By Norman Koplas
ROCKSLIDE BY JULIE CHAPMAN
The cougar blinked his eyes in the sun, which shone warmly that morning over northwestern Montana’s Flathead Valley, an unspoiled landscape nestled at a 3,000-foot elevation amidst majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Seeking a cool spot, the big cat climbed atop a shaded outcropping and sprawled out luxuriously. Then he opened his eyes, fixing his gaze directly on artist Julie Chapman, who stood mere yards away.
“That’s it, I thought,” Chapman recalls.
Such a statement of finality, however, had nothing to do with Chapman’s safety. The reality becomes clear with her next words in relating the story: “I’ve got to paint that!”
What resulted was CATNAP, one of the intimate animal portraits in oils for which Missoula-based Chapman is widely praised. And credit for her ability to feel a moment of artistic triumph rather than primal fear in such close proximity to a feline predator is due, she says, entirely to the place where she viewed the cougar: Triple D Game Farm in Kalispell.
“The knowledge I have of an animal’s behavior and its structure pretty much has to come from first-hand observation,” Chapman explains. “Photos can catch animals in the midst of doing something, but they can’t tell you how they’re anatomically put together, how they move.”
Wildlife artists throughout history have faced the challenge of portraying animals as realistically as possible without putting themselves in physical danger or spending months—or years—tramping through the wild in hopes of an all-too-fleeting glimpse of their artistic prey. Many have relied on zoo specimens for close observation, which can certainly provide a grasp of basic structure and markings. But captivity works against accuracy. “I can tell a painting of a zoo animal every time,” says Susan Labouri, who creates vibrantly detailed acrylic images of animals at her mountain studio in Big Bear Lake, CA. “Zoo cats, for example, have these big hanging bellies and no muscle tone.”
A SNOW LEOPARD AT TRIPLE D GAME FARM
Neither are zoo animals, with regular daily feedings and limited space to roam, likely to exhibit their full range of natural behaviors. “That’s what you see in the wild,” says Terry Isaac, a landscape and wildlife artist originally from Oregon who recently relocated to Penticton, British Columbia. “But you just don’t always know where the animals are, or you can’t get close enough.” That’s why many artists have visited game farms, from Bob Kuhn to Robert Lougheed to John and Terri Kelly Moyers. Quite a number journeyed to the Okanagan Game Farm in British Columbia until it closed in 1994. In recent years, Isaac and his fellow artists Labouri and Chapman have relied on Triple D to help them get close enough to the wild animals they want to paint.
Founded about 38 years ago, Triple D had its start when state fish and game warden Lorney Deist noticed that many wild animal populations in the Flathead Valley were decreasing drastically. “Our purpose originally was to take animals from the wild and propagate them in a natural environment,” says Lorney Jr., known as Jay, who along with his brother Lanny enthusiastically joined their father in starting Triple D.
That original mission took a new turn in 1975, when the producers of the TV series “The Wild, Wild World of Animals,” hosted by actor William Conrad, learned that Triple D had 17 wild wolverines, just what they needed for an episode. They came to film there. Word spread, with other producers, studios, and networks contacting the Deists, including National Geographic, The Nature Channel, and Disney. More and more wildlife photographers came as well. Artists followed.
ALASKAN TAPESTRY BY RALPH OBERG
It’s easy to understand the appeal of Triple D, which since Lorney’s passing has been owned and operated by Jay, now 62, and his wife, Kim. Not open to the general public, the game farm’s 50 acres are supplemented by other sites in the Flathead Valley environs and encompass a variety of natural settings, including a high-elevation location backed by Glacier National Park’s snowcapped peaks, a river overlook, ponds, an aspen grove, and dens. Each habitat is fenced off in an invisible way that keeps the animals secure and safeguards spectators, with “hot” wires surrounding more dangerous species such as tigers or bears.
The farm counts about a hundred animals from more than two dozen species, including canines such as arctic wolves, gray wolves, and five different kinds of foxes; felines such as cougars, lynxes, bobcats, snow leopards, and Siberian tigers; grizzly and black bears; white-tailed and mule deer; and smaller animals including porcupines, badgers, skunks, and raccoons. The Deists and their staff of five professional trainers, assisted on a daily basis by a local veterinarian, take impeccable care of the animals. At night and when the animals aren’t outdoors, they are housed in four large buildings organized by species to keep predators well clear of prey. There’s also a state-of-the-art hospital room and a nursery for newborns. Breeding is strictly controlled. Explains Deist, “We don’t want more animals than we can care for. If necessary, we’ll trade or sell or give them away, but only to proper, accredited zoos or other facilities.”
Even more important, the trainers ensure that the primary concerns at Triple D are always those of the animals, not the crews, photographers, or artists. “At the first indication that an animal is in any stress during a session,” says Deist, “that session is over, or the animal is replaced with a dub”—a double or near-duplicate animal.
The end result of all this care and attention is that Triple D provides an ideal opportunity to observe animals for wildlife artists like Labouri, Chapman, and Isaac, all of whom conduct three- to five-day workshops there for up to 10 artists at a time. In a typical workshop, participants start the day in the farm’s conference room before setting out to one of the locations, depending on the species, the weather, and lighting conditions. There, numerous animals are turned loose for the artists’ observation.
With wild subjects so close and behaving so naturally and spontaneously, cameras are often the preferred tool for documenting the animals. “I’m trying to capture the moment that would actually happen in the wild,” says Labouri. She and her fellow artists also devote time to drawing from life. “It’s gesture sketching,” Chapman explains…