Bestiary

Frenzel Gallery (ongoing)

The Bestiary, a compendium of real and imaginary animals, was a popular theme for illuminated manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. Modeled after an ancient Greek text, Physiologus, the Bestiary featured North African animals accompanied by moral narratives of the beasts’ imagined traits and habits. Vestiges of these images, symbols, and interpretations persist in art and literature to the current day.

Betty Schabacker’s (American, b. 1925) fanciful beasts might have leaped from the pages of the Bestiary. A rhino is rendered in blocky squares of fabric, stained in colors of dust and mud. The graceful necks of two giraffes blend with the dappled leaves of the forest canopy. An owl is feathered with print fabric, its feet fringed. The hippo is assembled from curving ovals, circles and dots, and compressed into a square canvas. A soft sculpture completes the menagerie: a sleepy lion stitched from orangey fabric lying peacefully beside a small wooly lamb.

A military daughter and wife, Betty Schabacker put down roots in Erie after her husband retired in 1965, after decades of relocating from base to base. However, she continued to travel, making two trips to Africa and one to India, where she observed the animals that appear in her collages and paintings. Many of these works from the Museum’s collection were purchased from an Erie Art Museum exhibition in 1985, shortly before Schabacker moved to North Carolina. Schabacker has had more than 20 one-person shows, and is still making art at 92. Although she works in all media, she is best known for her fabric and mixed media collages of animals.

This Frenzel Gallery exhibition includes a fanciful folk art carousel created by self-taught artist Louis Dartanion Alexatos (American, 1921 – 2006). One of the artist’s earliest works, this kinetic sculpture was created in 1960 and displayed at Fox’s Harrisburg grocery store until it closed in 2006. Known as a “menagerie machine,” the carousel includes a variety of animals on the base, with Christian iconography decorating the carousel’s upper level. Robed characters pray, present offerings, and make supplications—flanked by a Christ figure and a grinning Devil carrying a sack of “SOULS.” Lunettes between the figures illustrate scenes from the Bible.

Animal paintings and sculptures by self-taught artists are also featured in Bestiary. These include paintings by Alabama father and daughter Mose and Annie Tollison, a fierce self-portrait by Jason Tennant, and sculptures by artists both known and anonymous made from wood, wire, and paint.