They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and an exhibition at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery is offering viewers a glimpse into the spiritual recesses of nearly 50 endangered animals. Eye Am features 47 small, round paintings, each a close-up of an animal’s eye — a bonobo, an Asian elephant, a green sea turtle, and more. Together, they were created by artists Nancy Taliaferro and Caroline Thompson.

The concept is rooted in the “lover’s eye” paintings popular during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “The tiny painted eye of a beloved, in many manifestations, was worn as a brooch, often surrounded in gold pearls and precious stones,” said Taliaferro. She and Thompson had the idea to do the same with animals’ eyes, to speak both to their beauty and to their suffering. “We embarked upon the Eye Am initiative to honor these individuals whose very existence is endangered,” she added.

The artists met when Thompson, a novelist, film director, and producer who is best-known for having written the screenplays for Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, enrolled in one of fine artist Taliaferro’s oil painting classes. “Lucky me, I met a kindred spirit on many levels,” Taliaferro said. “We quickly discovered our shared love and compassion for animals.” 

The exhibition continues through the end of December, and proceeds benefit the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network.

But the show is only one element of the larger project. Even after the exhibition closes, Eye Am will live on digitally with a website full of games, other learning activities, and material about each endangered species.

“Educating and inspiring children is a very big component of the Eye Am initiative,” said Thompson. “We would like to encourage entire families to learn and to be enlightened.” To that end, they have created a free video matching game for little ones that can be downloaded by anyone from the app store of their choice and that they plan on distributing to every school system and children’s museum in the country. In the game, players match Thompson’s and Taliaferro’s painted eyes to illustrations of the animals. 

“We also have a weekly ever-changing Wordle challenge for older kids,” Thompson said. “Our aim is to get that into homerooms in middle and high schools in order to spark discussion and to develop awareness.”

They also seek to engage sustainability clubs at high schools that have them, providing member students with presentation materials they can share with elementary schools in their areas. “The idea,” Thompson said, “is to have the older kids expose the younger kids to the situation that will be theirs to address before they know it, to develop the understanding that we are a wildly interconnected and interdependent world, and to help the little ones find compassion for the creatures we are so in danger of losing forever.” 

As Taliaferro noted, the pair hopes their project will sound an alarm. “We want to raise awareness about these beautiful animals through art, beauty, and play,” she said. “We hope that looking into their eyes will encourage a joining together for good, in both adults and children.” 


Eye Am: Paintings of the Eyes of Endangered Species is on view at Thomas Reynolds Gallery (1331 State St., through December 31. For more information about the artist and the Eye Am initiative, visit

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