By Amy Dee Stephens (ZooSounds, Winter 2013, reprinted with permission)
During a recent trip to the zoo, artist, Patrick Riley, had a personal experience with Chandra the rhino that inspired him to create a leather mask in his honor. The mask, titled Chandra, is now part of a series of animal masks on display at a local art gallery.
Riley is best known for his sculptures and mask creations, especially those of animals.
“I like animals because they are an important part of our culture,” Riley said. “All the cultures in the world have made animal masks.”
Earlier in the year, the Oklahoma State Supreme Court unveiled Riley’s 28-foot, stainless steel eagle sculpture. The eagle, represented as an oversized mask, is a permanent feature of the building. He was also commissioned to create a mask for musician, Lady Gaga, which was presented to her at her 2010 concert at the Ford Center. Although it didn’t include an animal element, he still chose nature in the form of lightning bolts to represent her “dark side.”
Riley asserts that animals are an impetus for his art. During our 40-minute phone interview, he also proved his ability to create animal art under any circumstance.
“I hope you don’t mind, but while we talk, I’m going to keep sculpting a totem pole,” Riley said. “It’s of an eagle, buffalo and bear to represent the Native American peoples. Now let me tell you, the zoo has been a part of my entire life. My grandparents lived at NE 10th street, so every time I came to their house, we went to the zoo. I met Luna, the elephant back in the 1940s. I helped raise money to buy Judy the elephant, and I remember that fearsome Carmichael the polar bear.”
Riley interrupted his memories to say “Hi!” to some kids in the distance. I heard them return the greeting and ask him a few questions.
“Sorry about that,” Riley said returning to our conversation. “I’m at an elementary school in Shawnee, working as an artist-in-residence. We’ve been learning about coastal Indians and how they used totem poles. The kids made small animal totems with paper and masking tape, and then we constructed this 8-foot one. Right now, I’m putting the concrete on it while I’m talking to you.”
He jumped back into his discussion about the zoo.
“I’ve been teaching art for forty-eight years. Back in the mid-sixties, I directed a summer program called Creative Arts Lab. Every day we took our kids to the zoo and used it as a catalyst to teach visual arts, creative writing and music. That program was the prelude to the Oklahoma Arts Institute.”
“I started making masks in the 1970s and had the good fortune to show them in New York City at an art show on Madison Avenue. Back then, I used a lot of different feathers, but that was before the Migratory Bird Act. See, back when I was young, we had no vision that animals could cease to exist in the wild. Kids these days have a totally different approach to animals; that they should preserve and photograph animals instead of kill them.”
Once again, Riley broke his train of thought to comment that the concrete bison on the totem pole was almost done. “I hope it will set up, but there are a few spots that look like they want to cave in.”
After a brief pause, he continued. “Back when I taught at John Marshall High School, I took lots of kids to the zoo to draw. We even did a mural of a big snake near the prairie dog exhibit in old 1970s Children’s Zoo. I’m walking history to the fact that kids can be successful if they stay involved in arts, not just academics. Our whole society is art based! Look at TV; it’s all about visual drama, commercial advertising, and graphic design. Art is everywhere.”
“But the real reason you called is to ask me about Chandra the rhino. About six months ago, it was a pretty day, so I brought my easel to the zoo to draw. Chandra was sitting on his side, taking it slow and easy. I was drawing a picture of him but the sun shifted and reflected right off that white paper into his eyes. He was up and at em’ in about ten seconds. He jumped up on all fours, looking me over. He was so active and so wild, just like he’s supposed to be, that I had to take a photograph of him. I decided right then to make a leather rhino mask to tell that story.”
“My art show also features masks inspired by the zoo’s bears and eagle from Oklahoma Trails, and one of your elephants, also named Chandra. That new elephant exhibit, now, that is really spectacular. I know the InAsMuch Foundation helped fund it.”
“Hold on, let me say ‘Hi’ to these kids. They’ve been dropping by between classes all day to watch me work on the totem. They are going ‘Wow,’ because they are experiencing art first hand, not just seeing the final product. Seeing that process changes their approach to how art is made. Maybe they will want to try something themselves. Maybe they will come to the zoo and be inspired, like I was.”
Patrick Riley’s art is currently on display at the JRB Art Gallery in the Oklahoma City Paseo Arts District.