Live Alligator Among Wild Animal Models at TriBeCa Art Class

By Irene Plagianos on February 26, 2014 7:12am | Updated on February 26, 2014 12:23pm

TRIBECA — In this art class, more than the imagination runs wild.

New York Academy of Art’s “Man and Beast” course is bringing the natural world into the classroom, with live models that just might bite.

An alligator, a 10-year-old tortoise named Tank, two slithering pythons, frogs, lizards and a snapping turtle became muses for a class of 14 graduate art students on Tuesday at the TriBeCa academy.

“It’s the complexity, the beauty, the design of animals — the color and the variety of the natural world that makes this so exciting,” said Wade Schuman, creator and teacher of the course, now in its second year at the school. “When do you ever get to see live animals roam around a classroom? It’s certainly a unique experience.”

The cold-blooded crew for the daylong class arrived in several large plastic containers, courtesy of the New Jersey reptile rescue group Snakes-N-Scales.

“You know, more people are killed being squished by vending machines each year than eaten by alligators,” said Jack O’Donnell of the organization, reassuring students as he brought  out a year-and-a-half-old alligator that hissed and squirmed in his hands. “Oh, but crocodiles, yeah, they’ll eat you.”

Students gasped, laughed and said "wow" as O’Donnell carefully lifted each creature out of its carrying case while describing, along with Schuman, some of their interesting traits.

Most of the animals were then placed in glass containers, so students could get an up-close look at the claws, scales, colors and split tongues of the models.

Tank the tortoise, however, was allowed to slowly meander through the classroom. After a few minutes, he tuckered out, falling asleep soon after student Erinn Heilman began to sketch him.

“I chose to draw him because he looks like a landscape to me, like rock formations,” said Heilman, 38, a New York native. “All these patterns are beautiful — I’ve never seen or touched these animals up close.”

Another student, Sarah Novio, 24, chose to paint, in watercolor, the jungle carpet python, a long, thinner snake covered in yellow, black and brown hues.

“I think his colors are wonderful, and I think it’s an interesting challenge to paint something that’s moving around so much,” said Novio. “I’m an animal lover but I’ve always been afraid of snakes, so this is sort of helping me work through that fear, too.”

Novio wasn't the only student with at least a bit of a snake phobia.

“Snakes — most of them just want to get away from you,” said Schuman, as O’Donnell showed off a several-foot-long dracula python. “They’re not trying to go after you.”

“And they’re not slimy,” he added, as he encouraged students to touch the heavy reptile, covered in brownish-red and ivory scales.

“That was weird,” said Arcmanoro Niles, 24 after holding a small, skinny hognose snake that slithered through his fingers. “I’ve never touched a snake. I guess I was a little scared.”

Schuman, a faculty chairman at the Academy who says he’s always had “kind of an obsession with zoology,” said it took some time to convince the school to allow a variety of animals for the weekly course into the building, but it's now become one of the most popular classes at the school.

“We pride ourselves on teaching the natural form here,” said Schuman, an instructor for more than 20 years. “We teach anatomy, perspective — and teaching the rest of the natural world, everything that surrounds us, should be an important piece of what we do.”

Other animals on the syllabus include chickens, turkeys, goats, pigs, ponies, owls, fish and insects, and wrangling them all is sometimes a challenge, Schuman admitted.

“The other week, two turkeys got into a fight, the smell of a male goat nearly filled up the entire school...and we almost lost a chicken on Franklin Street," he said. "At least you can't say the class is dull."

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