Matthew McAvene’s aluminum, wood, and foam life-sized condor statue is due to be unveiled on Saturday as the Santa Barbara Zoo’s fifth addition to the small population of the endangered bird that live tucked away in the new California Trails exhibit. McAvene, who explained how research figures prominently in all of his projects, says he’s gained “a lot of respect for the creatures” through reading about and creating one, even though their less than flashy appearance had never drawn his attention before. The condor, which can have up to a 10-foot wingspan and whose population was down to 22 in the 1980s according to McAvene, was not the sort of thing which would have inspired him to “wake up and say, ‘I’m going to make a condor today.’” But now, McAvene says he was more than “happy to take on the project.”
The statue is part of an elaborate “Western village” that has been created for the Santa Barbara Zoo’s 24th Zoofari Ball, which has a Wild West theme this year to tie in the California Trails exhibit complex which opened on Earth Day in April. In addition to the condor, McAvene is responsible for constructing a number of decorative cacti and wagon-wheel chandeliers. This endangered species is central to the California Trails, “the largest ever” complex created at the Santa Barbara Zoo according to Director Nancy McToldridge, and McAvene’s sculpture will play an important part in communicating the Zoo’s message for this year’s Zoofari that “it’s up to us” to save California’s beautiful and varied wildlife. McToldridge, who is certain that the statue is “going to help us sell our message,” is also very excited that McAvene and event coordinator Lisa Alford-Carter plan to gift the condor sculpture to the Zoo permanently. While the final location of display hasn’t been chosen yet - the fact that the cordor statue will be a present is a secret from most of the staff and will be revealed at the Zoofari Ball - the Zoo is thrilled to be able to display the piece of art.
The condor-building process that McAvene began about a month ago started with the creation of a pattern to get the right proportions and symmetry as well as a chance to “figure out the engineering” - the statue, which will be hung, needed the proper combination of durability and flexibility. Starting with an aluminum bar that spans the length of both wings and a wood block that makes up the body, McAvene applied layers of different foams that are often used in puppet making to fill out the body and create the desired scalloped feather texture. The condor head and feet were constructed separately out of another kind of foam and added to the body. After coloring it and putting it all together, McAvene “sprayed the final thing with rubber spray,” a substance that he says will both “lock it all together” and help to make it weatherproof.
The final product, a life-like statue with a seven-foot wingspan, will be displayed over the bar at the Zoofari Ball to remind guests of the four condors - a quartet that makes up a little more than 1 percent of the total population of 327 left in the world - recently procured by the Santa Barbara Zoo. When McAvene’s beautiful masterpiece is given a permanent home at the Zoo, it will help remind visitors that, though not the prettiest of birds, the condor is understood by McAvene and the Zoo as a fascinating animal and a “necessary component of the ecosystem.”