Natick couple donates virtual gallery to Morse Institute Library
Normally law-abiding citizens, Jay and Erica Ball have left a menagerie of wild animals grazing in the lobby of the Morse Institute Library.
Just before the circulation desk, trumpeting elephants, frowning Cape buffaloes, elegant gazelles, watchful zebras and stately giraffes roam the African savannah on a repeating loop of photographs playing inside a virtual gallery built by Ball and donated to the library.
A retired engineer and former selectman, Ball took the striking photographs of wildlife and people on a safari he took with his wife, Ricky, across Kenya and Tanzania in 2006.
"The first time I saw elephants walking free I thought, 'Oh my God, they're beautiful. They're just beautiful,"' he recalled. "Like everyone else, I'd seen elephants in a zoo but never in their own environment. I was almost brought to tears."
Ball's photographs convey that wonder.
A baby elephant tugs her mother's trunk like a child impatient for attention. A sad-eyed giraffe with long eyelashes scratches its nose with a purple tongue as long as a towel. Like police cruisers lined up nose to tail, two observant zebras rest their heads on one another's striped backs as they watch for hyenas.
The Balls recently donated the virtual gallery to the library in memory of Paula Polk, who directed the library from 1993 to 2008. A Southborough resident, Polk died of cancer in October at the age of 59.
"Paula was a great person and a great friend of the library," said Ball. "Many people miss her."
The virtual gallery can be easily configured to show other photographers' images, providing a space-saving venue for others, he said.
An MIT graduate, Ball designed the gallery to be user-friendly. A viewer can move the loop of images forward or backward by pressing clearly marked symbols or just by saying "left" or "right" in a clear voice. Viewers can turn on an audio soundtrack playing music they select - in Ball's case, traditional African music - or press a mute button to watch in silence.
A lifelong photographer and avid traveler, Ball had always dreamed of visiting Africa.
Growing up in New York, he began taking pictures when an aunt gave him a Brownie Reflex camera for his 12th birthday. After graduating from MIT with an engineering degree, Ball continued photography "mostly for fun, mostly as a hobby." He photographed friends' weddings and over the years exhibited his photos in an estimated 25 one-man shows.
"I am by training an engineer and like most engineers, I shy away from people. As a photographer, I'm mostly take photos of architecture or landscapes and not people. I'm uncomfortable asking strangers to take their pictures," he said.
Luckily Ball needed no introduction to photograph his son Alan sharing a tasty treat lip-to-lip with a giraffe, "nasty" baboons or a surly Cape buffalo with an attitude.
The African trip took root several years ago when Ball kept telling his wife how much he'd like to fulfill a childhood dream of visiting Africa. Running out of patience, she told him to "just do it" and they did.
The Balls and their son signed up for a trip through Kenya and Tanzania with Outdoor Adventure Travel. They were joined by Deborah Thayer of Natick, and three friends from Wayland. Five travelers they didn't know rounded out their party of 12, which traveled in two converted land cruisers.
They visited game parks and wildlife preserves in Kenya and Tanzania including Amboseli, Tarangire, Lake Manyara, Oldupai, the Serengeti, Ngorongoro and lands around Mount Kilimanjaro.
After landing in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, the Balls' party was driven by their guide, Saif Mohammed, to the savannah in open-topped land cruisers fitted with customized suspensions for rugged country. Ball described their guide as "an absolutely wonderful human."
"You rarely get out of the vehicles when wild animals were around. You never know when you'll come across lions dozing in the grass or a couple of Cape buffalos," said Ball. "Though reasonably smooth, the country roads are far from being superhighways. You can go about 30 mph without feeling like you're in a cocktail shaker."
During the trip, Ball took more than 2,000 photos on a Kodak P850 Zoom digital camera. For the virtual gallery, he culled those pictures down to 102 images which play on a repeating loop at short intervals.
He described the African landscape as mostly flat, grassy plains with frequent clumps of acacia trees with thorny leaves. The vast land was set against a backdrop of low hills and occasional extinct volcanos surrounded by stony lava-like caldera.
The Balls' party occasionally passed through simple villages of mud huts and tin-roofed shacks. Despite their poverty, the owners of hardscrabble village shops sold camera batteries and film along with bananas, tinned goods and plantains. The travelers often found Internet access in humble shops. Noting the flatness of the land, Ball said, "my cell phone worked better in Africa than in South Natick."
He remains deeply impressed by Africans he met who invariably spoke some English and were helpful and dignified.
At night, land cruisers from different tours parked at sites prepared with 30-foot-long tents, clean toilets and showers with running water.
"It could be quite luxurious," said Ball. "But after dark you couldn't walk from the dining area to your tent alone because wild animals might wander by. There were guards with flashlights and (rifles). The coolest one was a Masai warrior with a spear."
Looking back, Ball recalled several special moments that changed his earlier ideas about Africa.
"The first time I saw a leopard just hanging out on the branch of a tree, I just shook my head in wonder. Then we'd drive through large swaths of land shared by wildebeest, gazelles and giraffes," he remembered. "It all changed my views of Africa and wild animals. Now I don't want to see them in a zoo. It was a whole new world so different from our own."
The Morse Institute Library is at 14 East Central St., Natick.
The library is seeking artists with digital images available to display in the virtual gallery. There is an option for a soundtrack. To arrange to have your art displayed, contact Community Relations Director Marie Nardi at 508-647-6520.
Other coming events at the library include:
- A photo exhibit to honor Armed Forces members opens on Saturday, May 16.
- Monday, May 18, 2 p.m.: Joseph Keefe of the National Archives and Records Center of Waltham will discuss how to access military records.
For more information, call 508-647-6520 or visit www.morseinstitute.org.