Art imitates life around the new UC Davis veterinary medicine administration building—so much so that a dog on leash walking past Nina Kaiser’s animal sculptures barks at the bronze canine in a play bow. Kids approach the geese to pet their wings, the pig is a natural draw for students taking selfies, and the goat seems ready to spring to life.
“This is really what I hoped to see, people enjoying the playfulness of the sculptures and hanging out with them,” Kaiser said recently at the building’s grand opening as she watched people mingle with the art installation she calls Animal Anarchy.
When Kaiser was first approached about creating some art for the outdoor patio area of the new facility, Dean Michael Lairmore and Associate Dean John Pascoe suggested a mare and foal. After all, Kaiser is renowned for her equine sculptures, including two life-sized bronze pieces at Santa Anita Park, representing legendary racetrack athletes John Henry and Zenyatta. But Kaiser felt that had been done too many times, so she suggested the idea of creating a collection of a few different animals doing unexpected things. Luckily, they agreed.
While Kaiser knew she wanted to create farm animals, she wasn’t sure at first how the project would come to life. She was doing a bit of brainstorming with friends as they watched the animals around her place and someone said, “what if a prankster let all the animals out and they just did the naughty, funny things they do?”
The concept of Animal Anarchy was born, with the bronze creatures representing some of the rescue animals that live on Kaiser’s small farm in the hills of north San Diego county—Piggy, Tuffy the goat, Tinker the dog, and two unnamed geese.
Figuring out how to pose the sculptures was a no-brainer for the most part, Kaiser said. Piggy will do anything in his quest for food, including begging. The play bow posture of the dog facing off the two geese is reminiscent of a routine that happens every day on the farm, although most days there is more fur left in the birds’ beaks than feathers in the dog’s mouth after their play session. Kaiser noted that her neighbors were very helpful in posing with the animals. One shared her lunch with Piggy, resulting in the final pose for the bronze sculpture.
“Tinker has been doing that with the naughty geese for three years now, since she was a puppy,” Kaiser said. “I’m lucky enough to live with these guys; I see these behaviors all the time.”
Kaiser said she wasn’t sure how to portray the goat initially, so she worked on models for the others first. One day while working in her open studio, Tuffy wandered in and started eating some reference material that Kaiser had laying around. That lightbulb moment gave her an idea to visit the local used bookstore where she found a livestock veterinary manual. She took it home and let him have at it in the studio while she took photos of him eating pages. She didn’t realize until later that he was devouring the entire nutrition chapter. The fortunate happenstance resulted in a playful bronze goat perpetually fixed in mischief on the patio outside the new building.
“I wish I could say I was clever enough to plan that, but the truth is, it just happened!”
Kaiser’s connection to the veterinary school began long ago on the track when Dr. Gregory Ferraro worked as a veterinarian for trainer Eddie Gregson. She was part of Gregson’s team as an exercise rider. Ferraro later came to UC Davis as a faculty member and knew of the reputation Kaiser had developed as a sculpture artist. He figured she would be a good fit when the school looked to commission an artist and helped arrange the initial discussions.
“It’s neat to see this all goes so far back,” Kaiser said.
Kaiser began her career on the track, not the art studio, although she did win an award as junior art champion in second grade.
“I liked drawing horses, but it was just a substitute for being on one,” She said. “Once I had my own horse at the age of 12, I didn’t need to draw them.”
She dropped out of high school and began hot walking horses at the age of 18, later becoming a rider for notable trainers. Being paid to ride, she figured there wasn’t much more she needed. But as Kaiser got older and realized that she couldn’t live in the saddle forever, she thought, “what am I going to do after this?” She saw a woman rider who also painted and figured she could do something similar, although she says she talked about doing sculpture for 10 years until she was shamed into doing it.
Gregson gave her one of the first commissions to create a tabletop sculpture of horse and rider, much like the vintage Remingtons. She was pleased with the way it turned out and apparently, so were others. She got more commissions and it was easy for her to establish a niche by word of mouth in the racing world.
As for her artistic talent, Kaiser doesn’t have any special degree or training. She considers herself lucky to have “an eye that tells me when it’s not right.” When it comes to the equine sculptures, it’s simple.
“I just know horses—the way they move, the way their muscles look and feel,” Kaiser said. “I’ve been on them almost every day of my life.”
The other talent she lays claim to is “stick-to-it-ness.” Often, she said, the first 20 or 30 versions of a project don’t come out like the finished versions. The trick is to keep at it until it is as good as it gets and then know when to stop.
For the work on Animal Anarchy, Kaiser relied on close observation of her own animals. It helped that Piggy often camps out in her studio, so he was always available to study. She bought a chicken to figure out how wings attach as the geese don’t take well to fondling.
She also experimented a lot with the postures of the geese to get them realistic. Looking at how people were enjoying the new additions to the patio area, Kaiser nodded with satisfaction.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky to be given this as a second career,” Kaiser said. “With all my sculpture, I just want to make people happy. The best compliment I got was when a woman who works at the VetMed building told me, ‘When I’m having a bad day, I’m just going to come out here and sit with these sculptures!’ That made MY day!”?