Viewing living anatomy is an essential component of many art educations, but rare are the classes where this extends beyond humans. At the New York Academy of Art in Tribeca, there is a biodiversity to visual perspective with horses, goats, possums, rabbits, sheep, owls, alligators, snakes, and other creatures great and small parading through the “Man and Beast” class.
The open elective course is now in its second year and is part of teacher and faculty chair Wade Schuman’s encouragement of a scientific perception in art. Students have been gathering each Tuesday morning this spring for either a room full of roaming animal models, or a field trip to places like the Bronx Zoo or American Museum of Natural History. Sometimes taxidermy or other preserved specimens are also used. “The animals are a way to understand the creativity of the universe,” Schuman said.
He also noted that with incoming students, working from the real world was rare. “People come in with no ability to draw from life, 90% of the time when I see applications, images are taken from photographs,” he said. “People’s ability to react in real time has atrophied.”
And unlike stoic human models, these subjects do not sit still. During my visit an exceptionally clumsy turkey was stomping through the center of the room as if it was his personal stage, while a furry, horned sheep nudged up against a student while she worked away on a drawing, and a little flock of chicks gathered in a tight bunch by the wall. A beige and white bunny, however, seemed content to be the center of attention on a pedestal. The sessions are timed so that everyone gets a break, human and animal alike, with a caretaker on hand.
The New York Academy of Art is noted for its detailed approach to the human figure, but the “Man and Beast” class is another way to experiment with mixing the perceptual with the conceptual in art. Students also create their own écorchés, building their own animal anatomy from the skeleton up, in addition to spending significant time with the challenges of depicting and responding to animal locomotion. While a turkey fight or goat licking your drawing pad might not make for the most calm of art making experiences, it’s also bringing that wildness and beauty of biology in an incredibly close way that you rarely get, especially in New York City. Schuman said he hopes to expand this nature and science approach with a whole cabinet of curiosities in the academy, so the complexities of the natural world will be explorable for art students developing their perspectives on life.
You can view more of Man & Beast in this video from the New York Academy of Art (111 Franklin Street, Tribeca, Manhattan).