10/27/2011 02:48

Beit Yannai artist Walter Ferguson hopes his display will help increase popularity of animal artwork in Israel.
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A gazelle mother snuggles her milking fawn, amid pink and yellow flowers and under the avid watch of her male partner, with the lush northern Israel mountainside outstretched in the distance.

“The hazy air that is so typical to April, when there is so much vegetation and the humidity that comes out of it that creates this gray haze, and the lupines in the background create this purple bloom – I’ve never seen anybody reach this quality of work – You can smell the gazelles and the flowers when you look at this painting,” said Amir Balaban, co-director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO), a Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI) hub in Jerusalem’s center.

The painting, called “Mountain Gazelles,” and dated 1991, is one of an entire Wildlife Art gallery collection that will open Thursday evening at the JBO, showcasing the works of American-born artist Walter Ferguson for the next three months. Located in the observatory’s visitor center hidden inside a tree-lined pathway behind the Knesset, the exhibit is part of next week’s Manofim: Art Rising in Jerusalem event, and hopes to display a type of realist, classical art that is underrepresented in Israel, according to Balaban, who co-directs the center with ornithologist Gidon Perleman.

“Most of the wildlife artists that exhibit in big museums are only exhibited when they’re rediscovered,” Balaban told The Jerusalem Post during a Wednesday preview visit to the gallery. “One of the things we’re really hoping this exhibition will do is that it will be a step toward [creating] a retrospective of [Ferguson’s] life’s work.”

Ferguson, now 81, agreed that while some improvements have occurred, wildlife art is still “absolutely” lacking in the Israeli art repertoire, and he expressed hope that his gallery would help further popularize a genre that was essentially nonexistent during his 1958 arrival from Brooklyn to Israel.

“There was no tradition for wildlife art. In fact, museums and galleries considered paintings of animals only as illustrations,” he told the Post over the phone from his home in Beit Yannai. “There are more bird artists in Israel today than when I first came because bird watching has become much more popular. You have the Society for the Protection of Nature and the Nature and Parks Authority, so there are large numbers of people who are interested in nature, and among those are some who were artists and decided like I did to paint wildlife.”

After studying at Yale University School of Art and then both hitchhiking around American to paint birds of every type and working as an artist at New York City’s Museum of Natural History, Ferguson came to Israel with his wife, where he eventually became a scientific illustrator for Tel Aviv University’s Zoology Department while continuing to paint and write on the side.

“In other parts of the world in – in America, Europe, Australia and other places, animal art is very popular, but you won’t find any in an Israeli museum,” Ferguson said. “You might find some art that includes an animal but it’ll be abstract or expressionistic. And of course I paint in a realistic, classical style, and until recently this style this was frowned upon in Israel. But now they’re coming around to exhibiting artists who paint realistic.

“I think this is a breakthrough at least in Jerusalem,” he continued.

Visitors to the gallery will be able to see all types of birds – turquoise-bellied bee-eaters that are still prominent in Israel, endangered black ravens, and lammergeier bearded vultures, which while once widespread in the Judean Desert, are now completely extinct here, Balaban said. Near the exhibit entrance, a beadyeyed Hume’s Tawny Owl stares at onlookers with its beady orange eyes and feathers blending seamlessly into the desert rock.

In addition to the birds throughout the gallery are a wide range of other animals – wolves, jackals, a Sinai leopard, foxes, hares, hedges and porcupines, all painted with impeccable detail down to the last spike, according to Balaban.

“Anybody who wants to finally understand the difference between a hedgehog and a porcupine finally can,” he said, noting that visitors can also see live porcupines meandering around the JBO grounds.

“What interests me is something called ‘spice of life,’” Ferguson explained. “No image repeats itself, but sometimes you see things that are absolutely special and those things, if they appeal to me, I try to preserve in the form of art.”

The exhibit will run for the next three months. The gallery is open to the public Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. in the presence of the artist, and Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and throughout Monofim week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Regular hours will then begin from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m Sunday through Thursday. Groups can schedule guided tours by calling the observatory at (052) 386-9488.