Animals in the Art! Looking Closer at the Work of Sculptor, Eric Berg

Animals in the Art! Looking Closer at the Work of Sculptor, Eric Berg

Eric Berg Animals in the Art

Image Credits: Eric Berg, (1945-2020), Lassie, 1996, bronze, H. 40 x W. 49 x D. 24.5 inches, James A. Michener Art Museum. Acquired with a Legislative Initiative Grant awarded by Senator H. Craig Lewis.

About This Resource

Note for Teachers: Use this video focused on the sculpture, Lassie, by Eric Berg, to inspire your students on the subject of sculpture and the theme of animals in art. Use the looking questions and activity ideas to help your students learn more about Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight, the story that inspired the sculpture. Encourage your students to think about their own journeys and experiences of trust and loyalty.

Grade Level (s):  Preschool/Kindergarten; 1-3

Subject Area (s): Visual Arts, Language Arts, Social Studies/History, Math, Technology

Looking Questions/Information:

  • What do you see in this artwork? Describe all the details.
  • This is a sculpture. It is a type of work that you can walk around and see from many different angles.
  • How would the sculpture feel if you could touch it?
  • What type of animal is this? Where could we find an animal like this?
  • What do you notice at the base of the sculpture?
  • Does this sculpture remind you of anything? Explain.
  • What do you think this dog might be doing or thinking about? What do you see that makes you say that?
  • If this dog could speak, what would she say?
  • How does this sculpture make you feel? Why?
  • If you could tell a story about this sculpture, what would it be?

About the Artist:

“The motivation behind my sculpture comes from an early childhood fascination with animal life and the natural world. The goal of my work is to place hands on, accessible public art works which, through their character and natural appeal, foster an appreciation and respect for animal life.” -Eric Berg

Eric Berg (1945-2020) grew up in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, attended The Hill School, then moved with his family to Allentown, PA. He later made his home in Philadelphia while spending several months a year at his farm in Chautauqua County, New York.

Berg, who is now known as an animal sculptor, studied business in college. Upon graduation, he decided to engage his love of animals through the study of art and entered the MFA program at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving his degree in 1974.

Berg described himself as a sculptor who created his own images and relied on his intuition to bring out the soul of an animal in his work. He did not want to simply copy the form before him. Berg discovered his affinity for animal sculptures as a child, when his aunt gave him a book of animals. As a college student, he gave away small hand carved stone animal sculptures as gifts. His style and work impressed the directors at the Philadelphia Zoo who commissioned him to sculpt an African warthog soon after graduation from the MFA program at the University of Pennsylvania. Subsequent commissions included a sea turtle at the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden and Massa the Gorilla at the Philadelphia Zoo. Philbert, the grandest of all piggy banks, is at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

Berg completed over 44 public commissions throughout his career located in parks, museums, zoos and universities across the country. His sculptures can be found at Everglades National Park, Royal Palm, Florida, the Please Touch Museum and the Museum of Natural History in Philadelphia, various public locations in Philadelphia, and museums as far away as Colorado, Virginia, Texas and New Mexico.

About the Artwork:

“It was a challenge to create the heroic stature of the dog while maintaining the loyal lovable nature of the pet.” –  Eric Berg

In July 1995, the Michener Art Museum was awarded a Pennsylvania Legislative Initiative Grant to create a sculpture and an educational curriculum outreach program based on author Eric Knight’s famous fictional character, Lassie, from the story, Lassie Come Home. Five artists applied, and animal sculptor Eric Berg was chosen by the Museum’s collections committee to create a bronze life-size sculpture of Lassie. The work was first unveiled and installed in the Museum’s Pfundt Sculpture Garden in 1997 and then later moved to outside the Bucks County Free Library in Doylestown in 2011.

Berg first made a maquette, or model, then used plastilene clay to mold the life size sculpture. Plastilene is an oil base clay which never hardens. It is an excellent sculpture material to work with since it is very flexible, dense, and can withstand various temperatures. The work was then taken to the Laran Bronze foundry in Chester, Pennsylvania for casting. The casting was done by the skilled artisans at the foundry, and Berg oversaw each stage of the process. Berg completed the wax finishing, metal finishing, and patina himself. Lassie was created using the ancient lost-wax casting process, a complex technical process that has many steps, which you can see in this video. A patina is a coating of various chemical compounds formed on the surface of metal which can develop on the surface of a sculpture due to exposure to weather. It can also be a chemical coating applied onto the sculpture by the artist, as seen with Lassie.

The sculpture took four months to complete and weighs 300 pounds including the base. Berg said that the sculpture, “…portrays Lassie surveying the vista.” Berg also remarked that he was most proud of his public work, because “he loved the access it gave children to nature and the natural world. He considered it the highest compliment when a bird would land on one of his sculptures.”

Be sure to visit Lassie in her home on the grounds of the Bucks County Free Library on your next visit, located right next door to the Museum.


