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Wildlife art: portraits of an untamed country

An exhibit on North American wildlife art inspires passion and informs science.

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The value of art – particularly wildlife art – is that it inspires and unites people through a shared love of natural beauty and wonder, in contrast to a divisive political environment arguing scientific findings. This kind of visual representation can have a much more powerful impact when development threatens to disturb the landscape. For example, a North American version of the great migration undertaken by wildebeests across the Serengeti in Africa occurs with the migrating pronghorn antelope that make their home seasonally in Grand Teton National Park.

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If a viewer encounters pronghorns first through art, and then learns how the migration route is imperiled by development, it could trigger a passionate engagement in helping to preserve it.

"Artists often see things first and present them in ways that can lead society to an awakening," Locke says. "Rungius intuitively figured out the binding natural architecture of Yellowstone to Yukon, and he visually charted it long before science did. Science can speak to our mind. Art talks to our heart."

The eminent Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman, who made a pilgrimage to Wyoming from Vancouver in late July, proudly offered a tour of the exhibition to his grown children and grandchildren.

Known throughout the world, Mr. Bateman found his "Rocky Wilderness Cougar" (1980) hanging next to Bierstadt's iconic "Elk Grazing in the Wind River Country" (1861) and Charles M. Russell's famous depiction of a grizzly feasting on prey, "To the Victor Belong the Spoils" (1901).

What the exhibition confirms with an exclamation point, says James McNutt, director of the National Museum of Wildlife Art, is the acceptance of wildlife art. It is timely, topical, and appealing to those searching for ways to show their stewardship of a rapidly changing world.

For a long time, such subject matter has been dismissed as "prosaic" and appealing only to hunters and anglers. The diverse crowds at the National Museum of Wildlife Art suggest otherwise.

In a lengthy recent essay on WildlifeArtJournal.com, Bateman marshaled a fierce defense in the growing interest in animals as subject matter. "As long as nature is here, nature art will be here to stay," he wrote. "Let's hope that the same can be said about nature itself."

There is more to come for "Yellowstone to Yukon" after it closes in Jackson Hole. Next summer, it opens at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff National Park. According to Dale Eisler, a consul general for the Canadian government stationed in Denver, it's an event Canadians are eagerly awaiting.

"I have no doubt that, one day, Dwayne Harty's paintings themselves will be regarded as historic treasures just as these other works have proved to be over time," Locke says. "In 2061, 50 years from now, they'll provide a baseline for the environment we have today."

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