By Maddie Orton
It’s the rare museum that holds both works of art and the subjects portrayed in them, but in a way, that’s what you find at The Blauvelt Art Museum. Two takes on animal conservation span two floors of this historic carriage house — formerly owned by early 20th century philanthropist, conservationist and collector Hiram Blauvelt and his family. On the bottom floor: wildlife art. On the top: taxidermy mounts.
James Bellis is the museum’s board president — he’s also Hiram Blauvelt’s great-nephew. “This is where the museum actually started, as nature museum,” he said upstairs, standing among the big game trophies. “It was all the mounts and all the trophies that my great-uncle had shot in North America, Europe, India and Africa, Asia. And we had a nature museum here for many, many years.”
Like Teddy Roosevelt and John James Audubon (for whom the Audubon Society is named), Blauvelt was both a hunter and a conservationist. He saw bringing back animals as a way to give people a closer look at what needed studying and protecting. Bellis says this later fell out of favor, and the museum shut its doors for a number of years in the ’70s and ’80s. Now its focus is wildlife art, and the museum is one of only a handful like it in the country.
“It is rare,” said Bellis. “A lot of the artists — the better ones, the good ones — they all travel, just like a big game hunter would. Instead of killing the animal, they paint the animal or get reference material so they can come back and sculpt what they see.”
Bellis says the museum has works by big names in the world of wildlife art, but their primary interest is fostering new artists — like Cathy Sheeter. She’s here from Colorado as the museum’s artist-in-residence and like many in her world, she has a multi-faceted background.
“I have a degree in animal science … with a specification in genetics,” Sheeter said. “I’m constantly thinking literally about the skeletal structure and the muscle structure that’s shaping, like, ‘Why is there a shadow being cast by the light? Oh, because the light protrudes because of the musculature and the bone.'”
Being on site to draw inspiration from the masters helps. So does seeing the animals up close.
“It’s great for the artists,” explained Bellis. “They really have an opportunity to get up very close these animals and look at the eyeballs and the lips and how the animal is structured. It’s a great resource for them.”
The museum doesn’t add to the collection of big game trophies — only works of art. And while that wasn’t Hiram Blauvelt’s original intention for the space, Bellis thinks his great-uncle would approve.
“He’d be absolutely delighted that the museum that he created, the nature museum, is still in existence today, and that it’s been expanded to be such a force in the wildlife art community,” said Bellis with a smile. “I think he’d be really, really happy.”