The National Zoo has lost yet another animal. But unlike the zoo’s other doomed critters, the newt didn’t fall victim to rat poison, succumb to disease, or starve to death. It vanished, and illustrator Cathy Abramson, 53, was left wondering why.
As it turns out, the ill-fated newt, part of Centennial Tree, a sculpture carved by Steven Weitzman from a tree that once stood at the zoo’s entrance, fell victim to rot. But not before Abramson and poet Nancy Arbuthnot captured the treasured artifact for Wild Washington: Animal Sculptures A to Z.
“The newt happened to be an early poem and one of the first illustrations that I completed,” says Abramson. “We were in a quandary about whether to include the newt when we realized it was no longer at the entrance but decided [its inclusion] would make a nice tribute to the sculpture.”
If you’ve spent any time in D.C. in the past few years, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the donkeys, elephants, and pandas that have graced the District’s sidewalks. But chances are you’ve hardly noticed the dozens of other animal statues around the city. Had Arbuthnot married someone other than Stephen Arbuthnot, she might not have noticed the penguins of the Hoff Memorial Fountain at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or the unicorns on Unicorn Lane at Oregon Avenue NW, either.
“My husband was a policeman in D.C. for a long time,” says Arbuthnot, a professor of poetry and creative writing at the U.S. Naval Academy for the past 24 years. “He used to talk about how he and the other policemen and the statues were the only ones around D.C. all the time.”
A mother of three who lives in Chevy Chase, D.C., Arbuthnot spent a lot of time outdoors with her children when they were young. Inevitably they encountered sculptures, and Arbuthnot became particularly fascinated with stone and bronze figures of animals. She wrote riddle poems about them, inspired by Anglo-Saxon poetry about works of art, and she researched them online and at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and the D.C. Historical Society.
Arbuthnot says Abramson “immediately came to mind” as the project’s illustrator. Also a mother of three, Abramson lives in Chevy Chase, Md., and is art director for NOVA Research Co. in Bethesda. In her spare time, she’s a figurative painter—a pursuit whose sensibility she brought to Wild Washington’s brushstroked illustrations.
The women, who have known each other for decades, say the book benefited from their different points of view. “Cathy would sometimes see a sculpture in a different way,” says Arbuthnot. “Like the spider sculpture [in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden]. When I wrote about it, I had taken what sculptor Louise Bourgeois said about her sculpture—that the spider is a very maternal figure, that she loved spiders and thought they were very nurturing.
“But when Cathy saw the spider, she thought it looked kind of menacing….So I redid [the poem] thinking of this other aspect of the spider.” The poem begins, “To round the path in the garden/And confront/The spider looming,/Leering, menacingly striding,/Is to be…/Thrust aside from the self,/Panting, flushed.”
Older children can read Wild Washington on their own, but the authors believe the book is especially well-suited for parents and tourists who want to discover a different side of D.C.
“I really love this city,” says Arbuthnot, who will likely collaborate with Abramson on a future book project about statues at the Naval Academy. “I’ve wanted for years to introduce people to the beauties of Washington.”
—Heather Morgan Shott