Wandermuse

One artist's journey: Trying to live a creative life with grace, grit, gratitude...and a border collie.
(or perhaps I should say: greys, grit and gratitude)

11 July 2018

"Union"


"Union" (study)
Grizzlies
Oil on Gessoed Panel
24" x 12"

Recently, I had the remarkable experience of observing a pair of courting grizzlies. It was fascinating to see the changing behavior from their first day together to his fast exit 12 days later.

The sow is a bear I have watched since 2007, the first Spring she showed up as a COY with her mother and siblings. The boar, typical of grizzly males, was a wide ranging backcountry bear that left his territory to find his mate.

This painting was inspired by behavior I saw one morning during the "courting" phase prior to mating, when they are at their most affectionate. She sat across from me and he sat behind her...then they nuzzled one another. It was wonderful to see the sweetness between them.

It is the first of many paintings that I imagine will come from the time spent with these two bears.

02 July 2018

No Peace for the Weary


This past Winter, a friend and I were wandering Parkadise. We crested a hill and saw paparazzi pointing cameras across the road. I looked up and spotted two coyotes above the road, perfectly camouflaged against the brush (though, perhaps I should say “imperfectly”, since I did see them).

My friend, who was driving, did not see them. I said “Stop! Coyotes!” and he kept saying “where?!” When he finally stopped, I dove out with my camera. My impression was that they were about to move and, sure enough, one of them stepped over the top of the rise, the other stayed for a moment…then it moved, as well.

Later, the friend I was with posted a photo of one of them and titled it “A Moment of Calm”. That was interesting to me, because “calm” was definitely not the word I would have used. As with many things, watching wildlife carries with it some “observer bias”. It is human nature that people have a tendency to see what they want to see...but, to truly appreciate wildlife as objectively as possible and learn from those experiences, you have to train yourself to step out of your own box.

One would expect these animals to move even further away from the pressure of the growing crowd of people…so what held them there? Did they have a carcass close by? The “shyer” of the two had a scar across its muzzle and was missing hair around one eye from previous injuries. Battle scars? It was mating season…and territorial disputes between canids can get ugly. Other coyotes were calling from the hills behind them. Perhaps a a rival pack? These two coyotes were also “resting” right in the heart of the Junction Butte wolf pack territory. Wolves protect their territory and, given any opportunity, will kill the much smaller coyotes. Just Northwest of where they lay, the wolves had been observed at their den. From the ridge where these coyotes lay, they could see in every direction…toward the calling coyotes to the South, toward the wolf den to the Northwest and toward the strip of pavement that was human “territory” just below them.

I did not see "calm", at all. I saw two coyotes trying to rest, surrounded by multiple threats.

The two songdogs moved again, to the West along their ridge, then lay down again even further from the road and growing crowd. The shyer one stayed close to its mate, but slipped over the hill almost out of view. From behind its sheltering sage, it watched the people warily…ears flattening. It was clearly NOT calm. The other one kept trying to sleep…but every few seconds, it would open its eyes at a loud voice, track the movement of a human, noticeably flinch at a door slam or sit up to look around. It would lay its head back down…only to be disturbed again within moments. Even when it would seem to close its eyes, one eye was usually cracked open just a bit...always watching, alert, aware. They weren’t just paying attention to the humans, either. Heads turned, ears swiveled…they were wary of possible danger in every direction. No rest for the weary, here.

After they moved, their new “bed” was partially obscured by the ridge they were on. Though we were shooting from the human territory (aka “road”)…technically, we were too close. While the other photographers lined the road, I postholed my way through the snow, up the hill further away from the coyotes. Aside from giving them space, I wanted to get a different angle because I love painting feet and wanted be able to see theirs.

Alone, I would have climbed further back until they no longer seemed bothered by my presence, then sat quietly in the brush to see what they did. The crowd was growing, though, and the coyotes seemed increasingly uncomfortable. It was time to go.

