News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 10, 2013

Scaling it down: Graysville woman creating unique art from small natural elements

Alligator gar scales collected from otter scat help form delicate scenes

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

GRAYSVILLE — The average person would step sideways to avoid it.

Susan Burton wanted a closer look. Experiencing unique wildlife scenery is a daily occurrence in the woodlands surrounding the Burtons’ home, farm and gravel pit along Turman Creek and the Wabash River near Graysville, but Susan had never seen this before.

“I was walking along the beach one day, and I spotted these pretty little pieces,” she said.

Twinkling gems amid a pile of animal “scat,” as Susan calls it.

Others might refer to it as manure, excrement, poop or earthier terms — again, not an uncommon sight on the Burtons’ private properties. But the contents of this critter-dropping especially intrigued Susan and her artistic eye. At first, she figured the pile was left by beavers. But a friend enjoying a swim that day with Susan and her husband, Barney, made an astute observation. Beavers don’t eat meat, and this scat contained fish bones and scales.

Later, as they swam, a creature popped up in the water. “It’s an otter,” their friend said on that day last year. Mystery solved.

Those delicate, gleaming pieces Susan spotted in the otter scat were actually scales from an alligator gar. As otters do, the gar was eaten whole — from head to tail, bones, fins and all — then digested and excreted by the otter. The scales — a dingy gray on the fish — transform in the process. “The acid in [the otters’] stomachs just bleaches them out and turns them pearly white,” Barney explained.

Susan found more of the scat, collected it, culled the scales, rinsed them in a disinfectant, and meticulously turned them into delicate mosaic art. She adhered the scales on a dark background, forming the intricate figures of a peacock, a goldfish, a deer, a swan, a lamb, a hen and her chicks, and a deer. The scales, layered one over another at their edges, builds a 3-dimensional effect.

The choice of a swan exemplified the origin of the artwork, as homely beginnings convert to beauty.

That piece involved 28 hours of work, from gathering to detailing. Susan bordered the swan’s wings with fish bones, also found in the otter scat. The alligator gar bones also became stems in a flower mosaic, as well as a flock of butterflies in that same piece. In fact, little of the otter waste is, well, wasted. Even riverbank sand — turned sparkly through the otter’s digestion — serves as the earth at the base of each mosaic.

A real-life moment inspired her to craft the flowers and butterflies scene. While walking through her garden, she kicked up a sea of butterflies.

“I was surrounded by all these really neat butterflies,” Susan recalled.

Her handiwork — now formally labeled as Otter Scat Creations By Susan — caught the attention of Arts Illiana in Terre Haute and its executive director, Jon Robeson. The organization plans to display Susan’s mosaics at its annual Spring Exhibition, which opens Friday.

With her collection, Susan “offers a delicate sensibility that reappropriates form in a startling fashion,” Robeson said. “From the natural contours on her butterfly wings or the petals on a flower, she creates a new assemblage that feels natural. And fortunately, she has the patience and fortitude to not lose sight of a vision that is obviously painstaking to achieve.”

An otter is just one of many wildlife inhabiting and visiting the homefront, where Susan, Barney and their son, Solly, live and farm, raising chickens, ducks, corn and beans. With ponds, the creek and river, they see all kinds of fish, as well as deer, hawks, owls, foxes, coyote, eagles, opossums, raccoons, beavers, and even sandhill cranes, among others. As Susan displayed her artwork in their living room earlier this month, a cowbird and a cockatiel carried on an aviary conversation, while a muscovy duck waddled on the porch outside the sliding glass door.

“We live in a little menagerie here,” Susan said, as the cowbird climbed up her arm.

The otter and alligator gar are relatively recent additions on this farm, where Barney’s parents settled after moving from Los Angeles almost 50 years ago. The gar and other river fish spilled into their gravel pit when the Wabash River overflowed its banks in the June 2008 flood. The fish proved attractive to at least one otter, a species that disappeared in Indiana by 1942 from fur trapping and a loss of habitat, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The DNR began an otter reintroduction project in 1995, releasing 303 river otters from Louisiana at 12 locations in the state, including the upper Wabash watershed in northern Indiana.

The project worked. By 2005, river otters were removed from the state’s endangered species list. Today, the sleek, keen-swimming mammals have been found in 87 percent of Indiana counties, including small numbers in Sullivan and Vigo. “It’s not uncommon to see them there,” Shawn Rossler, furbeare biologist for the DNR in Bloomington, said of the two local counties.

Otters’ diet includes a variety of aquatic creatures, including crayfish. “But fish is primarily their food of choice,” Rossler said.

The otter on the Burton farm left before winter. “He might come back. He might not,” Barney said.

Susan gathered as much of the otter scat as she could find. It would be tempting to compare the mosaics Susan constructed with the highly sought-after coffee “kopi luwak” made famous in the 2008 movie, “The Bucket List.” The beans used to make kopi luwak are eaten, digested and excreted by Asian palm civets — a flavor-enhancing process — and then gathered, cleaned, roasted, sold and consumed for as much as $50 a pound. In the film, characters played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman laugh heartily when Freeman tells Nicholson the origin of his favorite coffee.

The artwork born from otter scat represents a fascinating tale, too, which is particularly relevant now as Terre Haute conducts its 2013 Year of the River celebration, Robeson said. That yearlong observation aims to raise awareness about the Wabash, its wildlife and impact, and the arts. Susan’s mosaics connect those dots. It’s hard to imagine art being any more organic or local.

“From the long-term effects of flooding to the reintroduction of a species missing for decades, to effects of altering our physical landscape, there are many discussions that arise from Susan’s work,” Robeson said.

“The art, itself, is well-executed,” he added, “and, in many different ways, tells an important ecological story of our community.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or