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)

21 January 2020

Baggage Claim

So often we speak of emotional "baggage" as something undesirable, something to be left behind, abandoned. Recently, I have found myself rethinking that.

No one is free of regret…or innocent of mistakes. We are taught to "put our past behind" us…but in some ways, that might be leaving something vital out of the mix. Our past mistakes, bad experiences, poor choices and regrettable decisions are as much a part of us as the color of our eyes.

The "baggage" does not go away because we leave it behind…it follows us quietly and sorrowfully through life. Don't get me wrong, I don't think we should drag along the pain, anger, anxiety that these things cause. Rather, that we should embrace that part of ourselves with love and forgiveness…and OWN our part in it. Only by doing so can we learn to see the lessons those experiences offer.

I believe we are drawn to certain people (or types of people) because they have something to teach us about ourselves. What do we miss learning about ourselves when we try to erase a relationship because we, as the song says, "went down that wrong road again"?

It is easy to lump the pain and regret all onto someone else and burn the bridge between you, but sometimes that fire also consumes all the good that came into your life with that person.  No matter how badly something ended…it always began with something beautiful.

Our mistakes do not, by default, define us. We CHOOSE what to define ourselves by. Some allow themselves to be defined by their tragedies…others define themselves only by their successes. To be whole, I believe we should choose neither…but rather live in harmony with our failures and in humility with our successes. It is in that balance that we find peace.

15 April 2019

Fun to Run

As an innate overachiever and being of the mind that there is ALWAYS a way to improve, I don't really tend to be "proud" of anything. Yesterday though, I was pretty darn happy with my ponies.

Due to Karma's injury, a tough Winter, my work, and life in general...they did very little over the past five months. Yesterday, I let them have joyful romp, then a couple of easy bareback walk/trot laps around the arena.

To my delight, Langley showed that he actually HAS been paying attention to some things that we have "discussed" in the past. Karma was good but I could tell she would have been happier to gallop around the arena, so I decided to get out of the box.

I opened the heavy arena gate from Karma's bare back then, still mounted, untied Langley. As we walked out between buildings, a wind-swept piece of trash tumbled by. They spun, snorted, but quickly calmed...and we headed up the outside of the horse pens. I wanted to let Newt join, so our first stop was the truck. From Karma's back, I opened the truck door. The door swung open, bumping Karma, then slammed shut due to the hill the truck was on. Neither horse flinched. I tried several times with the same result before dismounting to let Newt out. When I climbed on the tailgate to mount, Karma calmly stepped up and Langley waited patiently. Then off we went for a short bareback ride up the trail.

These are the first two horses I have trained. Karma had a fabulous start with her former owner but, because she was young, she'd had just had a few rides when she came to me. Langley, when I found him, knew nothing more than how to be led with a halter. His previous owner was afraid of him, so he had no other training.

We have had our ups and downs along the way, and I have made plenty of mistakes, but they have learned to do some pretty cool things (moving cows, jumping, tricks, flying kites, a wee bit of dressage for Karma)...even so, we all three still have a LOT to learn.

The simple things are the best, though. Being able to catch my Spring-fresh horses then, on a whim, head up a trail bareback on one while ponying the other, makes me indescribably happy.

(BTW...it is mud season, they were so dirty that I left clean spots on their backs in the shape of my butt and legs...but none of us minded a bit.)

11 July 2018


"Union" (study)
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!