No matter how “acclimated” or “calm” we may think wild creatures are in our presence…it is important to remember that WE are the greatest threat they face. Coyotes, in particular, may be the North American native species most relentlessly and inhumanely persecuted by humans. Americans have long waged full-on war against coyotes…most states have no limit on killing them and many communities hold “coyote killing contests”. Being shot is the least of their worries…crueler methods like poisoning, burning out dens, cyanide bombs, M-80s, snares, leg-hold traps, packs of hounds and even introducing mange into the population have been used in futile efforts to eradicate this native species. The USDA’s Wildlife “Services” alone killed nearly 80,000 coyotes in 2016, and some estimates say that 400,000 coyotes are killed every year. The same methods nearly wiped out gray, Mexican and red wolves…yet the adaptable and resourceful coyotes have actually increased their range.

The two coyotes on the hill may have seemed “calm” to some people, but if you paid attention, it was all too easy to see their unease.

The reality is that they are wild creatures suspended between threats. They are trying to find a balance between uncomfortable relationships with other predators and the teeming humanity pushing more and more into their shrinking habitat. I loved having the opportunity to observe and photograph them…but I know, deep down, that those coyotes would have been much better off to run from us…if they had anywhere left to go.

"No Peace for the Weary" (Study)
Coyotes, YNP
12" x 24"
Oil on Gessoed Panel

21 June 2018

Hey Baby, What's Your Sign?


Home from an incredible couple weeks of work: time with collectors and friends (old and new)…plein air painting the Tetons as a storm rolled in, then plein air painting the elk refuge in pouring rain…a successful art event…and some brutally long days spent in happy wonder watching/sketching/photographing wildlife.

One of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had observing wildlife began when I was fortunate to see a grizzly sow during the last hours with her 3 1/2 year old cub one evening…then, again, with her new mate the next morning.

*By the way, this is a sow that I have watched for her entire life, since she was one of a set of triplets born in 2007 (and I watched her mother for years before that).

*Now, before you feel sorry for the kicked-out cub, most cubs are kicked out at 2 1/2...this young bear had an extra year of life lessons and "mom-time" before being sent out on her own. That alone is remarkable. Now, back to recent events...

A few days later, I found the pair again and was able to see the snuggly “courting” behavior that started their day of feeding together while the sow seemed to be testing the fitness of her prospective partner. Shortly after that, I caught them “in the act” (no, not gonna be painting bear porn). Afterwards, they hung out together throughout the day. The next morning, I watched them mating again and then spending much of the day foraging in a field of wildflowers to the delight of everyone who saw them.

The following morning, they were not to be found…but, around midday, I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to see the boar come thundering out of the deadfall alone. He galloped across the road and disappeared into the backcountry that he apparently calls “home”. Remarkable behavior to observe…and more incredible to have seen it go full circle.

Between bouts of watching the courting pair, I was able to watch the sub-adult start to experience life alone for the first time, getting her first elk calf solo and avoiding the pair (grizzly males may kill cubs when courting females).

It wasn’t just about bears, either…there were some very cool moments/hours spent watching birds, elk, bison, coyotes, and wolves.

Some of the best moments were lowering my tripod to "kid level" so young visitors could see bears (I love hearing their squeals of delight)....and showing another couple their first bears. It never gets old.

The days were incredibly long, the weather far from ideal, the showers far between, lol…but it was worth it.

I staggered home with dead batteries, full memory cards, totally exhausted, giddily happy and incredibly inspired!

20 May 2018

Survivors

In April and May of 2009, I was undergoing radiation treatments following my cancer surgery. The doc had told me that the effects of radiation were cumulative, that I would get more exhausted as time passed.

The problem, for me, was that it was my favorite time of year in Yellowstone.

Typically, I would be spending most days during those months in the park, but radiation meant treatments five days a week in Bozeman. That wouldn't stop me from doing what I love.

Nearly every weekday morning I'd get up at 3 am and drive a couple hours into YNP to look for wildlife. Scheduling radiation as late in the day as possible, usually 4 pm, meant that I needed to be headed out the North Entrance by 2:30 in order to make the one and a half hour drive to Bozeman to get zapped. Afterwards, another half hour drive back home to set the alarm and crash for a few hours. Weekends were spent entirely in the park.


In the waiting room before my appointments, I heard other radiation patients tell tales of woe. One woman said all she could do after her appointments was go home and cry.

Meanwhile, I would come in giddy with stories of the bears, wolves and other wildlife I had seen earlier in the day.


