Monday, May 20, 2013

Artist installs new penguin sculpture at St. Louis Zoo

May 19, 2013  • 
Sculptor A.J. “Buddy” Obara has been in town to install a life-size bronze sculpture of an emperor penguin outside Penguin & Puffin Coast at the St. Louis Zoo. The sculpture is a gift of the Explorers Club of St. Louis, which also is presenting Obara with the Marlin Perkins/Jim Fowler Lifetime Artist-in-Residence Award. We talked to the artist about penguins, vanishing nature and how his early experiments in taxidermy led to a career as one of the nation’s foremost wildlife sculptors.

Q • How did you decided to be a sculptor?
A • I grew up in Chester County, Pa., on the Brandywine River. Andy Wyeth lived down river from me. He was the rage, and everyone wanted to be him and I decided, “You know, I don’t really want to do this.” I was just tired of doing watercolors and landscapes. So one day when I was about 20, I did a sculpture of a falcon. And I was like, “Wow. Three dimensions. This is great.” I had a background in taxidermy as a kid, which means anytime I do anything I know the taxonomy. I always had a talent as an artist, but that experience in taxidermy was really important.

Q • Taxidermy seems like a strange hobby for a kid.

A • I was a 12-year-old kid, and I wanted to see how things work. Let’s cut it open and see why that leg hangs like that.

Q • You grew up in an area rich in wildlife, but you also have explored the globe observing animals in their natural habitat.

 A.J. Obara penguin sculpture 

A • I am a member of the Explorers Club and have traveled the world and been on expeditions — under the sea, in the air, over the mountains. What I look for is a moment, just a flash, in which I can capture the spirit of that animal. I like to say that my pieces are raw like nature. I just want to capture that essence.

Q • Do you consider it your duty sound the alarm for species facing extinction?
A • Nature is disappearing fast and I am recording it. I feel a responsibility to these animals — they’re close to my heart and they’ve given me a living. Through my art I want to remind people of the natural world that is around us.

Q • Tell me about this sculpture. Is it hard to sculpt a penguin?
A • I almost always experience the animals I sculpt in nature, but not this one. I have not been to Antarctica, though I intend to go there. The challenge for me as an artist are the lines of the penguin. They’re so subtle. You get one wrong and the whole thing falls apart. You need to do your homework.

Q • What did you learn about penguins during this process?

A • They survive against all odds in the most barren place on the earth. They are just hardy critters. To me, they say everything nature has to say, “I’m tough, I’m beautiful, but I’m also elegant.”


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