Language Arts

  • Sharing Journeys: In the story, Lassie Come Home, Lassie makes an incredible journey guided only by instinct and an overwhelming desire to be reunited with her family. Share a personal account of a journey. You can tell, write, or draw your story. Examples: a family trip, getting lost, a pet who gets lost and returns home, a trip to school, camp, or a museum.
  • Collaborative story making: Bring in your favorite stuffed animal and sit in a circle with your classmates. Have one person start a pretend story about a journey that their “pet” is taking. Each classmate adds a chapter to the story. What will the resulting story be?
  • Lassie Come Home (Grades 3 and up): Read the story, Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight and discuss the plot, setting and characters. Explore the story’s symbolism of trust and loyalty. Author Eric Knight visited Yorkshire, England during the 1930’s. Moved by social conditions and inspired by his own collie, Toots, he wrote a short story for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1939, after moving to a Bucks County farm, Knight expanded the story into the full-length classic Lassie Come-Home.
  • Journeys in Literature: Explore the theme of journeys through other stories. Use them for a compare and contrast discussion with Lassie Come Home. Suggested readings: Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford, Otis & Milo by Mark Saltzman, Hansel & Gretel by Wilhelm & Jacob Grimm and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
  • Exploring Heroes: In Lassie Come Home, Lassie can truly be called heroic as she battles and conquers the forces of nature and the  people she encounters. To survive, she learns to hunt for food; she swims a turbulent river; she is attacked by dogs and people; she rescues a kindly peddler; and all the while, she determinedly continues her trek home. Share a personal account of a heroic deed. You can tell, write, or paint your story. Remember that what you might consider ordinary accomplishments, are often acts of courage. Examples: learning to swim, first day of school, meeting new people, rescue of an animal or person. For further consideration: What characteristics does Lassie have that make her a hero? Do other heroes have the same traits, whether they are animals, humans, fictional, real, or mythic? What makes us admire heroes?
  • I Can Do It! Exploring Perseverance: In the story Lassie Come Home, Lassie was determined to get back home no matter what got in her way. Think about a time when you felt determined to learn, do, or accomplish something. Ask: Why that? What helped? What hindered? How long did it take? What happened while…? Discuss this together as a class. Then, create a poem on your own about your experience. Draw illustrations to accompany your poem.

Visual Arts

  • Sculpting Heroes: Use model magic (or another clay material) to create a statue of your favorite hero. Explain your choice and why this person or animal has the traits that make them a hero to you.
  • Imaginary Animals: Create an imaginary animal composed of human and animal characteristics. Use a material of your choice to create it.
  • Story Maps: Make a Story Map of Lassie Come Home. Make this a cooperative project by having each student paint or draw the scenes from the book. Once completed, arrange drawings in sequential order, and then rearrange to change the story. Another option could be to make a cartoon strip or a flipbook of Lassie’s journey.
  • Marvelous Maquettes: Erig Berg created a maquette before he created the life size sculpture of Lassie. Create your own maquette for a larger animal sculpture. First, create some sketches of the animal that you would like to create. For your maquette, you can use clay, wax, plastilene, found objects, wire, or any other material you have on hand. For older students: How large will your final sculpture be? Indicate these dimensions on your sketches and figure out how much material will be needed to create it based on the size of your maquette.
  • Animals in Art: Look at other sculptors in the Museum’s collection who explored the theme of animals. These include Charles RudyGreg Wyatt, and Allan Houser. See their work on Google Arts and Culture and as 3D scans on SketchFab. Select one of their works to compare with the sculpture of Lassie. What differences and similarities can you find? Discuss size, scale, material, subject and texture.

Social Studies/History/Math:

  • Mapping the Journey: Would a map have helped Lassie? People very often use maps to guide them on their trips. Thousands of years ago, people marked their paths with stones or carvings on trees. Today, there are many kinds of maps: road, relief, topographic, and more. Today we use digital tools like Google Maps to help us with navigation. Pretend your bus driver needs help in finding the best route from your school to Lassie’s home in Doylestown at the Bucks County Free Library. Using a traditional paper map, locate the two sites on the map and plot the best path from school to the Museum. While on the bus ride to the Museum, point out the streets you found on the map. Compute distances for the field trip using the scale on the map. Compare your results with Google Maps.
  • Comparing Regions: Examine relief maps of Scotland and Bucks County. Compare the geography of the regions. Look for elevations, lochs/lakes, forests, and coastlines. How is the land different from Bucks County? Cooperative project—working with your classmates, make a 3-D relief map from clay or other materials. If available, use Margaret Kirmse’s map on the inside cover of Eric Knight’s book to put Lassie’s path on the map.
  • Heroes of Today and Yesterday: Research historical American heroes of the past and today and make a timeline of their accomplishments. What made them heroes? For those heroes from the past, would those deeds be considered heroic today? What traits did these people have in common? Compare and contrast heroes of discovery, science, and social issues. Discuss heroes in other types of fields that could include: civil rights, art history, journalism, environment, government, literature and more.
  • Traveling the Distance: Have students look at the map of Scotland and compare Lassie’s train route north to the route she took home. Research and discuss some of the places she traveled through. How many miles a day did Lassie travel? How many miles a day could you walk?

Related Resources:

  • Listen to our Permanent Collection Youth Audio Tour stop on Lassie.
  • Download a Sculpture Scavenger Hunt to use during your next Museum visit.
  • Learn more about Eric Berg on the Museum’s Bucks County Artists Database.
  • Learn more about author Eric Knight on the Museum’s Bucks County Artists Database.
  • Explore other sculptors who used the theme of animals in their work, including Charles Rudy.
  • Read more about 3D scanning technology and the Museum’s partnership with the Google Art Project in this post.
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