Mastering the essence of the animal, artfully Sculptor: Bart Walter, whose gorilla sculpture is to be unveiled today at Salisbury State University, has a growing reputation as a wildlife artist.

April 21, 1996|By Lisa T. Hill | Lisa T. Hill,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Bart Walter is best known in Maryland for the bronze otters playing in the fountain at the Baltimore Zoo's front gate.

The Pleasant Valley sculptor, who specializes in animals, is likely to attract renewed attention in the state with his newest work: a life-size gorilla that will be dedicated tomorrow at Salisbury State University.

The gorilla, based on the main character in Daniel Quinn's novel "Ismael," was commissioned by the university because a popular honors class centers on the book, in which the author uses a gorilla as a literary device to comment on mankind.

University officials also wanted to increase student access to the arts and deemed sculpture appropriate and less destructible than some other art forms.

"I tried to create Ismael, his pensive expression. I wanted to capture the [gorilla's] essence and show the power and bulk," Mr. Walter said.

The university chose Mr. Walter because of his success in sculpting primates for Jane Goodall, a renowned animal researcher. Mr. Walter has done several pieces for Dr. Goodall, who spent years living among chimpanzees in the jungles of Africa.

"I think he's going to prove to be a major 20th-century animal artist, using animals as a vehicle to express his feelings and ideas about the world around him," said Ken Basile, director of University Galleries at Salisbury and a longtime friend of Mr. Walter's.

Mr. Walter, who moved to Carroll County eight years ago, works out of a studio next to his home. He is at work on a project for the Waterfowl Festival, a popular Eastern Shore event that marked its 25th anniversary last year. The 38-year-old Baltimore native is sculpting a 7-foot pair of Canada geese with a nest, gosling and eggs.

This summer, about 30 of Mr. Walter's sculptures and several sketches will be on exhibit at the AG Poulain Municipal Museum in Vernon, France. The Carroll County Arts Council has helped him secure shipping for the exhibit from Air France and crating from Black & Decker Corp.

The Arts Council has arranged for Mr. Walter to be an artist-in-residence at Carroll's five high schools when he returns VTC from France in the fall. The state-run program will allow Mr. Walter to share his experiences in France with students.

Dr. Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute in Ridgefield, .. Conn., first commissioned Mr. Walter when they met in 1986. She now owns five of his works, including a life-size chimp titled ++ "Contemplation," which is in front of the institute.

"I had never [sculpted] a chimp or even a monkey before," Mr. Walter said about the project. "I was a bit intimidated."

Today, Mr. Walter is considered one of the premier depictors of animals, said Bill Bishop, owner of galleries in Arizona and Colorado, who sells some of Mr. Walter's works. He said even artist Ken Bunn, an acclaimed animal sculptor, admired Mr. Walter's work at Mr. Bishop's gallery.

"Most artists don't notably like their competitors," Mr. Bishop said.

Although his sculptures appear loose and unfinished, Mr. Walter is able to create the anatomy accurately while capturing the soul of the animal, said Russell A. Fink, owner of Fink Gallery in Lorton, Va., and a member of the Waterfowl Festival's art advisory committee.

"Very few [sculptors] can do that," he said. "You can tell he's done his homework he's got what the animal is all about."

Mr. Walter doesn't attend to realistic details, such as fur and feathers. He focuses on the raw naturalness of the animal, not taming the form by smoothing and detailing it.

"I try to get the essence of the creature, to master the movement and gesture," Mr. Walter said. "I sculpt until I get that, then I stop, instead of continuing to perfect the surface."

Mr. Walter has always been interested in sculpture, but majored in biology at Hiram College in Ohio, following his father's wishes, he said.

It wasn't until after college, when he was taking a year off before attending graduate school, that he returned to art. He never went back to biology.

His studies of wild animals did pay off, however. Mr. Walter has a scientific understanding of animals, how they function and move, that enables him to form his figures with relative ease.

For about a decade, Mr. Walter carved birds out of wood, first, making a rough clay model before beginning the final, and perfected, work. He said he would spend months trying to copy in wood what he had done in clay.

"I was trying to add all the surface detail, right down to the last barb on each feather," he said.

Then he had a revelation.

"One day when trying to capture the essence of a bird in wood that I had already captured in clay, I thought, 'What am I doing? This is crazy! I already have what I want in clay,' " Mr. Walter said.

Mr. Walter's works mirror life because he studies wild animals in their habitat.

Where does he go for his research? That depends on the subject, he said.

For the geese, he made use of the Westminster Community Pond. And for more than a year he was licensed to keep a golden eagle in his back yard.

When he was sculpting for Dr. Goodall, Mr. Walter said he "had wanted to go to the primary research spots [in Africa] but couldn't." Instead he went to a zoo, read all her books and watched every video she had on her work with primates.

But as with all artists, his pieces are not just hard work and research.

"I use my imagination, too," Mr. Walter said with a smile.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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