Sonia Young was touring the art department at Center for Creative Arts when she saw a student's painting of two jaguars.
"I knew immediately who they were - Phil and Gene at Chattanooga Zoo - because of their facial expressions. They looked exactly like those jaguars," says Young, who doesn't work at the zoo but is a longtime supporter.
Asking about the artist, Young learned the portrait had been done by CCA senior Laurel Hopper. Shown Hopper's portfolio by an art teacher, Young says she knew she had found the artist to paint the zoo's red panda, Nigalya, before the aging animal reached the end of its life.
"She was really good at [depicting] animals. I got Laurel to come to the zoo and meet Nigalya because I wanted him painted from real life, not pictures," says Young.
The CCA artist received a commission to paint a portrait of Nigalya, making Hopper the first Hamilton County student whose artwork will hang permanently in the local zoo, according to Marisa Ogles, the zoo's director of marketing and communications.
In exchange for her time, Hopper received a complimentary zoo membership. Hopper's acrylic portrait of Nigalya will be donated to Chattanooga Zoo this month and hung in the Asian building, says Ogles.
Hopper, 19, says she has always been attracted to the lines, color and movement of animals in her paintings.
"It's the challenge of capturing them ... how they look, how they move, how powerful they are," she says.
She says she began her work with Nigalya by visiting the zoo early in November to watch the panda and make sketches of him in his habitat. The panda died three weeks later, so she finished her artwork with the assistance of file photos sent to her by the zoo staff.
When ready to start painting, Hopper bought a large piece of wood and painted the background in an acrylic teal shade that she says she watered down so the wood grain would show through. The young artist chose paints in orange, chocolate brown and deep rust red, which she mixed and remixed until she found the right tone for the panda's red coat, slowly adding and building colors over four weeks of work in order to control shading and fur texture.
"I used a medium brush and scored multiple strikes on the wood to create his fur. I kept layering until I had the finish I wanted," Hopper describes.
"She caught his expression. It's soulful," says Young. "I really love her work."
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.