Wildlife art: portraits of an untamed country

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

Artwork courtesy of the National Museum of Wildlife Art
‘Rocky Wilderness Cougar’ (1980), by Robert Bateman.
Artwork courtesy of the National Museum of Wildlife Art
‘Dall’s Sheep’ (2010), by Dwayne Harty

For nearly a month, Dwayne Harty never saw a jet contrail tapering overhead in the sky as he traversed the wilderness of Canada. If that seems unusual, what he did encounter was even more remarkable: five notoriously reclusive wolverines, a dozen grizzly bears, caribou, and bighorn sheep streaming through preternatural gaps in glacier-coated mountains.

Whenever wolves howled, which at the far northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains was a daily occurrence, he could feel the pounding heart of his packhorse beneath him.

Like other famous wildlife painters before him, Mr. Harty sought out a frontier untrammeled by civilization. What he brought back from his multiyear sojourns are stunning chronicles on canvas of ­solitude-seeking animals – "indicator species" whose well-being can telegraph environmental conditions to monitoring scientists and society at large.

"This incredible assemblage of wildlife art," says conservationist-turned-art curator Harvey Locke, "is like having a three-way mirror positioned in front of one of the wildest terrestrial corridors on Earth. And, lo and behold, it happens to be situated in the backyard of America and Canada."

This summer in Jackson Hole, Wyo., a novel art exhibition of contemporary and historical paintings has drawn big crowds. Its purpose is to call attention to the furry and feathered inhabitants of the continent's longest contiguous "eco-region," which transcends the borders of two countries.

"Yellowstone to Yukon: Journey of Wildlife and Art" ends its run in August at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. It has won praise for showing how fine art can illuminate issues of science and conservation in ways words alone cannot.

The perspectives wildlife art provides Mr. Locke suggests, is threefold. It enables viewers to ponder the last gasp of the Western frontier conveyed through the brush strokes of 19th-century painters and gain a clear-eyed picture on challenges likely to threaten wildlife survival, and most important, it stirs viewers to reflect on the value of nature.

That the show is running at the height of the summer tourist season, with millions of vacationers en route to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, is no coincidence.

"More than ever in an age of climate change and expanding footprints of human development, it's important to understand why healthy environments matter," Locke says.

The ambitious assemblage of paintings and sculpture features works by prominent American and Canadian nature artists who, over two centuries, were drawn to the spine of the Rockies. There they followed the winding Yellowstone to Yukon corridor stretching 2,000 miles from sand dunes and treeless sagebrush in Wyoming's Red Desert to the moose-trodden muskeg and Dall sheep crags of the high Arctic in the Northwest Territories.

Artist Harty, best known as a mural painter in his native Canada, was handed an artistic assignment that is exceedingly uncommon in the modern world. By being a modern "expedition painter," he now shares company with some of the greatest artistic visionaries who ever ventured West – people such as George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, and Albert Bierstadt, who have works in the world's finest museums.

A perfect illustration of the vital role painters have played in safeguarding the Wild West was Thomas Moran. In 1871, he accompanied scientists who were surveying a strange wonderland. A year later, his re-creations on canvas of canyons, cascading waterfalls, and ocher rock helped persuade Congress to set aside Yellowstone as the world's first national park.

Harty's contemporary renderings of the same expansive vistas provide viewers of "Yellowstone to Yukon" a visual link in understanding the evolution of North America's western ecology.

"Dwayne was selected for this modern mission because we knew his work would serve as a perfect complement to the historic paintings that are in the exhibition," says Locke.

Harty painted wolves on Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch in Montana, bison in Yellowstone, and mountain goats in Canada's remote Nahanni National Park in the Northwest Territories. He even featured the lowly pika, the alpine-dwelling rodent whose habitat is threatened by warming temperatures.

One paragon who served as a pathfinder for Harty was Carl Rungius (1869-1959), widely considered the greatest painter of North American mammals. He began his career out west in the Wind River Mountains in the 1890s at the southern extension of the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor and then, for the remainder of his life, devoted himself to portraying wildlife in the Canadian Rockies.

"It felt like I was going back in time, finding the old trails of Rungius," Harty says. "It was both humbling and daunting. I think what surprised me most is how wild the country still is."

Nearly two decades ago, Locke, who hails from the Canadian province of Alberta, helped found the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative aimed at rallying people from all walks of life to safeguard the region's biological diversity.

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.

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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