Once a year a herd of nature lovers descend on Chucktown to graze through an array of wildlife art. The 25th SEWE seems to offer a wider range than ever, with a healthy balance of sculptors and photographers sharing the Expo with 80 painters.

The art will be comprehensively displayed in the Mills House Ballroom and the Grand Ballroom of Charleston Place, with reproductions nesting in the Charleston Riverview Hotel. But after a while, the bewildering scores of photorealist animal portraits, bird scenes, and snow-flecked landscapes are in danger of blurring together in one big zoo mural.

To help make life a little easier for expo enthusiasts, we’ve broken down what’s on offer into a few familiar species, highlighting some superior artists along the way.

Best in Show

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Artwise, 2007’s top dog is Edward Aldrich (pictured), nationally known for his lifelike oil paintings. He’s as at home depicting common animals as he is out in the wild, capturing the likenesses of wolves and foxes, lions and elephants, and birds from around the world.

“It’s not realism,” says SEWE President and CEO Jimmy Huggins, “but it’s not so loose that you can’t understand what it is.” Aldrich’s primate portraits are particularly striking, posed on tasteful brown backgrounds. Many of his subjects look remarkably coy, as if they’ve just been caught doing something naughty.

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As is traditional, Aldrich will be present in the Charleston Place ballroom to glad-hand collectors and add his John Hancock to a poster of his “Red Fox in Grass,” the official 2007 SEWE image. It’s easy to see why SEWE targeted Aldrich as their featured artist this year. With an all-around interest in animals, he indicates the variety of different subjects in the event and embodies what it’s all about — decorative art with a wild side.

Hot Stuff

“Ten years ago we introduced African art,” recalls Huggins, who’s been with the Expo in various capacities since 1983. “It was really scoring for a while and that waned. Then North American game got more popular.” The cyclical tastes of collectors notwithstanding, there’s still a lot of safari art on show.

Based in Australia, Lee Carter uses pastels to create expressive extreme close-ups of big cats, elephants and monkeys. Her keen eye for detail and fine lines gives the portraits a photographic feel. Peter Blackwell goes for more intense, dramatic, testosterone-pumped pictures of elephants having tusk-to-tusk tussles, and while he’s not averse to painting cute animals in oil or watercolor (such as a zebra family in “A Stripey Hello”), we think he’d rather watch them have a smackdown; two daddy zebras with a grudge go at it in “Clash of the Titans.”

Earth Fare

“Landscapes are popular at the moment,” says Huggins, “because anyone can relate to a landscape; magazines are always showing them and this kind of art puts people in touch with the outdoors without having specific subjects.” The wild vistas also hearken back to American landscape art of the 17th century, a genre that cemented the country’s worldwide reputation as a rugged place of wonder.

Bucky Bowles covers fishin’, huntin’, riverboats, and golf with a light palette that occasionally conjures up an old fashioned, almost sepia effect. Modest rural landscapes like “Early Fall” and “Back of the Hole” focus on picturesque places to fish. D.J. Chapin is less literal in her approach to birds and landscapes, adding a sheen to her oil paintings, “Rhapsody in Gold” and “Nature’s Haystack.”

Plant Life

Not an animal lover? Maybe you’ll go ga-ga over green stuff. Botanical artist Vivian Boswell can re-create a dock leaf in gouache that looks so real you’ll want to pick it up. She imbues her flora with more life and character than some of the doe-eyed animal paintings you’ll see at the Expo. The way she observes and savors life through her work is evident in every stem and vein of her flora.

Elegant Prints

“Original prints” may seem like a misnomer, but when the exquisite art’s by John Audubon and the printing’s courtesy of Robert Havell, the results are worth crowing about. Engravers Havell and William H. Lizars reproduced Audubon’s watercolors for the first edition of The Birds of America back in 1832. While plates from the book often crop up on eBay, these beauties are from the private collection of Gilbert Johnston — no bidding required.

All this means that amidst the brouhaha of naturalist shows and doggie demonstrations, you can track down talented artists who have built up a body of finely detailed work. Don’t look for all your favorites from previous years, though — the roster is rejiggered every year. “Some don’t make it in sales or they’re getting stale,” Huggins explains. “We rotate them, try to keep the show fresh.”

As long as visitors keep flocking back to see the work of so many animal artists all within walking distance, keeping the Expo fresh shouldn’t be much of a problem. »» Nick Smith