An excerpt from conservation activist Thomas Spruance’s prologue to Todd Wilkinson’s new book, Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and America’s Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem
BY LYN STCLAIR
On the way to the mailbox with the puppy, movement catches my eye. A herd of 15 or so bighorn sheep sees us and starts to bunch up in the pasture, ready to run. I freeze and tell the puppy to sit. The sheep stop and line up along the fence, facing us, fascinated by the little dog. We start to move again, cautiously. I don’t want them to run and waste energy. They calmly move on and we head back to the house.
From my easel, I have looked out the windows of my Paradise Valley home to see black bear, deer, elk, bighorn, long-tailed weasel, and an assortment of other wild things both furred and feathered. This is the reason I have chosen to live here; to be immersed in the place that inspires my work.
Since childhood, when I started selling animal portraits drawn from life, personal experience has driven my work. In the tradition of many of my art heroes, including wildlife and landscape painter Carl Rungius, I started out using captive animals to paint subjects that were not readily accessible to me. That unease deepened early on when I was drawing a snow leopard from the Denver Zoo. It bothered me that I did not know what the rocks would look like in the cat’s natural habitat. Like Rungius, again, I followed my artist heart to wild places.
North American wildlife became my focus and I began traveling to observe my subjects in their world: coyotes meandering the Sonoran Desert; barred owls hunting in Vermont; collared lizards in Arizona; wading birds working Florida waters; scissortail flycatchers in Texas; Steller’s eiders in the Aleutians; and Ross’ gulls at the top of the world in Barrow, Alaska. The only problem? It never seemed enough to spend days or even weeks in an area; there was always so much more to learn. Gradually, I narrowed in on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
In 2002, after a decade of semi-annual trips to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, I moved to Montana. With 30 years of experience behind me, I’ve only scratched the surface of what can be learned about this area and its wildlife.
During my time here, I have been fortunate to watch generations of bear families and to see changes in the area since the reintroduction of wolves. I love to see the colors of the landscape change with the seasons and with weather shifts. But I’ve also seen the devastating impacts of climate change, habitat loss and drought. The painting on the easel at the moment is inspired by a recent encounter with wolves in the muted earth tones of a snow-free March landscape; the same time last year, I watched that pack frolicking in deep snow.
The hard work of innumerable hours in the field is rewarded by the thrill of seeing things I had not imagined or had only read about: a tiny grizzly cub catching a ride on its mama’s back across a melt-swollen spring river; a grizzly and coyote playing together; a coyote hunting with a badger. I watched a fox teaching her kits to hunt with lessons that become increasingly complex each week.
Years of observation have taught me that individual bears may have different foraging and hunting techniques that are dependent on the unique flora, fauna and geography of their territory. When you spend enough time in a place, you find an ebb and flow to the creatures, the plant life, even the land.
“Wildlife watching” is a bit of a misnomer. To really study wildlife means spending most of the time not watching wildlife. Once in Yellowstone, while the paparazzi scoped bears just down the road, I lingered alone where I’d seen a fox. Five full days for a few brief encounters with the fox was worth every minute of waiting.
Much of what I learned about my subjects has come from listening quietly in their habitat, following their tracks, or watching how other species react to their presence. Magpies have “told” me where to find bobcats; elk have pointed to bear; and my own horses have alerted me to a cougar. Even my housecat has called my attention to weasels on the deck with her interpretive weasel dance.
It isn’t just the creatures, however. I want to know the colors and textures of snow, the relative heights of local plants compared to the animals and when specific wildflowers bloom. I want to know that my subjects are in the right habitat for the season: animals in correct coat, birds in proper plumage and plant life in suitable foliage. From my perspective, all that time observing is vital to the work, even when the resulting painting is a simple portrait or contemporary interpretation.
There are as many ways to approach subject manner as there are artists. For me, the experiences are what inspire my work. Each painting is story of a personal encounter and holds a piece of my soul. Swirled into every brushstroke are the nonvisual experiences that accompany wildlife encounters: the crisp chill in autumn air; the sometimes-relentless wind; the bitter cold of 30 below zero; the glitter and gurgle of fresh water over streambeds.
Some of the most extraordinary moments have yet to make it to canvas. But these are at the heart of my work and contribute to my understanding of the wild world around me.
Lyn StClair, is an artist who moved to Montana to be immersed in the place that inspires her work: the landscape and wildlife that make this place special.
CALL TO ACTION
Visit the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming—the only museum in America dedicated solely to this medium—to support wildlife art and its preservation. This summer, NMWA is celebrating its 35th anniversary. Visit wildlifeart.org to learn more.