The last place philanthropist Steve Wilson expected to see one of his red penguins was sunbathing on a beach.
The penguin was part of a flock of 26 pieces of art belonging to Wilson’s 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, a lush 91-room boutique that he opened in 2006 with his wife, Laura Lee Brown. The penguin’s mystifying fate ultimately led to a unique farm collection of colossal creatures in rural Kentucky.
In fall 2008, a hotel visitor absconded with one of the plastic penguin statues and mailed Wilson a letter written as if it was from the animal itself.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t properly say goodbye. I’ve been feeling so overlooked and lost in the crowd,” said the letter, sent in September 2008. “I’ve always wanted to see the ocean, and it was more arresting than I ever could have imagined. I will never forget the smell invading my entire being.”
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The letter included three photos of Wilson’s penguin using a tower viewer, interacting with a plastic dolphin, and standing on the beach.
That was the last he saw of that penguin, but today, Wilson’s plastic animal kingdom has expanded well beyond the red and blue penguins that accent his Louisville and Lexington 21c hotels.
“I love the fact that they are engaging,” Wilson said. “They draw people in and seem to have a personality, even though they are only plastic.”
The Cracking Art Group was founded in 1993. It consists of seven artists from Italy, France and Belgium whose driving passion is sustainability and respect for the environment. Each animal they’ve made is from recycled plastic. Aside from the animals Wilson owns, the Cracking Art Group has produced foxes, turtles and meerkats. News about the environment has influenced the animals the group chooses to make, member Marco Veronese said.
“They can be born from the intuition of one of us, or from the group discussion, but what is very important is that each animal is a symbolic character and can convey empathy,” Veronese said via email. “The key is joy.”
Joy is what Wilson felt when he first saw the Cracking Art Group’s penguins while he and Brown visited the Art Biennale in Venice, Italy, more than a decade ago. The penguins made such an impression on him that he ended up shipping more than two dozen home. In 2010, Wilson found himself interacting with the work of the Cracking Art Group again when its a gang of snails, or escargatoire, “invaded” Miami’s international art fair, Art Basel. Wilson would buy 20 of the oversized pink snails, 16 smaller ones, and two green rabbits. The larger animals can cost upward of $17,000 each, according to Modern Farmer.
Their snails’ journey from Miami to Kentucky was captured by Gabriel Wrye in photos preserved on 21c’s website.
Wilson never expected his plastic animals to garner so much attention. A photo of his rabbits was recently featured in the November edition of Surface Magazine. His penguins have become the informal mascots for 21c in Lexington and Louisville.
“One of the places we would like to soon invade is a ‘no place’ for its characteristic of continuously transforming,” Veronese said. “The South Pole is an extraordinary location that Steve Wilson suggested, and we hope to take action and help this fantastic environment to regenerate.”
Fernando Alfonso III: 859-231-1324, @fernalfonso