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National Aviary’s Wings & Wildlife Art Show showcases the beauty of the natural world |
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National Aviary’s Wings & Wildlife Art Show showcases the beauty of the natural world

Johno Prascak and Maria DeSimone Prascak went on their first date after meeting at an art show at the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Side in 1988.

On Nov. 2, the couple again combined their love of each other and love of art at that same location.

The duo from the South Side Slopes was part of the National Aviary Maker Challenge, a social enterprise generously founded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

Their masterpieces, along with works of other talented artists, filled the halls at the aviary for the fourth annual Wings & Wildlife Art Show, a juried exhibition and marketplace of nature-themed work.

The breadth of artistic styles reflects nature’s variety, says Cheryl Tracy, the aviary’s executive director.

“I love that the National Aviary is in Pittsburgh,” says Prascak, who has fond memories of visiting when he was a child. “I love to see the aviary like this as an art gallery. It’s a special place to us.”

Prascak works in mixed media of paint, enamel and sand. He uses enamel paints mixed with sand from the Monongahela River on canvas. His wife paints large murals and canvas art using acrylics; she’s done many commissions for Sarris Candies in Canonsburg. She also works in watercolor. Her inspiration is wildlife and nature.

“Our first art show here became a love affair with each other and with the aviary,” DeSimone Prascak says. “I love birds. I think I was a robin in another life. This feels like you have escaped to a tropical paradise. I would live here if I could.”

Wings & Wildlife embodies the intersection of cultural enrichment and science, showcasing the beauty of the natural world to inspire respect for nature, through an appreciation of birds, Tracy says.

The more than 200 guests enjoyed the art, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, silent and live auctions and dessert as well as entry into the many attractions of the aviary from the natural rainforest to the grasslands to Penguin Point. Proceeds benefit the aviary’s conservation, education and animal care initiatives.

WTAE-TV news anchor Michelle Wright auctioneered seven sought-after items that brought in more than $10,000, such as a Pittsburgh Steelers tailgate, Atria’s catered party for 20, dinner prepared in your home by renowned chef Josef Karst, a weeklong stay at Black Skimmer on Metompkin Bay, a nature adventure at Cave Creek Ranch in Portal, Arizona, a night with “Hamilton” the Broadway musical which includes tickets, dinner and an overnight stay at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco, Downtown Pittsburgh, and a chance to own a piece of National Aviary history with four original 1952 window panes from the tropical rainforest. One of the four pieces of heirloom glass art broke that evening, so Tracy so graciously donated hers to complete the set which went for $2,000.

Total raised from the event were still being calculated as of Nov. 4.

Wright, with Tony Landolina, says the aviary is one of the oldest cultural treasures of Pittsburgh. The aviary features more than 500 birds of 150-plus species from around the world.

It is known for being at the forefront of environmental education, field research and veterinary innovation, integrating avian conservation into every aspect of its work to help preserve the natural world for future generations.

Hosting the maker challenge was a chance to not only showcase the work of these talented artists, but also maybe attract a new audience or bring back guests who hadn’t been there in a long time, Tracy says. Over an 18-month period, 40 artists and makers from seven states were paired with a bird species and the products were featured in the gift shop. Some items will be sold through December. A public art show was held Nov. 3-4.

“This maker challenge re-introduced me to the aviary, and introduced me to animal species I didn’t know were here,” says artist April Minech of McKees Rocks, whose medium is digital collage and illustration.

Minech, whose art is inspired through her love of animals and volunteering at animal shelters, created not only works of dogs and cats but expanded to include animals such as butterflies and an armadillo for the show.

“I am all about supporting animal welfare, and I love using bright colors in my work,” Minech says. “And in this sometimes dark world, we need any kind of light. I was inspired when I came here at how much it had changed from what I remembered when I was a kid and how many programs they have and how much learning there is to do. And like a typical Pittsburgher, we ignore what’s under our noses, so I was happy to have an opportunity to come back here and see what’s going on.”

The Wings & Wildlife event had been held for years before taking a hiatus and returning four years ago.

“This artwork is so beautiful because it reflects nature and is a way to celebrate art and wildlife,” Tracy says. “This is a great event, because I love to see these products in our gift shop. We would like to continue this into next year because we have so many talented artists.”

Walking among the artists’ exhibits, we spotted Adam and Amanda Kenney, Ann and Peter Steenkiste, Christopher Parry, Gina Grone, Ginny Merchant and Jim Brainard, Jackie Dixon, Jane and Michael Dixon, Jennifer and Matt Reitzell, Jennifer and Keith Bertetto, John and Suzanne Graf, Kathleen and Louis Testoni, Larry Sachs and Sandy Preuhs, Lauren Schneider and Dean Thompson, Lisa Kuzma and John Burns, Maris Bondi and Robert Dauer, Mary Withrow, Michael and Eileen Flinn, Michael and Lisa Hart, Patricia Dodge and Howard Schulberg, Robert and Kathleen Struble, Robert and Patricia Orringer, Robert and Chelsea Rodgers, Susan and Christopher Farrell, Suzan Zmuda, Thea Martin and Mark Houmis, Thomas and Barbara Wiley, and Timothy and Joan Goetz.

JoAnne Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062 or [email protected] or via Twitter @Jharrop_Trib.

Trib CEO and President Jennifer Bertetto and Keith Bertetto with Mac the Military Macaw
Lisa Kuzma, senior program officer of the Richard King Mellon Foundation with Cheryl Tracy, executive director of the National Aviary at its fourgh annual Wings & Wildlife Art Show Soiree & Benefit Auction on Nov. 2
Ginny Merchant and Jim Brainard at the fourth annual Wings & Wildlife Art Show Opening Soiree & Benefit Auction at the National Aviary on Nov. 2 on Pittsburgh’s North Side
Live auction emcee and WTAE-TV anchor Michelle Wright with a Eurasian eagle owl
Featured artists and participants in the National Aviary Maker Challenge (from left), Jessica Botzan, Lindsay Wright, Lindsay Huff, Sarah Cohen, Allison Glancey, April Minech and Cheryl Tracy, executive director of the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Side gather on Nov. 2 at the fourth annual Wings & Wildlife Art Show opening and benefit auction.
Artists Maria DeSimone Prascak and Johno Prascak
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