PORTLAND, Maine — In the wild, coyotes are known for being cunning and stealthy. But a new art exhibit in Portland seeks to demystify the animals and also bridge art and science.

Conservationist biologist Geri Vistein challenged painters, sculptors, photographers from Holden to the Berwicks to examine coyotes, a wild relative of dogs and wolves living among us but seldom seen. The result is a striking and edifying show called “Coyote Connections” on display now through mid-January at the University of New England’s art gallery in Portland.

“Coyotes are an intelligent species that has been around for a million years, way before the glaciers,” said Vistein, of Brunswick. “This is a call to action. It’s a deeply personal experience examining our relations with ourselves and lives on this planet.”

That call answered by 31 artists, such as sculptors Forest Hart of Monroe and Glenn Hines of Houlton, is a chance for art-goers, students and the public to delve deeper into nature and learn more about the sacred “song dogs” that play a crucial role in our ecology and spiritual past.

“They live nowhere else on the planet than Northern and Central America. They are uniquely our own, yet we know so little about them,” said Vistein, a carnivore expert, whose research on coyotes in the state is documented at coyotelivesinMaine.com.

Through vivid water colors, oil on canvas, sculptures and fiber art depicting coyotes as animals, spirits and even humans, the four-month show “is about something bigger than coyotes. I use it as a way to examine how we treat each other,” Vistein said. “What is their value?”

Beyond a fierce predator of mice and deer, coyotes took on a shaman-like resonance for native peoples. Ancient Aztecs created the name “coyotl” and the trickster Huehuecoyotl, said Vistein. “Navajos called them God’s dog,” she said

Hines, known for mighty moose sculptures, calls them artistically alluring. “I like to play with the tension of how the animals looks. Coyotes have an interest, I would never want to do a cocker spaniel for instance,” said Hines, who created a bronze relief and coyote bookends for the show.

For sculptor Hart, the experience allowed him to further focus on wildlife, a subject he cherishes.

“Anything you spend this much time on, you feel very close to,” said Hart, who photographs coyotes on his property in Monroe, where he sees them regularly.

When Hart was asked to participate in Coyote Connections, the Hampden native didn’t hesitate.

“She [Geri] is instrumental in getting things done. I was pretty excited about the project and wanted to take part in it,” said Hart, 71.

When he was growing up outside Bangor he didn’t see many coyotes. Today he spies pups balancing on their mother’s back and howling — a scene he casts in bronze for the exhibition.

The show opens Thursday on a campus known for its medical disciplines, which according to gallery director Anne B. Zill, is central.

“These are the goals, to make art relevant to scientific explanations. This is a medical school with an environmental studies focus,” she said, adding that the gallery is also a cultural resource for the area.

The exhibition includes programs on “America’s song dog” by Vistein, a puppet show and a performance by a Passamaquoddy educator.

Vistein hopes the show will put coyotes in a new light. Less a deer and mouse predator, and more a friend of man, disease eradicator and steely survivor.

“It’s very personal to Mainers how another person is treated,” Vistein said. “All life on the planet is deeply connected.”

Coyote Connections, runs Oct. 9 to Jan. 15 at the University of New England’s Portland campus.

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.