Gerald Sneed: Friend of the Wildlife
By Karen G. Hernandez
published June 2017

If you visit Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, you might see a serene gentleman strolling along the nature trails wearing his khaki vest and binoculars. He may turn around with a nod and a smile, and casually mention, "There are some kiskadees in that huisache tree," or he may point out a buffbellied hummingbird fluttering around a patch of Turk's cap flowers. Ask anyone on the refuge, whether staff, or volunteer, and they will say that he is one of the nicest people they have ever met. Seeing him on his daily jaunts, you could not imagine that he is a celebrity among us, a brilliant man with a great talent. He is a professional artist and wildlife nature enthusiast whose passion for our Rio Grande Valley's flora and fauna has manifested into unique and stunning pieces of art. Though he doesn't call himself a "birder", there are few people that have more interest or parallel in knowledge of our local and migrating birds. Gerald Sneed, "Gerry", as we affectionately call him, comes by almost daily for his morning walks and a short chat with his Santa Ana friends. Often, he stops by the Friends of the Wildlife Nature Store located in the refuge's visitor center, occasionally bringing in more of his art or just to say "Hello". His spectacular art pieces, a favorite among tourists, are the highlight of the nature store and sell out rapidly.

Gerry is a retired art director, who after the end of a long, outstanding career in New York City, was searching for something different to do. His art career achievements are impressive. As a recipient of the esteemed Clio Award for creative business, and one who has traveled all over the world creating advertisements for giant companies such as Coca Cola and Buick, one wonders how he landed in our backyard. Looking for a warmer climate, it was 1990 when he made his way down to South Texas and became enchanted with the area. So much so, that he made his home here and was inspired to draw one day while he was visiting the refuge. He was immediately drawn to the beauty of our native thornscrub forests and its inhabitants. With a little note pad in hand, he sat for hours studying the curvature of the tree branches and the complex textures of bark. The intricate patterns and shapes of tiny retama leaves and the way the light played on the sabal palm fronds fascinated him. Later, those simple drawings became the basis of producing magnificent art prints and distinctive designs on souvenir items. When Timothy Brush wrote Nesting Birds of a Tropical Frontier: the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Gerald Sneed was asked to illustrate the cover with a striking, orange Altamira oriole.

Gerry remembers the early days, when he first encountered a javelina on the Chacalaca trail. "It was such an interesting animal to me, something I had never seen before with its poor eyesight and funny walk." He chuckles as he remembers how he stooped down to observe and draw one that was hovering around a bush. The javelina, seeing him in a small crouch, decided that Gerry was a formidable enemy and started his attack. Gerry stood up and the javelina seemed to think better of that and retreated. This back and forth dance between animal and man lasted a little while and Gerry was able to successfully complete his first pen and ink drawing at Santa Ana without a scratch.

Gerry couldn't help but become captivated with the tremendous diversity of colorful migrating birds or variety of native mammal wildlife just waiting to be illustrated. He was able to capture their likeness and their habitats in the pages of a small sketch pad that he kept in his vest pocket. "Something exciting would always happen, a bird would light above me and observe my work. A bobcat would walk right past me as I sat on my stool and sketched, they're bigger than I thought." When asked if he favors a special bird or animal to draw, Gerry says, "No, I find them all fascinating."

In his opinion, the Chacalaca is probably the most difficult for him to draw perhaps because of its changing attitudes and quirky personality. "They kind of look like a chicken and you expect them to act like one, but they don't. They may ignore you and be evasive or they suddenly follow you around on a walk, squawking at you to feed them." For years, he drew and painted them, but Gerry says it was only until recently that he feels that he finally artistically expressed on paper what he was looking for. His stunning rendition of a running Chacalaca can be seen on a note card for sale in the Friends of the Wildlife Nature Store.

Though he began with pen and ink in his first years at Santa Ana, he progressed to gouache, opaque watercolor, which was a medium that he was familiar with as his days as an advertising art director. His first T-shirts were hand painted with simple fabric paint and are still in perfect shape today. Now, he prefers to work with acrylics and oil paints.

It was after years of visiting the refuge that the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a non-profit organization that supports Santa Ana NWR, was established and opened its nature store in the visitor center. Gerry was approached to create the organization's first logo and introduce his nature art through the store. He began with note cards and t-shirts of the more common wildlife found on the refuge. The great demand and regard for his unique artistic style was immediate and visitors asked for more. Consequently, his brightly colored bandanas, outrageously popular bird mugs, and posters of realistic colored bird heads became the most sought after items.

Gerry continues to be inspired and bring in new merchandise. Just this year, he has designed a beautiful canvas tote and pin with the design of three bird heads. His brilliantly, colorful bird t-shirt line has now expanded to include ladies-cut styles and child sizes. Now, with the addition of an online store located on the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor Website, people from all over the country can order from his line at any time. Gerald Sneed is more than just an artist, a visitor, or vendor. His years of dedication and love for our local wildlife are a paradigm for us all. He is a man in tune with the nature and beauty of our place depicting the very soul of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in the depths of his canvas. This man is its friend.