Gorillas inspire pastel exhibition at Butler

Bob Ziering started creating the images that make up “Twilight of the Gorilla” in the early 1990s.

“I was always terribly interested in the safety and preservation of wild gorillas,” Ziering said during a telephone interview from his home in New York City.

“It’s such a remarkable species, in some ways so similar to us. I just felt it was imperative for me through my artwork to make some sort of statement about endangerment through my artwork that would not turn people off but attract people,” he said.

Those pastel works will be featured in an exhibition opening Sunday at the Butler Institute of American Art.

The first “Twilight” show was at New York’s Central Park Zoo in 1994. A 1999 show at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo was the first art exhibition ever hosted there. The reactions to those zoo shows made Ziering believe he had accomplished his goal.

“I was very pleased to see the reactions and hear the reactions of people at the exhibits,” he said. “I remember distinctly a couple of children who remarked to their parents, ‘What’s wrong here?’ That they were aware in the pictures, in the images that I created, that something wasn’t quite right. Wow, I’ve accomplished something if kids were reacting this way.”

The Youngstown show came about after Butler Executive Director Louis Zona saw one of the pieces in an exhibition by the Pastel Society of America in New York three years ago, and Zona asked if he could show the work in Youngstown.

“It appeared at the Butler, and he must have remembered it,” Ziering said. “Last year he offered me a (solo) show. I was thrilled.”

In the release announcing the exhibition, Zona says, “Bob Ziering’s affection and concern for the quickly disappearing ape population is obvious. This exhibition not only reveals the artist’s sensitivity toward these remarkable animals, but the work also asks us to look at these subjects as visually fascinating creatures. Ziering employs an expressionistic approach, emphasizing both line and textural qualities in the work. The artist has created a body of work which is important on many levels.”

Ziering worked as an illustrator for much of his career, creating pieces for Fortune 500 companies as well as the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera and Cirque du Soleil.

Pastels are his chosen medium for his own work, and he said it is well-suited to the subject matter, allowing him to add bold swaths of color.

“I’m not a painter, but I feel I came close with this dry, messy, dirty medium,” he said.

He studied gorillas in captivity when he started creating the images for “Twilight.” In the last year, he traveled to Rwanda and Uganda to see the animals in their natural habitat for the first time.

“Here I was in their territory,” Ziering said. “Seeing them in the flesh for the first time was absolutely exceptional. I’d seen gorillas around the country in zoos, wherever they were in captivity, but not mountain gorillas. They’re not in captivity anywhere in the world. Seeing the species that was my subject … was a singular experience.”

Ziering said he is happy with those original images — “I felt I had gotten a great deal correct,” he said — but the trip has made him want to revisit the topic.

“I just want to do more and from a different vantage point. The endangerment situation is somewhat different now. Poaching now is under control. The gorillas are growing, as far as the numbers, It’s growing very slowly, but still, it’s growing.”