ANIMAL ART

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Ralph Oberg
Greg Beecham
Sandy Scott
The northfork and big nasty
Walter T. Matia
Where the Buffalo Roamed

ANIMAL ART

BY M. J. VAN DEVENTER

Walter Matia first saw an animal in a painting when he was a youngster touring the Cleveland Art Museum. It was a portrait of a dead animal, but it was still captivating to Matia, who resides in Dickerson, Maryland.

As he grew older, he encountered the compelling animal art of Carl Rungius, an adventurous hunter whose paintings presented wildlife with a psychological viewpoint in an artistic background. Rungius’ paintings are revered by artists and Matia believes, “As wildlife artists, we all share in his lifelong adventure.”

As Matia matured, he earned a professional reputation not only for his exquisite bird sculptures but for his exceptional research about animals and their role in art.

His stature as one of the country’s leading wildlife artists made him the perfect host to lead a discussion on “The Role of Animals in Art” at the 2015 Prix de West art exhibition at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

Sharing the stage with Matia for a spirited discussion were fellow wildlife artists Greg Beecham, Ralph Oberg and Sandy Scott, all of whom have won prestigious national awards for their artistic portraits of wildlife in their habitat.

Each of the artists brought a unique perspective to the discussion, based on their experiences of painting and sculpting animals ~ often in the wilds of the American Northwest and numerous foreign countries, especially Africa, Europe and Asia.

Matia, 62, posed numerous probing questions to the artists.
* Why use animals as a subject for your art?
* What motivates you as a wildlife artist?
* Is the animal more important than the landscape?

Sandy Scott, 72, grew up in Tulsa as a rancher’s daughter and said sketching animals was logical for her as a child.

“My material became my muse,” she said.

Scott began her career as an animation background artist for movie studios and then became intrigued with printmaking. She turned to sculpture in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Most artists do sculpt what they know,” she said.

An avid outdoors woman, Scott maintains homes in Lander, Wyoming and Lake of the Woods, Ontario, Canada. She is versatile in her subject matter and quite adept at sculpting a variety of wildlife ~ from majestic eagles to barnyard animals. She is noted for her prudent observations of wildlife in their habitat.

“There is a difference between flat work – paintings – and dimensional art – sculpture. There is some logic to how birds move with such flexibility. It’s important to know an animal’s skeleton. It’s a rudiment of sculpture.”

One of her most famous works is a monumental bronze eagle, which is tethered at the William Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas and the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Greg Beecham, 61, is a classic example of an artist who followed his father’s footsteps. Tom Beecham taught his son to draw and by sixth grade, Greg could draw photographically, a skill he says he still uses in his current quest to pursue wildlife art.

“My father instilled in me a love for the outdoors and a desire to portray the wilderness accurately,” Beecham notes. “Every time I’m in the wilderness, the animals tell me something new.”

Beecham, who lives in Dubois, Wyoming, says, “I try to give the critters a personality. Some are ugly. Yet, there are some unbelievably handsome grizzly bears. But none of the creatures will sit still for you.”

Beecham talked about his study of paintings by David Leffel and George Carlson.

“I challenged myself,” he recalls. “It is actually Carlson’s sculpture I’ve learned the most from. In his approach, he creates a focal point that emanates from a mass and yet that focal point remains part of the mass. I am attempting to discern ways to translate that idea into painting.”

His paintings do reveal an understanding of color values, textures, and edges that are smooth transitions and the point, counterpoint principle of art.

“I’m always building toward a unity of simplicity and painting in my work,” he said. “I also try to tell an artistic story, along with the story in the painting. I find there are lifetimes about art left to learn.”

Ralph Oberg, 65, was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, but moved with his family to Colorado at age four.

“My brother and I had the place all to ourselves then. We fell in love with the mountain country, the freedom of the animals and the wilderness. Animals were an integral part of that setting.”

Oberg found the mountain wilderness his spiritual and artistic home early in life.

“I always knew I would be an artist,” he said.

After a brief stint at illustration, he began his career focused on North American wildlife and birds. He began painting outside extensively to learn the color and texture of nature.

“I love the silence and mystery of wildlife – their hairs, feathers, the mood of their environment.”

Although Carl Rungius died when Oberg was only nine, his work became a major influence on Oberg as he matured as an artist.

Like Scott, Oberg believes watching animals move is an important part of an artist’s observations about wildlife. Like most artists, photographs taken in the wild – and slides from an earlier era – help inform his art.

“I’m not a master of anatomy, but I know what looks good in a painting,” he said. “It’s a matter of knowing the difference between art versus illustration. Rungius taught us there are only so many poses in wildlife that are paintable.”

Oberg’s extensive travels on foot or horseback in the North American wilderness provide his primary inspiration. Recently, Nepal and Switzerland have inspired his art.

“You learn by seeing many things, traveling, doing research on site. It’s an evolutionary process. I let the animals tell me what to paint,” he admitted. “I choose to place my animals in carefully designed, yet natural habitat landscapes.”

Matia closed the spirited conversation with a reflective comment and two probing questions.

“We would all like to think we’re doing something new. Actually, we build on others experiences,” he said.

Pushing for revealing answers, he asked this artistic trio, “Do you ever revisit old ideas,” which he compared to finding a jewel in previous work, and “Who pushes you toward new ideas?

Scott responded quickly.

“I spent part of this year in France, studying the French animaliers in Paris. I go to the past and I continually revisit my work. I try not to be influenced by my fellow artists.”

Like many of the Prix de West artists, she also was influenced by the late Bob Kuhn, an artist of international renown who once told artists to ‘take it all in; then do something else.’ Scott says, “I look at the whole saga of western civilization for inspiration.”

Oberg is inspired to create by the opportunity to continually do a different kind of work, which he sees as a story told with the tools of an artist.

“Sometimes it’s an animal in its own environment. I like to think he is saying to the viewer, ‘This is my environment. This is me. This is where I live. Isn’t it beautiful?’ ”

Beecham notes, “The animals really do tell me what to paint. I love the big awesome landscape. But I like the niche of painting a harmony and unity of the animal in his little world. Is it art? That’s not for me to say.”

For Matia, the real challenge of wildlife painting or sculpting is couched in his comment, “We have to be ruthless editors of what we see in the wild.”

Oberg agrees. “Great artists can paint or sculpt anything. Our challenge is to make the ordinary beautiful for the viewer.”

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