Danville’s Village Theatre to present ‘Wild’
By Lou Fancher
People in the family-centric Tri-Valley may be surprised to learn they have a lot in common with parrots and elephants. In fact, parrots are far more monogamous than humans — there is no divorce court for the mate-for-life birds. Elephants aren’t monogamous but are incredibly social animals known to raise and fiercely protect their young in communal, matriarch-led communities.
“Wild,” presented by the Town of Danville at the Village Theatre & Art Gallery, offers these and other intriguing facts — most presciently, the colorful birds’ and the largest land mammals’ status as endangered species, along with artwork created or curated by Lafayette artist and animal rights activist Connie English. The free exhibition features work in a variety of media by English and guest artists Joe Bologna, John Finger, Lisa Lee, Jen Starwalt and Karen Van Galder.
At an opening reception Jan. 11, a rescued Scarlet Macaw named Valentina was scheduled to appear as an ambassador for Ara Project in Costa Rica. Funds from the sale of English’s work and donations will support biologists and artists whose work serves to protect endangered parrots in the Central American country.
“Animals have been a part of my life since I was a young girl,” says English. “The last time I went to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, I was giving Lotus, a 22-year-old Asian elephant, a head massage. I gave her a kiss; put my lips on her head. She pressed into me. There was energy coming back from her. It sounds hokey, but it was really profound. There was a childlike innocence to her.”
English’s artwork is anchored by vibrant mosaics made with recycled, tempered or traditional glass but extends to include encaustic paintings and cement sculptures. In support of international projects that seek to raise awareness about endangered species — elephants and parrots in particular — she conducts workshops and leads art projects at K-12 schools and public art centers. An outdoor mosaic in Clayton at Mount Diablo Elementary School is among her most recent projects.
“I went to each classroom, taught the students how to do the art, then left them alone for a week,” English said. “I wanted to do something that made the kids look at the final product and think, ‘I could be a professional artist.’ When it was done, the principal was ecstatic. The kids were touching the wall and looking for the flowers they made.”
During school visits and at public forums, English explains how protecting tropical birds living in the wild preserves the entire rainforest. “The rainforest is the lungs of the earth. We need animals to keep it alive; it’s a delicate balance,” she says. “Everything’s intertwined. You start from the treetops and move down to the animals on the soil.”
From birds like three rescued parrots English cares for and knows may outlive her — macaws and cockatoos in the wild have lifetimes that range from 30-50 years — to elephants like Lotus to artwork featuring jaguars, iguanas, tigers, lions and other animals, the exhibit will be a visual feast. “Free-willed characters like the parrot are a wonderful sight,” says English. “People see them in captivity as a bird in a cage who can talk, but in the wild they’re gorgeous, family-oriented birds.”
English selected artists for the exhibit whose work parallels the animal kingdom’s breadth. Los Angeles-based Jen Starwalt’s “Sumatran Tiger” is a bold portrait in warm tones with deep blue accents. Purple and black hues in another painting of a gorilla make with color an equally strong statement. Van Galder’s traditional ceramics English says includes smaller animals like cats and ravens, but for the exhibit, she’s hoping for elephants. “She’s still firing them, a vastly unpredictable part of the process, so we’ll see what happens,” she says.
Three artists, Bologna, Finger and Lee, capture animals’ whimsical character and demonstrate human ingenuity. Bologna’s mostly metal, always lively sculptures are made with recycled materials that might otherwise be thrown away. Finger switches gears from his usual landscapes to expressive paintings of elephants that convey a wonderful, fun, buoyant quality that is so unexpected in a large animal. “He works from photos, not from life, which makes it more remarkable,” says English. Lee’s animated-but-not-cartoony depictions of whales, elephants, octopi, snails, birds and other creatures illustrate close observation. In their fantastical compositions the sculptures often suggest hidden or humorous stories.
For people who enjoy seeing animals in motion, a free screening Jan. 20 of the Disney nature film, “Born in China,” follows three animal families in remote areas of China. “I told myself when I started to make art that if I could get the art to fly, I’d use it for charity,” says English. “I’m an animal philanthropist using art to bring the community together for the animal world.”