by Maggie See
Have you ever heard of Bongo, the piano-playing dog? If you’ve heard of Peter Loose, chances are high that you’ve not only heard of Bongo, but you’re also a fan of his books: Bongo is a Happy Dog (1997) and Bongo Has Many Friends (2001). Written by his wife, Sandy, about Bongo—a little black-and-white dog that Peter had when he met her—Peter rounded these books out with the kind of fun and colorful illustrations that stick in your brain as a kid. The Bongo books have spread far and wide and are now enjoyed all over the world. You can find them locally at Junk in the Trunk, Avid Bookshop and the Athens Regional Library. Loose has been an Athens-area art staple for many years, but he didn’t start off here.
Peter grew up in Maryland in the 60s and 70s. Always fascinated by nature as a kid, he originally wanted to be a zoo keeper or the next Ranger Rick. While he and his wife now have a rooster, two hens, three goldfish, a boa and three tortoises, he technically never became a zoo keeper. Peter worked as a naturalist for the Audubon Society until he moved to Georgia in 1987 to work as a naturalist at Sandy Creek Nature Center.
The self-taught path to his unique, folky, “twenty hundred dots” style wasn’t always an easy one. Loose started with watercolors in an attempt to illustrate a field guide but quickly grew frustrated. It was messy. Peter worked that mess into splotches of color that he liked a little more, then he branched out into acrylics where he really found his footing. One of his first pieces was an eagle-shaped birdhouse for Habitat for Humanity fundraiser. He says that led to hundreds of requests for the birdhouses, and it was “like an art bomb went off.”
That art bomb and resulting flood of birdhouse requests lead to Loose receiving a Georgia Council of the Arts grant. With that, he developed his iconic animal-shaped dulcimers. He’s made them in the shape of roosters, alligators, snakes, fish and groundhogs, and the list continues to grow. Now he has pieces of art all over the place. You can even find some of it in the background of the movie Nights in Rodanthe, or adorning the side of an entire school bus at the School Bus Graveyard in Alto, GA with a piece called Snakes on a Bus.
Peter participates in local events of all shapes and sizes, like the North Georgia Folk Festival and Roll Out the Barrels, and in 2015 he teamed up with Kip Ramey and the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation (OCAF) to put on The Great Folk Art Parade: From Finster Forward, a celebration of folk art and the artists who make it. After the success of the parade, he wanted to spend the next few years creating and curating exhibits for galleries and museums while he and Sandy spend more time on their antiques business. To keep up with Peter and his colorful world, give him a follow on Instagram (@BONGOPETERLOOSE) and Facebook (Loose Dulcimers).