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From the Vault: Animals! exhibit

Submitted Photo “Chanticleer,” 1954, casein on masonite, by Cecile Foster. Roswell Assistance League 1954 Circle Show Purchase Award.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Aubrey Hobart

Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

Roswell Museum and Art Center

Since ancient times, humans on every continent have told stories about animals. The animals might be disruptive trickster figures, like the coyote in many indigenous American traditions, or Anansi the spider in West Africa, personality archetypes like in Aesop’s Greek fables or Chinese astrology, or powerful mythical beings as in pharaonic Egypt or the aboriginal Australian “Dreamtime.” Animals play an enormous role in our storytelling and always have.

Animals! is the newest exhibition at the Roswell Museum and Art Center, and it showcases all the critters in our collection. From bugs to buffalo, cats to canines, deer to dinosaurs, fish to fowl and rats to roadrunners, this show features all your favorite creatures who have a story to tell.

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One example is a piece by Cecile Foster, which RMAC purchased in 1954, that depicts four stylized chickens in a barnyard. Only the title, “Chanticleer” gives us a hint as to the medieval story behind this artwork.

A rooster named Chanticleer lived on a farm with his three hen-wives. His father was renowned far and wide for his lovely crowing and Chanticleer seemed to be following in his footsteps. One day, a fox arrived at the farm and asked to hear Chanticleer sing. Being vain and proud, he crowed as beautifully as he could. The fox said he enjoyed the song, but he’d heard of Chanticleer’s father, and wondered if his son could sing even more sweetly if he closed his eyes and extended his neck.

Flattered, Chanticleer did as the fox suggested, but before he could begin to crow, the fox snapped his jaws around the rooster’s exposed throat and ran off with his delicious prize. The nearby farm workers and their dog, noticing the commotion, immediately began chasing after the fox. From his position in the fox’s jaws, Chanticleer called out that a brave fox would turn around and fight his pursuers. His pride stung, the fox turned around, and as he opened his mouth to bark defiance, Chanticleer was able to make his escape. (The story is part of “The Canterbury Tales,” a story collection that was written between 1387 and 1400 by Geoffrey Chaucer.)

If you grew up with the stories of Aesop or Hans Christian Andersen, this story may feel a little unusual. That’s because no one won or lost at the end, but both of the main characters learned an important lesson about gullibility and pride. Now imagine this story with human actors instead — without animals, it loses much of its charm.

While this one is a fictional tale, other stories about animals featured in this show are absolutely true. There are two artworks in the exhibition by Roderick Mead that feature seagulls. Not commonly found in a desert community like ours, they did once save a town in arid Utah. According to the story, huge swarms of crickets descended on Salt Lake City in 1848. It was thought to be a biblical plague and a judgment against the settlers who had to watch their crops be eaten before their very eyes. All hopes for surviving the winter dwindled.

The townspeople tried everything, including burning the crickets, drowning them, and burying them, but there were too many and they just kept coming. When all hope seemed lost, the sky was suddenly filled with the sound of wing beats and harsh cries. Thousands of seagulls descended on the area, snatching up every cricket in sight. The gulls came every day until no crickets remained. They saved the town and the people survived the winter, which is why an ocean bird from California is now the official state bird of Utah.

Other works in the show have more personal stories attached to them. Dorothy Brett, for example, needed to make Christmas cards in 1943. These days, we have a set number of images that symbolize the holiday, like Santa Claus, Rudolph, candy canes, holly, snowmen, or the Nativity, but Brett was making her cards before these ideas were solidified, so all her friends got a shiny goldfish card that year.

And just as we take photographs of our pets whenever they’re doing something funny or cute, Howard Cook sketched his dog Blackie with his right ear cocked up in a charming fashion. Elmer Schooley is another artist who featured a pet in his work. In his case, it was a lazy cat named Yellow Tail whom he caught napping under a Japanese shrub.

Whether you like common domesticated animals and pets like chickens, dogs and horses; exotic animals like orangutans, elephants and badgers; or silly animals like tattooed cows, tar-paper rats and watermelon butterflies, there is something for you and every member of your family in our exhibit Animals!

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