John Ball Zoo

Art Stories


John Ball Statue

The bronze depiction of John Ball was based on a design by local artist Gertrude Van Houten. Gertrude was a cartoonist for the local newspaper where she was known to many fans as “Gert”. Italian sculptor, Pompeo Coppini, was commissioned to execute the design. Coppini was awarded Italy’s Commendatore of the Crown of Italy for his contribution to the field of art in 1931. His studio in San Antonio is now a museum for his work. The statue was installed in the park in 1925. The sculpture is listed in the National Register of Outdoor Sculpture.


The sculpture depicts John Ball with two young children. Actually his son, Waldo, posed for the statue with two of John Ball’s grandchildren. The young girl in the statue is Virginia Ball. Virginia attended a celebration here on the anniversary of John Ball’s 200th birthday. She told a wonderful story about sitting for the artist. She asked him to give her curly hair in the statue. When you visit, you’ll notice he did carve a curl into her otherwise bone straight hair.

Millions of people have sat in John Ball’s lap and have photographs of their families there year after year. Be sure to take your own photos there and share them with us!


Concrete Bear

The concrete bear at the Zoo gate was created in 1953 as part of a new entry for the Zoo. The work was designed and executed by Grand Rapids City workers-Mark DeVries, Rut Manis, and Fred See. No one remembers why a bear was selected to be placed at the front entrance. We think it might have been a tribute to one of the first animals at the Zoo, ‘Ol Jack, the bear.




Bronze Bear

Dedicated in 2002, this is a bronze cast of the concrete bear at the Zoo Entrance. The piece is in memory of Sandy Brown, a Zoo Society employee. A relative of Mrs. Brown’s had worked on the original entry bear. Due to her fondness for it the family decided to do the bronze version in her honor. Lori Hough, known for her papier mache sculptures, created the mold for the bronze version.


Gnu Rhythm and Blues

Lori Hough created this piece as part of a summer promotion at the Zoo called, “Rhythms of the Wild”. Each artist was given a plastic drum to create an interpretation of animal drumming. Lori’s interpretation was humorous and a favorite with visitors. Many small hands have played out many rhythms of the wild on her fantastical drum.




American Eagle

As you leave the waterfowl area and approach the Bald Eagles, you will notice a dramatic modern sculpture titled “American Eagle”. The artist who created this piece is Marshall M. Fredericks and the statue was donated to the Zoo in 1995 by the Meijer Foundation. A winner of many important awards, Fredericks exhibited his work throughout the United States and abroad. Many of his sculptures are in national, civic and private collections. He was considered one of the most prominent sculptors in Michigan. Fred Meijer collected many of Mr. Frederick’s sculptures, more of them can be seen at the Frederick Meijer Garden and Sculpture Park.


Mom, Dad, and the Kids

A family of penguins graces the banks of the Michigan Stream in the central zoo plaza. This sculpture was done by Shirley Thompson Smith, sculptor known best for her representations of ethnic women. Later in her career, however, she experimented with wildlife in her work. This lovable grouping of penguins was donated by the Meijer Foundation in 1995.


Far Shores

On the exterior of the Living Shores Aquarium is a triptych of 6’ x 10’ carved and painted wooden panels. This piece was done in 1998 by Earl Stringer. Earl Stringer is a local artist and theatrical designer. The panels were commissioned to represent the three habitats in the aquarium—Michigan, Patagonia, and the Pacific Northwest. Each of the areas is represented through the use of motifs of the regions’ native peoples.


Sculptural Pieces at South American Exhibit

The originals of all of these were created hundreds of years ago from stone and plaster. The re-creations done in the South American exhibit by local artists, Earl Stringer and Susan Hinkle, are made of polystyrene.

The archway entering the viewing for the maned wolves is a carving based on the “Gateway God” from the Gateway of the Sun at Tiahuanaco in the Bolivian Andes. The original is about 1500 years old and his rayed headdress suggests that he is a representation of the sun god. 

The Colossal Head sculpture is typical of huge stone heads found guarding ancient temples throughout Central and South America. The Island Figure is based on a sculpture found in excavations of a ruined building in Tiahuanaco. It is of a powerful creator god called Veracocha. The Hillside Warrior is a stylized figure based on one of 150 stone carvings unearthed near the town of San Augustin in Columbia. So far, there is no other record of the culture that produced these mysterious sculptures.


The Skunk

The bronze skunk located in the Children’s Zoo next to the petting corral was commissioned in memory of Bob Christian, a zoo volunteer.  Mr. Christian spent much of his time taking animals to schools and his favorite was the skunk. This piece was done in 1996 by Sharon Sommers. Ms. Sommers is a nationally recognized artist. Much of her work is based on wildlife.


The Sundial

The Sundial statue was originally located in Sundial Park, Grand Rapids smallest park located at College and Cherry. However, it was vandalized several times and even badly damaged. At the request of Katherine Whinery, who was related to the original donor, it was moved to John Ball Zoo. The statue which is cast iron was given to the city in 1925 by Katherine Aldrich Blake in honor of her father, Moses Aldrich. Mr. Aldrich had been mayor of Grand Rapids in 1870. The sundial still works and you can tell time by it. Just remember it doesn’t shift for daylight savings.



Nessie was one of the top ten winners in the first Art Prize competition. It’s location for that event was the Grand River. After the competition was over, Bea Idema purchased it as a gift to John Ball Park. The piece is made of polystyrene. The artist crew that created it was Richard App, Thomas Birks, and Joachim Jensen.


The Giving Tree

This carved bench was also an Art Prize entry and was donated to the Zoo by its artist, Erica Yob. The bench is based on Shel Silverstein’s famous book called The Giving Tree.


The Griffons

One of the last gifts Kay Whinery gave us was a pair of 15th century stone griffons that had guarded her family home since her father had brought them from Europe in the early part of the century. At the time we had no appropriate spot for them so they were crated and stored. Her gift made us think that we needed a place in the Zoo to keep our history and the memories of so many good friends alive. We decided to plan a Welcome Garden to honor our past and celebrate our future. In 2012 DTE Energy Foundation helped us build that area located between the front entrance and the Idema Funicular. The griffons now have a home.