Nature of the Beasts

Beauty, thy name is beast.

And what beauties these beasts be: the strutting Gambel’s quail, a prominent plume rising regally out of its feathered forehead like a carefully coiffed cowlick; a Costa’s hummingbird, its needle-nose beak jutting from a deep, royal purple that paints the face and coats the breastplate; a red-tailed hawk, its milky-hued wings boldly outstretched and exquisitely arched, a vision of pure white in flight.

If nature’s creatures could walk their own red carpet, they’d make Versace and Co. look like off-the-rack hacks.

"I wish people wouldn’t use the words ‘wasteland’ and ‘desert’ in the same sentence," says wildlife biologist/artist Sharon Schafer of Boulder City, whose passion for the outdoor world’s wonders suggests that if, as the adage proclaims, nature abhors a vacuum, then naturalists abhor indifference.

"We look, but we don’t see anymore. I want this show to get people to stop looking at the desert driving past it, but seeing the details of the great beauty here," she says. "On Mount Charleston alone there are 23 species that are found nowhere else in the world."

Vibrantly illustrating her point is her exhibit, "Art of Nature: Images from the Wildlands of Southern Nevada," on display through June 1 at the Nevada State Museum. A round-robin of Schafer’s startlingly intimate photos, graceful sketches and full-bodied paintings of desert landscapes and the teeming life that flies, gallops, hops, crawls, slithers and prowls within, it celebrates what nature has wrought in the wilderness outposts that lend the state its rugged charm.

A walking tour of the exhibit is a vicarious jaunt through jagged, sunlight-bright cliffs, massive, sunset-colored rock walls and seemingly bottomless canyons in such areas as Muddy Mountains, strewn with mountain lions and yearlings; Rainbow Mountain, dotted with roaming bighorn sheep; Wee Thump Wilderness, populated by great horned owls; and Black Canyon Wilderness, home to a species that sounds simultaneously mild and menacing — the turkey vulture.

"People go through this show very carefully, they spend a lot of time looking and reading and wandering through, which is not often the case," says Barbara Adams, the museum’s curator of natural history. "When people move here, they see mountains with nothing on them, they think it’s brown and dead, no waterfalls and green trees and squirrels eating your peanuts. But if you take the time to go through Red Rock, you see some incredible things."

Exhibits manager Thomas Dyer points out that for locals, nature is not only emotionally nourishing, but tantalizingly close.

"People don’t understand just how gorgeous the scenery is in the wildlife not far away," he says. "You don’t have to go far up north, like you do in some states to see how spectacular it is. It’s tailored to us in Nevada. It’s something we can see on the walls of the museum, then go out and make our own adventures."

Through Schafer’s lens, brush and charcoal, in images inventively composed, backlit and silhouetted, nature swamps the senses against a prism of sandstone, mudstone and limestone vistas in shifting colors.

A lion reclines on a rocky slab, head sharply swiveled in opposition to its body, as if suddenly alerted to a disturbance just beyond the edge of the painter’s canvas. A cliff, like a cloud, plays games with the mind’s eye, a dignified horse seemingly emerging from the rock formation as if leading a chariot. Ancient petroglyphs pop out of a dishwater-gray wall, a burst of nature’s graffiti. A banded Gila monster’s thick, scaly, black and orange bulk argues that even ugliness has its own beauty. A zebra-tailed lizard strikes a pose as if auditioning to become the next GEICO spokes-reptile.

"The desert tends to be a very secretive place," Schafer says. "With a lot of people, if you just try to teach them with science and take them out and give them lectures, you’re going to lose them. They don’t want to know the facts. But you can show them beautiful images and say, ‘We have this all around us, don’t you want to see it?’ It’s a different way of reaching people."

The enrichment nature offers in abundance is poetically expressed on an exhibit panel inscribed with the words of conservationist Nancy Newhall: "The wilderness holds answers to questions man has not yet learned how to ask."

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at or (702) 383-0256.


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