Telling the story of conservation through art
By: Rob Alexander
| Posted: Thursday, Jun 14, 2012 06:00 am
When it comes to conservation and environmentalism, the modern world tends to harbour three conceits or falsehoods: one, society didn’t become concerned about the environment and wildlife until the 1970s; two, already established national parks in Canada weren’t about nature until the National Parks Act of the 1930s; and three, people of the Victorian era cared only about the animals they could kill.
All three of those falsehoods couldn’t be further from the truth, according to Harvey Locke, cofounder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and one of the driving forces behind a new exhibition, Yellowstone to Yukon: The Journey of Wildlife and Art that opens at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies Saturday (June 16) at 7 p.m. This exhibit closes Nov. 15, and was organized in conjunction with the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, the National Wildlife Art Museum in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, Saskatchewan-born wildlife artist Dwayne Harty, Parks Canada and Willock & Sax Gallery in Banff.
The Journey of Wildlife and Art challenges those conceits or falsehoods by using the iconic art that inspired the first conservation movements, and those that continue to do so, to tell the story of conservation in the West, both in Canada and the U.S. over the past 150 years.
“It’s convenient to have the conceit that conservation started with us,” Locke said, “that we are suddenly the enlightened ones. The fact is we stand on the shoulders of giants and we have for a long time and the big work was done in North America over 100 years ago,” Locke said.
“All we’re doing with Yellowstone to Yukon: The Journey of Wildlife and Art is saying those people did amazing things, which is fundamentally critical with having large mammals today, but we now know that isn’t quite sufficient.”
Even though The Journey of Wildlife and Art shares the story of conservation in the West, it is an art exhibition first. The exhibition features 86 paintings and sculptures produced by 35 masters of wildlife and landscape art, including Thomas Moran, Carl Rungius and Clarence Tillenius, drawn from the permanent collections of the Whyte Museum and the National Wildlife Art Museum in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“(We needed) the art to speak authentically to the topics inherent in the art and that happened to be a profoundly important conservation story and the relationship between people and wild nature; it wasn’t projected on the art, it was in the art. And all we’re doing is pulling that story out of the art to make it obvious.
“The exciting thing about this is we were able to pull out the inherent story that had been lying dormant within the paintings.”
The Journey of Wildlife and Art also features a series of work produced specifically for this project by Saskatchewan-born wildlife artist Dwayne Harty, who was commissioned by the Y2Y Conservation Initiative in 2006 to travel the entire length of the 3,200-kilometre-long Y2Y region to paint the landscape and wildlife.
The nature of subjects in the artwork throughout the exhibit is as varied as the styles of the artists themselves, ranging from small mammals to large, nurturing scenes and scenes of dominance and life and death, all of which serve to offer a sensitive and integrated perspective on nature and wildlife.
And surprisingly, Locke said finding work that offered those qualities was easy.
“It wasn’t hard because these people loved nature and they show it. Their work shows they loved nature,” he said.
The love of nature painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson demonstrated in their work helped to lead American lawmakers to set the Yellowstone region aside in 1872 as the world’s first national park.
These early artists also demonstrate that people in the Victorian era had great respect for wildlife and wild spaces. While the butcher stereotype is rooted in the extermination of the bison and other large mammals in the West, a result of overhunting and intense development and expansion, it doesn’t take into account the entire story.
“What’s really important – in a strange post-modern way – we think people in the past only cared about animals they could kill. That is not at all a fair perspective,” Locke said. “Yes some of these people enjoyed hunting and that is okay. They also loved nature and the animals and it is not fair to dismiss them as butchers. And again that is another modern conceit. If it wasn’t for these people we wouldn’t have any elk in Banff.”
Elk were extirpated in the Bow Valley region and Jasper by the early 1900s, likely a result of overhunting. However several hundred elk were shipped north from Yellowstone National Park between 1918 and 1920 to bolster tiny herds that had drifted into these regions.
During this time, much of how we perceive animals and national parks today also started with these Victorian-era artists, such as Canadian artist, writer and conservationist Ernest Thompson Seton, who is believed to have coined the term “wildlife.” He used his vast array of widely read books, including Wild Animals I Have Known (1898) and The Biography of a Grizzly (1900), to shift reader’s perception of animals, specifically large mammals, away from the idea that they were just “game” or “vermin” to something with a higher meaning or purpose.
“What’s exciting about this show is that it is a vehicle for us to understand that we live in the middle of the Y2Y corridor, which we can keep in tact indefinitely with foresight. And which exists in its present condition because of the foresight of people over 100 years ago and that foresight is captured in their art,” Locke said.
Along with the conservation story and the relationship between people, the wilderness and wildlife inherent to the artwork presented as a part of The Journey of Wildlife and Art, Whyte Museum curator and executive director Michele Lang said this body of work also serves as a reminder of how art, wildlife and protected spaces influence the culture and sense of identity in the Canadian Rockies and throughout West in both Canada and the U.S.
“The fact is I’m a proud Canadian,” Lang said, “but I have a strong sense of being a western Canadian and a Westerner. I think that there is something that really resonates with me about the western United States, the Great Plains and the mountainous regions, the Rockies, that whole Y2Y region,” Lang said. “There has been a real resonance for me about that feeling of the West and the art of the West.”
As part of that collective identity that Canadians and Americans of the West share, many years ago before there was an organized collective idea such as Y2Y initiative, artists painted on both sides of the border, understanding that each region within the one large contiguous area offered distinct opportunities in the landscapes and wildlife with Banff being one of the focal points.
Yellowstone to Yukon: The Journey of Wildlife and Art will also feature a launch for the exhibition’s companion art book, Yellowstone to Yukon: The Journey of Wildlife and Art, and a profile of wildlife crossing structures, including architectural models from the ARC international wildlife crossing structure design competition.
Willock & Sax will also feature Harty’s work, along with paintings of the Lake O’Hara region by Mitchell Fenton, during the gallery’s grand opening of its new location at 210 Bear Street June 16 from 2–4 p.m., as well.
Harty is also the first artist-in-residence at the Banff Park Museum National Historic Site throughout June and July, daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.