This story was originally published in the 2012 June/July issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
Outside the Gombe Forest exhibit is a life-size bronze representation of one of the Chattanooga Zoo’s signature residents—Hank the chimpanzee. When he died at 42, Hank had already outlived the average life span of a chimpanzee in the wild. His intriguing story began with humans as part of a circus act and continued at the zoo where he spent many more years. His interaction with humans was the distinction for which he became known. Since the founding of the zoo during the privation of the Great Depression, when humans lived desperately and the plight of their animals was even more tenuous, much has been learned about how to care for the individual needs of various species. The proper care of exotic animals has been raised to an art form of sorts.
While fine art may not always be associated with zoo keeping, zoo officials say it raises the level of dignity for this rapidly evolving science. The sculpture of Hank, entitled “The Envoy” welcomes visitors from around the region with a familiar outstretched arm. Sculpted from silicone bronze, the artist seems to have captured Hank’s natural movement.
“I wanted him to be relaxed and reaching out to people,” says Bart Walter, renowned sculptor of animals in the wild. Walter cemented his relationship with his subjects almost 15 years ago when he had the good fortune to live among them for a while in Africa with conservationists there. “I remember waking up, looking through the trees with the chimpanzees busy all around us,” says Walter. “Chimpanzees are remarkably social within their own communities.” Walter travels extensively to make drawings and clay field studies in order to capture the gesture and spirit of the animal. Friends of the Zoo President, Gary Chazen, says, “Bart not only captured Hank’s likeness, but also his ability to communicate.”
The artist is best known for a large installation of five elk that stand outside the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming. There are few sculptors who create groups of animals, but Walter feels it more fully expresses the relationships of the creatures in the wild. Most recently he completed a pair of hunting lionesses for the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. “It makes more of a statement,” he says. “It’s like the sisterhood.” Through his inspiration, creativity and faithful casting, Walter has won the admiration of fine art curators and private collectors around the world. His studio is located in Westminster, Maryland.
Walter sculpted the first bronzes of a family of chimps for the Chattanooga Zoo in 2009. Private donations have made the sculpture installations possible.
“This is a very important sculpture for so many reasons. We believe it pays tribute not only to Hank, but to all the animals at the Chattanooga Zoo,” says President and CEO Darde Long. “And it represents a growing relationship with the city.”