One of the many animals I was watching that Spring was a playful young grizzly. She looked like she had not been out on her own for very long and was delighting the paparazzi with her antics.

In late April, I noticed that this little bear was limping pretty badly.

Apparently, she had experienced a “life lesson” with a porcupine and her right front paw was full of quills.

She would walk on her knuckles so she didn't step on the quills, and lean on her elbow to dig with one paw.

A paw full of quills could mean a death sentence to a bear…between difficulty foraging, crippled movement, and the possibility of infection. Quills don't "fall out". As I understand, they have to work their way THROUGH.

Still, she persisted.

As I was learning to deal with life under different terms, so was she. She was learning to dig with one paw and run on three. She was obviously in pain, but she hunted, explored…and played.

Through weeks of radiation, I kept doing what I loved and never felt the exhaustion or depression that seemed to be crippling other patients.

Hoping to share a little of the joy that buoyed me through it, I started printing photos to share with other patients and staff.

Shortly after finishing radiation, I saw the little bear again. She had moved miles away, across mountains. She was hunting, running and playing in a different part of the park. She still limped…but her skills at managing had improved greatly.
When I saw her in 2011, no one would have known that she’d been quill-crippled in the past. My sightings of her were rare over the next few years, as I tended to spend time in other parts of the Park and avoided the construction in her home range…but I heard stories about her.

Visitors tagged her with “names” and Bear Management fitted her with a collar and corresponding number. She had cubs, lost some, but she's figuring things out...and her current cub is starting its third Summer. (typically born in February, “third year” cubs are actually about two and a half years old).

This Spring, I've had several opportunities to spend time with her and her cub. She will probably kick that cub out in the next few weeks…but, for now, they are affectionate and playful. It seems she has taught her little one well. Recently, she dodged the advances of a boar and has been ranging across her large territory, as usual...delighting her fans wherever she goes.

Wild stories don't always end so well.


When crippled by quills, the bear didn’t feel sorry for herself. It is bear nature to deal with her new reality and simply carry on.

Human nature doesn’t always work that way...but I had made a choice long before "meeting" this little bear.

After surgery, I remember standing in front of a mirror and thinking “this is just what it is now”.

Chin up and carry on.

Nine years have passed since we first crossed paths. She has no sign of a limp and my scars have faded.

We’re both older, tougher, and (hopefully) wiser.
There is no shortage of tragedy in either of our worlds,
but she still romps and plays…and I am still laughing.

Against the odds, we have both survived.









16 May 2018

Field Studying

This is just a glimpse into what the research for my paintings looks like.

Recently, I started condensed years of reference on to species-specific copies of iPhoto for easier access. One copy of iPhoto is JUST GRIZZLIES observed in the wild since 2003, when I started shooting digital. I have similar collections for other species, as well.

The images on the screen in the photo represent just a small fraction of around 250 "events" (folders) containing roughly 130,000 images of exclusively wild grizzlies (it says 160,000, but there are some duplicates). I'm still loading images...and haven't even started trying to transfer the video I was also shooting in 2003-5. These "events" are sorted by year, location, and by individual bears (or bear families, in the case of sows with young). There are certain bears that I have been watching for as many as 15 years.


These photos are the result of countless hours observing/photographing these bears. They don't include even more time spent with bears that I just watched or sketched. On top of that is the time spent "not" finding bears...studying their habitat and the other species they share it with.

As much as I love what I do, it isn't easy, it isn't a "gift" and it isn't "luck" (though I do get lucky, on occasion). It is hard work, sacrifice, investment (in time, gear, research, more), and simply paying attention to everything in the field. The hard days outnumber the great moments exponentially, lol...but, to me, it is worth it.

The photos do not come close to capturing the memories I have of time spent in the field. There is so much that could never be captured by a camera or sketch. Every time I look through a group of images, I relive the time spent with the subject(s).

If I chose, I could spend the rest of my life painting grizzlies and never leave the house...but that isn't why I do it.

All that time spent in the field has taught me more than I ever imagined about my subjects...and, yet, what I understand about these wonderful creatures is just a drop in the bucket. There is so much more to learn...

Mixed into every brushstroke of every painting are years of stories, memories and experiences with the wild creatures that inspire my art...