Bats Taking Flight

By Bryant J. Stanton

I proposed to represent the Mexican Free-Tail Bat for my zoo sculpture project. This migratory bat species is indigenous to the Waco area, as are nine to twelve other bat species. The free-tail bat, an essential part of our local Texas ecosystem and economy, feeds upon beetles, dragonflies, moths, flies, and ants, typically catching flying prey in flight. By feeding on crop-damaging pests like the corn earworm moth (cotton bollworm, tomato fruit worm), bats save Texas farmers thousands of dollars annually.

My first experience with the Mexican Free-Tail Bat came about on a visit to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The park ranger’s informative talk about the bats and the history of the cave demystified the small, misunderstood, vilified creatures and left a lasting impression on me. My second encounter came while I was cutting down dead trees on my property for firewood. I felled a hollow tree that hit the ground with an explosive crash and split the rotted tree apart. At that moment of impact, I felt something hit my thigh. Looking down, I saw a small bat clinging to my leg. I had just destroyed its home. Later on, taking to the internet, I read about bats in our area. I discovered that Baylor University’s biology professor, Dr. Kenneth T. Wilkins, Ph.D., was leading a study of bat habitats right here in Waco. I became intrigued by how beneficial bats are to our local ecology. It turns out that many of Waco’s downtown buildings are home to thousands of beneficial bats. I am by no means a wildlife expert, but I realized by cutting down dead trees, I was taking away the homes of bats, owls, and squirrels. My sons, Samuel and Timothy, and I set out to build a bat box and an owl box for our property to replace the dead, hollow trees we removed. 

As an artist, I observe nature and draw inspiration from what I see. I am particularly interested in patterns in nature, divine proportions, and the Fibonacci sequence. The coordinated, frantic, serpentine flight patterns of bats interest me. Bats, when leaving a cave, fly out in an orchestrated swirl into the night sky. Depicting bats in flight would be difficult, considering their small size and the mass numbers of bats leaving their roosts. 

I entitled my sculpture ‘Bats Taking Flight.’ It plays upon the wind moving the silhouetted bats about on long sinuous tubes of aluminum, striking neighboring tubes, and generating ‘tinny-clanking’ sounds. Bat colonies emerge at dusk from their hidden roosts and fly through the dark thicket over the river to feed on nocturnal insects. The tubes represent river grasses, reeds, or even the bamboo found in Cameron Park. The swirl of the pipes spiraling upwards shows an upward ascension of bat flight, but yet anchors the bats to the base. The tubing is mounted in five clusters to a rotating turret extending up from the pedestal. The wind rotates the clumps of curving’ reeds,’ adding to the sculpture’s movement. 

The silhouetted bats are painted with a reflective, deep-blue color, representing bats at dusk. The reflective paint picks up on ambient light, headlights of passing cars, and beams from flashlights, all bouncing off of the painted bats and reeds. The bouncing, reflected light, contrasted against the dark park surroundings, will appear as illuminated bats flying about. 

In fabricating the bat sculpture, I enlisted the help of Nickell Metalsmith here in Waco. Both John Nickell and George Johns have helped me with several of my more recent sculpture projects. They somehow, when drawings and words fail, can translate my hand motions and body contortions into curved metal. They ‘get me’ and we work well together. 

My enduring hope for this sculpture is that it brings enjoyment to those viewing it – that it adds a little artistic interest and beauty to a small corner of Cameron Park. It is my greater hope that the piece will be an iconic touchstone of the importance and connection that bats contribute to our local Texas ecosystem.