Columbia artist paints murals that make zoo animals feel right at home

News-DemocratSeptember 22, 2013 

Patrick Weck is becoming more comfortable being a specimen under glass.

"I wasn't used to being watched while I worked," he said. "People would come up and tap on the glass and talk to me. Little kids would ask questions."

Patrick, 23, has been a muralist at the St. Louis Zoo for almost a year. Last week, he worked on the walls of one of the larger exhibits just inside the entrance to the Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium. It is home to about 3,700 reptiles and amphibians --everything from a tiny poisonous royal blue frog to the giant komodo dragon.

Paint brush in hand, he climbed a ladder inside the St. Louis Zoo's habitat for a variety of North American reptiles. For everybody's safety, the lizards, iguanas and gila monster were elsewhere.

That day's task: Touch up the sky and do a bit of correcting on the shape of buttes and peaks.

"This horizon needs to be straightened out," he said.

Even as a youngster, Patrick paid close attention to the texture, color and movement of the animals inside the displays.

"When I was a kid and came to the zoo, this was my favorite house," he said.

Now, he's on the inside looking out. He even created his own sign to prop up in exhibits when he's working. It's labeled "Painter: Homo Sapien Pictoris," with a description beneath it. (Patrick also has a blog about his work at the zoo. Go to artistinacage.blogspot.com.)

Built in 1927, the Herpetarium resembles a lush, exotic temple to the things that slither and slide; reside in the tropics, desert, mountains and even the Missouri Ozarks and live off of bugs and greens and, for some, thawed-out frozen mice.

Without some kind of background in their habitats, many would almost disappear among greenery, rocks and branches.

For decades, muralists have brought "nature" into the Herpetarium in the guise of wall paintings: Fronds of tropical greenery winding up walls, a rocky incline leading to a desert floor. Mountains against a puffy blue sky.

Patrick, who lives in Columbia, has an associate of fine arts degree from Southwestern Illinois College and a bachelor of arts from Hampshire College in Massachusetts. He was home-schooled by his parents, Bob Weck, an associate professor of biology and chairman of Life Science, Health and Physical Education at SWIC, and Nancy Weck, a sculpture and potter.

"From an early age he's been interested in it," said Bob Weck of his son. "He got the art from his mom and natural history from Dad."

For his first big job -- albeit part time -- tied to his artistic talent, it's pretty awesome. He wasn't even expecting to get paid.

"I contacted the zoo about a year ago and thought I could volunteer and work with the animals," he said. In his off time, he hoped to sit and sketch them.

Jeff Ettling, curator of the Herpetarium, saw a drawing Patrick had done of a Missouri Hellbender salamander, one of the largest and most endangered of its species.

"I'd made it for my dad's birthday gift," Patrick said.

It caught Jeff's eye and seemed a fortuitous introduction.

"In 2012, we were the first (zoo) to begin a captive breeding program" of that salamander, Jeff said.

The department hadn't had a muralist for about eight years, and habitats inside the 25,000-square-foot building needed updating, he said. Patrick was hired on a contractual basis.

His brush has touched about a dozen exhibits, brightening up faded murals, painting ones in disrepair, correcting landscape inaccuracies and extending existing murals upward to skylights that previously had been covered by lights and screening.

He learned that clean walls were essential and that oil paint could not be used because the fumes might harm the animals. It also takes time to match colors.

"I even took pictures and brought them home and my mom gave me advice." His 14-year-old sister Hannah, another budding artist, gave him an assist during a visit this summer. She stood outside an enclosure where he was touching up a bamboo mural, talking to him on her cell phone and pointing out spots he'd missed.

On a recent work day, he showed visitors his first full mural, inside the home of the black-headed python, a native of Australia. The glossy snake, which can reach 6 or more feet long, seemed to stretch itself upward on the back wall, almost pointing at Patrick's work.

"I didn't know what I was doing," Patrick said of starting the job. "I've painted on canvas and paper, but never a wall. I'd never painted a mural before."

So, he researched the habitat of the python, then began sketching.

Belleville resident Mark Wanner, manager of herpetores and aquatics, asked Patrick to include something that would be familiar to visitors and connect the snake to Australia.

The finished mural, which took more than 50 hours, has as its main focus Ayers Rock, one of Australia's most famous natural landmarks.

"He's come in and done incredible work," Mark said.

Patrick also created a rock formation on the side wall of the habitat and placed his handprints there. It was an homage to the aboriginal people who left behind rock art inside caves of the Outback.

"They would mix up a powder and put it in their mouth and blow" it over their hands on the rocks to make the images, he said. Patrick laughed and said he really wanted to do the same thing, but couldn't figure out the process and went with a powdery paint effect instead.

Patrick holds two other jobs, art instructor at Pen 2 Paper in Columbia and cashier at Rural King in Waterloo. Graduate school likely is on the horizon.

The murals have challenged him and let him be part of an important place, he said.

"You want it to look like a natural habitat," he said. "That makes it a cohesive experience."

And even adds a bit of whimsy: See if you can find what Patrick added to the sky in the North American reptile enclosure next time you're at the St. Louis Zoo.

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