Beastie Revival

BY JOAN ELOVITZ  |  PHOTO BY DOUG EDMUNDS

Beware the Beasties. No, it’s not a horror movie. The Beastie Safari is a citywide art installation of 42 colorful, whimsical animals that have already invaded a variety of locations throughout Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. 21 Beasties will be on display alongside the living beasts at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

What does this mean for our city? 42 cool, artsy backgrounds for Instagram selfies, an awesome tourist attraction and a unique fundraising opportunity for one of Milwaukee’s most important institutions.

Jodi Gibson, CEO of the Milwaukee County Zoological Society, is thrilled with the philanthropic aspect of the Beastie Safari. “Our goal is to raise at least $24 million through private donations,” she says. In keeping with the Beastie theme, the funds generated by corporations and individuals who sponsor these works of art will be used for much needed upgrades to the zoo.

“Through this project, we have the opportunity to reimagine what Adventure Africa looks like, which would include the elephant, hippos, rhinos, zebras and impalas,” Gibson adds. “The Beastie Safari has the potential to transform 25 percent of the developed footprint of the zoo.”

One can only speculate how happy the Beasties would be, knowing that their mere existence will mean a better life for real animals. “The funds raised from this campaign will create dramatically more space for our elephants and allow us to add additional elephants in the future,” she explains. “The Milwaukee County Zoo is the only zoo within a six-hour drive that has elephants. Our elephants serve as ambassadors for their species, since most people will never have the chance to see them for themselves in Africa.”

Where do Beasties come from? Wisconsin, of course, just like the man who created them. Madison native Dennis Pearson is every bit as creative and whimsical as his artwork. When this self-proclaimed hippie met an up-and-coming artist named Andy Warhol in New York in 1965, Pearson had an idea percolating in his wonderfully quirky mind. He shared the idea for unique, abstract figures and Warhol was intrigued. Warhol encouraged Pearson to develop the concept and that was all the inspiration Pearson needed to move forward.

“I was doing color lithographs in abstract forms and I started to see animal shapes. I made the animal shapes out of papier-mâché and my goal was to make something that looked make-believe, like a child did it,” Pearson recalls. The idea for coating the figures in fiberglass came serendipitously. Pearson’s twin brother, David, owned a Corvette shop in Madison and Pearson decided to put the readily available fiberglass to good use.

“My Beasties like to live outdoors. I took the same material they use to make Corvettes and boats and put it over the papier-mâché. They’re hand laminated, it’s labor intensive and can take a few weeks,” says Pearson. But the resulting figures and benches are durable enough to withstand the harshest of weather conditions.

Durability is important for Beasties, which live in a wide range of climates all over the world. “They’re in Des Moines, Iowa, at a playground in Christchurch, New Zealand; there’s one at the Francis Parker School in Chicago’s Lincoln Park,” Pearson adds.

In 1987, Pearson and his Beasties went to Washington, a highlight for both the Beasties and their proud creator. “I was invited to exhibit my animals at the Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn when Ronald Regan was president … it was a great day,” he adds.

The Beasties might be Dennis Pearson’s most famous creations but this prolific artist’s collections include an impressive array of lithographs, paintings and stained glass. Pearson’s creations include a stained-glass dome for the Long Grove Confectionery Co. in suburban Chicago and 40 stained glass panels for the Madison Civic Center.    

Pearson recently returned to Wisconsin after almost two decades in New Zealand, where he was inspired by the breathtaking surroundings and scenery. “New Zealand has a different quality of light, which I noticed the first time I got off the plane in Auckland. The light is more intense and I fell in love with the country,” he says. But the chance to contribute to the art scene back home compelled Pearson to return to Wisconsin. “I decided to move back here to work on these big projects,” he explains.       

From left to right: Becki Lyyski, Kelley Levinson, Dennis Pearson, Chris Keene, Jolie Collins and Peggy Farrell

This isn’t the first time Beasties have taken over Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Beastie Beat project was Wisconsin’s largest public art display, featuring more than 100 of the lovable creatures in 2002-2004. “The Beastie Beat fundraiser raised over a half million dollars for music education for over 70,000 children,” Pearson says. “I created the original forms and other artists decorated them. That’s how this project is going with the zoo; they’ll auction them off at the end of the summer.”

How did these creatures get their name? From an unknown art lover. In 1962, Pearson won the very first Lakefront Festival of Art’s top painting prize, where he brought a few of the creatures along on a whim. “I had made these little fiberglass animals and I just put them on a table. I hadn’t even developed a good painting process but a woman noticed them and said, ‘What are these?’ She was with another woman who answered, ‘They’re Beasties.’ The name just stuck,” Pearson recalls.    

Pearson doesn’t take himself or his art too seriously and his quirky sense of humor comes through in every conversation. But Pearson does take his supporters and fans seriously and appreciates their ongoing support. “My work makes people smile,” he says. “But I’m just an old, beatnik hippie,” he adds with a chuckle.

With a deeply serious appreciation for his incredible gifts and talents, Pearson credits God for his successes, big and small. “This is a blessing from God; it’s all a blessing. Maybe God sent an angel – that woman at the Lakefront Art Festival – to come to me and give me the Beastie name.”

Divine intervention notwithstanding, Milwaukee residents and tourists should take full advantage of Dennis Pearson’s artistic gifts by enjoying his beloved Beasties at the zoo, at a special exhibit at this year’s Cedarburg Strawberry Festival and all over town.

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