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Iron Zoo oil pump art.

Iron Zoo - Oil Pump Art

Field review by the editors.

Coalinga, California

The bobbing oil pumpjacks north of Coalinga are a strange sight. Travelers can imagine they're passing through a herd of long-necked, cyber-animals grazing in the brown hills, an illusion helped in part by some creative augmentation.

In the 1970s, when artist Jean Dakessian and her husband moved to town to open a restaurant, she looked at the pumps with a fresh eye (in the oil industry, the pumpjacks are also referred to as nodding donkeys or thirsty birds, with the head-like component named a "Horse Head," so the conceptual leap wasn't too drastic).

Iron Zoo oil pump art.

Jean asked for permission to paint one near the highway, and rendered it as a red bird -- with the long horizontal walking beam as the body connected to the cartoon-eyed head.

The bird pump was a hit, drawing passersby into Coalinga and igniting interest in more animal transformations. Jean continued to paint pumps for her "Iron Zoo." She added an elephant, a donkey, a butterfly -- anything that could be suggested by the unique shapes of the mechanical pumps, with a few decorative attachments. Jean enlisted the aid of local college students. She held a public oil well drawing contest for new concepts, and invited winners to help paint their creatures. At its peak, the Iron Zoo featured over 50 oil pumps.

The art pumps received lots of media attention, and eventually the popularity triggered corporate concerns about liability -- after all, these were operational machines working in an active oil field. No more pumps have been painted in decades, and some were moved for service away from the highway.

There are still a handful of Iron Zoo survivors along Fresno-Coalinga Road, and area visitors can buy pump postcards at the R.C. Baker Museum in town.

Iron Zoo - Oil Pump Art

Fresno-Coalinga Rd, Coalinga, CA
Hwy 5 about 2 hours north of Bakersfield, 2 hours south of Stockton, Coalinga exit hwy 198. Along Hwy 33 or 198, 9 miles north of Coalinga.
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Death Site of Mexican Robin HoodDeath Site of Mexican Robin Hood, Coalinga, CA - < 1 mi.
Horned Toad Pump JackHorned Toad Pump Jack, Coalinga, CA - 7 mi.
Restored 1934 Richfield Gas StationRestored 1934 Richfield Gas Station, Coalinga, CA - 7 mi.
In the region:
1880 Mussel Slough Tragedy, Hanford, CA - 35 mi.

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