. From the long ago past to present day, the human connection to animals is highlighted through art and showcases our relationships with the fauna of the world around us.
Sometimes a connection is deeply personal. Pablo Picasso made the lithograph “La Colombe,” a portrait of a dove, in 1949. The image became synonymous with the peace movement and later inspired his “Dove of Peace,” a famous symbol of hope. Picasso’s father had been a painter of pigeons and doves. The actual dove pictured in the 1949 artwork was Picasso’s very own pet, a pigeon given to him by his friend, Henri Matisse. Frida Kahlo also often included animals in her paintings. Some of these, like Picasso’s pigeon, were also personal pets. The renowned Mexican artist shared her home with dogs, birds, monkeys and even a deer.
Here in Alaska, we find animals as both the subject and materials of artworks. Animals have spiritual importance, we rely on them for food and clothing, and they embody ideas of wilderness. These diverse connections are reflected in the collections at the UA Museum of the North. In the galleries, visitors can see many examples of parkas, boots and mittens made from animal hides and pelts. A rain parka made from the intestine of a bearded seal highlights the maker’s skill. It is a functional garment made to keep someone dry while hunting. The parka is a good example of clothing being functional while also serving as a work of art and tradition. Beaks and feathers from crested auklets decorate the seams and indicate both the wearer’s prowess as a hunter and the ceremonial importance of the garment.
The use of animals as resources may be obvious in artworks, such as a bag made from swan’s feet or an intricately decorated walrus tusk. Animals are also an important resource for the artists’ tools. Goat, squirrel, badger, weasel and hog hair are all used to make paintbrushes for different purposes.
Many paintings at the museum depict animals. Some were painted with animal hair brushes and some are on animal skin. Pieces by George Twok Aden Ahgupuk, an artist from Shishmaref, on display in the museum’s Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery are painted and inked onto animal hide and fish skin. Even the subject matter is animal themed; there are depictions of hunters and reindeer herders as well as dog teams.
Representations of animals in art range from the spiritual to the whimsical. They can be abstract or realistic. Examples of each can be found at the museum. Important figures like Raven and Eagle are seen in traditional formline art from southeast Alaska. Snowy owl is the subject of a mask by Koyukon Athabascan carver Kathleen Carlo-Kendall of Fairbanks. Juneau artist Dan DeRoux depicts cowboys herding walrus in his fanciful painting, “Bering Strait Faces the Last Roundup in the Last Frontier.”
Animals are not always viewed in a positive light. Sometimes they are frightening or competing for the same resources. Art can also reflect these relationships in a more nuanced view. A painting by Kay Marshall in the museum’s Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery depicts a human form and dog in a turbulent blue background. Streaks of red bring to mind blood. The viewer may wonder if the dog is attacking or helping. Marshall entitled the piece “Rescue Dog” which points us toward the latter option. However, the viewer is left to draw their own conclusion about the story within the image.
We are tied to the animals in our homes and in the wild. Alaskans experience animals in both settings in our everyday life. The art of Alaska reflects the diversity of the human-animal connection.
Jennifer Arseneau is the education and public programs manager for the UA Museum of the North. She can be reached at 474-6948.
If You Go
Discover animals in art at the UA Museum of the North’s hands-on programs in September. Early Explorers, for children 5 and younger, meet in the Creativity Lab from 10 a.m. to noon each Friday. At Junior Curators, from 2-4 p.m. Sept. 28, kids 6 and older are invited to explore animal art through hands-on investigations and crafts.
At Family Day: Animals in Art, noon to 4 p.m. Sept. 14, guests can see art from the collections, meet the art curator, watch an artist at work, and create their own animal artwork. All ages are welcome and admission for kids 14 and under is free on Family Days thanks to support from TOTE Maritime Alaska.
For more information about the museum’s programs and events, visit www.uaf.edu/museum or call 474-7505.
To Try At Home
• Animal art cookies: Use animal shaped cutters or a sharp knife to shape sugar cookies. Bake and decorate with stripes, spots and creative colors. Gel food colorings diluted with water make great paints and can be applied with clean brushes.
• Pet portrait: Draw or paint an image of your favorite pal or one you would like to have. Try including elements that highlight their personality or things they like.
• Handprint creatures: Paint your palm and press it to a sheet of paper. Turn it into an ancient creature like a dinosaur or something modern like a fish or duck by using markers and paint to add details.