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3/2/2018 12:37:00 PM
COMMENTARY: Artists look beyond the dark side of crows in Terre Haute exhibit
Scanning the artwork: Arts Illiana visitors Sujata Gopalan (right) and Stefanie Pichonnat look at the pieces in the gallery’s 2018 Crow Show on Tuesday afternoon. Staff photo by Mark Bennett
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Scanning the artwork: Arts Illiana visitors Sujata Gopalan (right) and Stefanie Pichonnat look at the pieces in the gallery’s 2018 Crow Show on Tuesday afternoon. Staff photo by Mark Bennett
Twist on a classic: Artist Bonnie Wilson painted this piece, “Triple Self Portrait by Norman Crowwell,” a crow-based twist of Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Triple Self Portrait.” Staff photo by Mark Bennett
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Twist on a classic: Artist Bonnie Wilson painted this piece, “Triple Self Portrait by Norman Crowwell,” a crow-based twist of Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Triple Self Portrait.” Staff photo by Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett, Tribune-Star

A gallery full of crow art and "Seinfeld" share a common virtue.

Writers and actors on that classic TV series could find humor in any subject, no matter how taboo.

Forty-one artists achieved a similar feat with "The Crow Show" at Arts Illiana in downtown Terre Haute. They're challenging residents of one of America's most crow-splotched cities to smile and, yes, admire the big black birds. One piece features a gumball dispenser offering two types — black gumballs bearing a crow image, and white ones representing the critters' droppings. 

A few feet away, a life-like painting depicts five scruffy crows, perched on the guardrail of a bridge over a river. Also hanging on the walls is an artist's self-portrait of "Me As a Crow," showing him shirtless (crows don't wear clothes) and wearing a fake beak.

"People are amused by it," Jon Robeson, Arts Illiana's executive director said Tuesday, strolling through the 62-piece exhibit. "This is an example of fine art that's very accessible to people."

"And beautiful," added Daniel Allen, an Arts Illiana staffer.

The exhibit opened last month and continues through April 20, when a variety of awards will be announced. Those decisions will be made by guest juror Jeff Scher, a New York painter and filmmaker who's created music videos for Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Scher will have plenty of candidates. Artists from nine states submitted more than 90 entries, including several from the Wabash Valley. Scher whittled that field to 62, which comprises the current exhibit.

The works of painters and sculptors from elsewhere catch eyes, portraying the majestic side of the crows — cutting a stark, distinguished black profile amid skies decorated with swirls of clouds and colorful sunsets.

And then there's an action figure-style sculpture of a crow sumo wrestler. Terre Haute artist Michael Tingley crafted that one, along with the "Me As a Crow" self-portrait and others. 

Mythology fans will enjoy David Erickson's multi-dimensional "Freyja Rallies Her Flock," with the Norse goddess mounted on an airborne crow. Hauteans who've witnessed the annual invasion of 30,000 to 60,000 of the winged creatures known officially by ornithologists as corvus brachyrhynchos need no further explanation than the titles of other pieces such as Wesley Armstrong's "Parking Under Trees" and Sheila Ter Meer's "Drop Zone." (That's why locals often use other names for the crows that aren't so scientific.)

Long-time residents will instantly recognize the Alfred Hitchcock-ish images of dark, flapping figures swarming above Terre Haute landmarks the Indiana Theatre, the Vigo County Courthouse and Sonka Irish Pub and Cafe in pieces by Mike Swagerle.

Such scenes still cause me to stare in amazement at the phenomenon of nature — thousands of crows flying into downtown at dusk after they'd grazed all day in the farm fields along the Wabash River. Of course, I'm usually running for cover toward my truck in the parking lot in those grand moments, grumbling with every step.

"The Crow Show" gives viewers a break, perhaps just briefly, from perceiving the crows as merely havoc makers. To take that artistic touch "and make it into a cultural exhibit that's really fun adds to the Terre Haute flavor," Robeson said.

Visitors seem to like the display, the second crow show at Arts Illiana since the first in 2016.

"This is essentially a celebration of we consider vermin," said Sujata Gopalan, who toured the exhibit Tuesday with a friend, Stefanie Pichonnat.

"I think crows are a bit mysterious," Pichonnat said.

And smart. And abundant. This winter's Terre Haute roost appears to be one of the largest in years, and increasingly unfazed by tactics aimed at shooing the birds toward rural areas at night.

Most will have left town by the April 20 closing reception for "The Crow Show." They typically arrive in October and depart in March. As intelligent as the crows are, they likely have no idea of the inspiration they've provided for artists.

Then again, maybe they do. One painting in the exhibit — "Tough Critics" by Jo Rich-Vadas — shows five crows strutting on the sidewalk outside Arts Illiana and peering through the windows to see 2016's "Crow Show." If crows laugh, they probably got the last one that night.

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Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR


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