Whimsical and wild things are living on the second floor of the Albany Institute of History and Art with the opening of “A Menagerie of Whimsey: The William B. Schade” and “Birds and Beasts: The Scary Magical, and Adorable Animals of the Albany Institute.”
At first glance, it’s humor that runs rampant through the Schade retrospective on exhibit at the Institute.
Whether it’s Schade’s caricatures of animals in his “Noah’s Ark” series or his books, like “Crocks,” there’s an undeniably quirky sense of humor, which runs throughout “A Menagerie of Whimsey.”
“[He] was like a modern-day Noah, or Noha as he spelled it,” said chief curator Douglas McCombs.
Schade was born in Albany in 1943 and lived in the area most of his life. Growing up, the artist, struggled through school because of his dyslexia, which comes out in some of his works. Yet, he went on to earn MFAs from the University at Albany and the Cranbrook Academy of Art and was a popular professor in Sage Colleges’ art department.
His work focused on animals, whether it was his paintings, drawings, fabric work, ceramics, or his ink drawings. Several of his pieces were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as Dartmouth College.
There is a sense of joy to the retrospective. In his gouache pieces of Noah’s Ark, Schade fills the bottom of the ark with elephants, despite the narrative that there were supposed to be two of each animal. Schade said that they balanced the boat out.
Not too far from the map of the ark sits a papier-mache pizza box from the Hippo Pizza Company and a container of Chinese food.
“It’s the last meal the Noah family had on the ark before they got out so they were celebrating. They had food delivered, brought in by birds,” McCombs said.
The Noah’s Ark story idea really stuck with Schade, said Thomas Branchick, longtime friend and companion of Schade.
“You never knew where he was going to go ... the Noah’s Ark [theme] just caught on like wildfire,” Branchick said.
In many of his portraits — or caricatures — of animals, Schade writes in comedic faux-scientific notes; as if he actually was Noah and had to remember features of all these animals. Most have misspellings, which Branchick said was due to Schade’s dyslexia. In “Assyrian Sharp Tooth Possem,” a piece with two of the creatures seem to be cackling and hanging upside down, he writes “spends lots of time up side down,” and “Finger hackers.”
While “A Menagerie of Whimsey,” shows the humorous side of Schade, it doesn’t shy away from the challenges the artist faced. A startling sketch of an abstract owl reflects a sense of pain before the viewer even knows the story behind the piece that took the artist two years to complete.
“It’s haunting to look at for me,” Branchick said.
Later in life, Schade was diagnosed with both Parkinsons’ and Alzheimers. The owl drawing, along with three others hanging next to it, was drawn as Schade struggled to hold a pencil.
“He would make two or three marks at a time,” Branchick said.
In the years before Schade died, he continued to do as much work as he could and took joy in the creation process.
“He never lost that desire to create, even though his physical body would not allow him to do the things that he used to do,” McCombs said.
“A Menagerie of Whimsey: The Art of William B. Schade,” will be on exhibit until Dec. 30.
“I can fill up two floors related to this theme, honestly,” said curator Diane Shewchuk.
“Birds and Beasts: The Scary, Magical, and Adorable Animals of the Albany Institute,” plays off of the Schade retrospective, but it brings to light exotic pieces of Albany’s history.
“I was shocked to find unicorns in our collection,” Shewchuk said. These were featured on the British coat of arms, on a grenadier hat and a powder horn, dated back the mid-1700s. The unicorn, which appears chained, symbolizes Scotland.
It’s one of the more mythical creatures included in the exhibition, though there’s a range of animals as well as eras, from 1619 to 2006. The face of an owl peeps out from an enamel compact, dated 1941. An iron Nipper Bank dog, a symbol which became the logo of RTA and an important symbol for Albany, found its way into the exhibition, dated from the 20th century. There are horse sculptures, painting and photographs in the hallway, mostly from the 19th century and then there’s a donkey named Sammy Huston.
The creature was created by Gertrude Lathrop, one of the few female artists of her time, and he brings to light a rather wild piece of political history. Lathrop presented a version of the Sammy Huston donkey to Al Smith, the former governor of New York. Smith had a zoo installed in the back of the governor’s mansion. It was well documented during the mid-1920s, but it has largely been forgotten about.
“He had a monkey named Joey, he had monkeys that would sort of get out of the cages and run around Albany [and] come back inside at night,” Shewchuk said. He also had a beloved donkey, named, of course, Sammy.
There are a few other bits of political history in the exhibition as well, including another piece by Lathrop. Eleanor Franklin Roosevelt commissioned Lathrop to paint a portrait of Eleanor’s daughter, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Dall, holding a bunny. The piece has never been shown, at least not at the Institute.
In “Birds and Beasts,” there are stories to discover and animals to meet, many of which played a role in the history of the Capital Region. The
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