Two days ago, I went to the Kyoto Zoo and reminisced about my own art school days when we had a chance to leave the studios to go and sketch skylines and foliage at Hope Gardens in Kingston. Just as the university students of Kyoto made their way in groups to each exhibit, we also wandered the grounds of Hope Zoo to capture in quick studies, the movements of our small collection of wild animals. Many of us on those trips improved the fluidity of our line and growing confidence as artists.
I wanted to write about this zoo visit partly out of nostalgia for those days and with the hope that it will encourage us to find creative benefit in life that we don't usually study. The other reason is what occurred to me as I observed the students sketching the animals in two particular exhibits.
The brown bear was a large mammal who though fascinating as a subject,on looking closer, had very little standing room in his area. There was a large enough pool for him but in the freezing Winter climate, it did not look at all inviting. There were also high structures for climbing but the actual flat standing room was barely enough for him to turn in. I noticed this while the student was sketching. The next exhibit was a shock for me because though I have spent hours fascinated by them on YouTube, I had never seen this animal in life before.
On entering The Zoo's Ape Sanctuary I came immediately face to face with The lone Silverback gorilla peering at the students with his face pressed up to the glass. There was an invaluable interaction between the gorilla and students that would undoubtedly produce very animated drawings but immediately I couldn't stand to see the animal's face as he sat inside a concrete enclosure not much bigger than my first apartment.
It was very hard after that to objectify the animal as a willing model when I knew that this wasn't the case. Undoubtedly zoos are great resources but in keeping with newer thought about how we understand ourselves in relation to our fellow animals I wonder about the reasons we have zoos.
In thinking about whether it was the existence of the zoo or the way the animals were housed that bothered me, I realized it was the latter.
Newer zoos concepts are more like wildlife parks such as Twycross Zoo or Whipsnade Zoo in the UK. This concept makes me feel a bit more comfortable with holding animals in captivity as we can see them in close to wild habitats and social groups. Our understanding will not be limited to the capture of animals for amusement purposes only but for fostering respect for our fellow creatures. I can also remember in my art school zoo visits where particularly empathetic students would leave saddened by the state of the two lions at Kingston's own zoo.
What do you think about the zoo as a place for drawing? Do you have memories of drawing live animals?