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The Naturalist & the Trickster

Differing perceptions of nature

“Coyote Bone Crayons,” box of cast crayons by RYAN! Fedderson, courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: RYAN! Fedderson

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What an odd pairing: John James Audubon, the 18th and 19th century artist famous for precise drawings of birds and mammals, and RYAN! Fedderson, Native American artist now living in Tacoma known for contemporary interactive murals and mixed-media art. What they have in common is respect for nature and concern over humankind's impact on the environment. But artistically they are as different as a wolf and box of crayons.

Audubon is most famous for his multi-volume Birds of America series and slightly lesser known for the series that followed, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, a study of mammals, from which his art in The Naturalist & the Trickster at Tacoma Art Museum is drawn.

"Juxtaposing these two artists will present a very immersive and thought-provoking experience regarding perceptions of the natural world and relationships between humans and the environment," said Faith Brower, TAM's Haub Curator of Western American Art.

Audubon's precise illustrations of animals are important as nature studies, but as art they are boring. There is little concern for composition. His colors, though naturalistic, are dull. And what little emotion they depict seems artificial. 

Fedderson's work, by contrast, is vivacious and playful and colorful. The pièce de résistance in this show is her 75-foot long interactive mural "Coyote Now Epic," which narrates the adventures of Coyote, known in many Native cultures as The Trickster, a cunning prankster. In this narrative, which stretches wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, Coyote confronts the modern world with its rules and regulations, its computers and its destruction of nature. It is a comic-book-style mural with lyrical, flowing lines in black on white. And it is interactive. Visitors are invited to color it with special crayons Fedderson cast in the shape of coyote bones and which are displayed in and in front of a crayon box. As displayed, the crayons have a pop-art flair. There are special activity times set aside for coloring the mural: Thursday from 5-8 p.m., second Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Earth Day, Sunday, April 19 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

When I visited the show, only small portions of the mural had been colored, and I loved the interaction of the colored areas with vast expanses of black and white. It should prove interesting to see how this changes over time. I hope TAM will document the progress.

Feddersen is also showing a number of glass vessels with images of Coyote and coyote bones. These are elegant in shape and simple in design, with shiny primary colors.

"Feddersen's engaging storytelling presents a contemporary perspective on the interactions of humans, animals, and the natural world in humorous and compelling ways," Bower said.

THE NATURALIST & THE TRICKSTER, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, through May 10, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, $12-$55, free Third Thursday, 253.272.4258,

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