Society of Animal Artists | A Passion for Creatures

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Breaking up the Monotony by Leslie Evans

In 1960 the Society of Animal Artists was a nucleus of about 20 artists based mostly on the East Coast. Since then it has blossomed into a professional organization with more than 400 members—painters and sculptors from around the globe, including Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, and South America. This year marks the society’s fifth decade.

New Jersey-based artist Douglas Allen, who became a member in 1961, recalls the group’s founder, painter and gallery owner Patricia Allen Bott. “She had a love of animals and animals in art,” Allen says. “The first show she put on was small, but it had some of the top animal artists in the country, such as Robert Lougheed, Bob Kuhn, and John Clymer.”

Longtime member Guy Coheleach adds that in the beginning, Bott held the group together by “sheer personality” and a willingness to be flexible with artists who didn’t always meet her deadlines. He recalls that the group grew out of a cadre of artists who met regularly at the Bronx Zoo to sketch.

It seems fitting, then, that this year the organization’s 50th annual Art and the Animal juried exhibition is being held in San Diego, home of the world-famous San Diego Zoo. In fact, one of the judges for this year’s exhibition is Joan Embery, animal advocate and well-known ambassador for the San Diego Zoo who has appeared on numerous talk and late-night television shows. Activities on the agenda for members attending the exhibition include a full day at the zoo, whale-watching trips, and forays to the zoo’s Wild Animal Park. The schedule gives the painters and sculptors an opportunity to observe a range of animals and take reference photographs for future works of art.

As the organization grew in stature and prestige over the years, it soon merited yearly presentations at museums instead of small East Coast galleries. This year’s exhibition opens at the San Diego Natural History Museum on September 4. The show then travels to The Wildlife Experience in Parker, CO; Dunnegan Gallery of Art in Bolivar, MO; and the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman, OK.

The society’s membership reads like a who’s who of the world’s top wildlife artists, including signature members such as Gerald Balciar, Burt Brent, Sherry Salari Sander, Morten E. Solberg, Kent Ullberg, and Robert Bateman. This year Bateman receives the society’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award. He also presents a talk on the afternoon of the opening.

Out of Nowhere by Julie Bender

The Society of Animal Artists’ mission has remained the same since Bott’s day: to promote excellence in the portrayal of the creatures sharing the planet, and to educate the public through art seminars, lectures, and teaching demonstrations. And, as president Diane Mason notes, the society also offers a stamp of approval and validation to artists. “I think the primary reason any of us wanted to become members initially was because we wanted to know that our work was good enough, that we could be accepted into this prestigious organization with such a proud history and with such notable members, both past and present,” Mason says. For Mason, the member artists have become like family, and there is a spirit of camaraderie that permeates their events. They inspire each other to produce their very best work. “We share the same passion for animals and the arts,” she adds.

The society accepts about a dozen new members a year. Pennsylvania-based oil painter Julie Bell was one of last year’s new members. This is her first exhibition with the group, and she bubbles over with enthusiasm and anticipation. “I’m going to be meeting people with huge names, like Guy Coheleach and Robert Bateman, and get to see their original work instead of pictures in a book,” she says. “I am so excited about being with a group of artists and talking about art and animals. Everyone needs a source of energy, and being in a community like this is a terrific source of energy. Just seeing everyone’s work is going to fire me up. A show like this ignites your passion for what you do.”

The Art and the Animal exhibition is on view at the San Diego Natural History Museum from September 4 through October 31. For more information: 970.532.3127 or

Featured in September 2010