By Mark Mussari
“No domestic animal can be as still as a wild animal,” wrote Danish author Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa. For proof of that powerful, intense stillness, one need look no further than the wildlife paintings of Michigan artist Bonnie Marris. To say that Marris knows animals is an understatement. She lives them, breathes them, and—more than anything else—she loves them.
Marris was born and raised in Grand Rapids, MI. Her father, a baseball and basketball coach, “loved two things,” she recalls, “sports and animals.” Her mother, who was part Native American, was “extremely spiritual and magical.” Both parents fostered their daughter’s preternatural animal attraction, at one point hosting two wolves, a coyote, and at least 20 dogs on their property. “We lived with animals all the time,” she says. “I had animals as friends.”
“Every Sunday, from when I was 7,” she remembers, “my dad would take me out in the country to work in horse stables.” To a budding wildlife artist, it was anything but work. Frequent trips to the zoo further reinforced her connection to animals. Afterward, Marris would retire to her room with her sketchbook. “I’d spend my nights drawing the animals so I could relive them,” she says. She determined to learn everything she could about animals and apply it to her art. “I was led by this force,” she contends.
Then a funny thing happened. Marris pursued a degree in zoology from Michigan State, but “I flunked out of the art classes,” she admits. Apparently, her art teachers resisted her tendency toward realism. Such a turn of events could have been devastating to the young artist’s aspirations. But a professor of zoology introduced the impressionable college student to conservationist George Schaller, author of Year of the Gorilla and a renowned photographer of snow leopards. The meeting rekindled her hopes of pursuing a career in animal art.
Another encounter during her college years had an even greater effect on Marris. She was visiting friends when she saw a painting by British wildlife artist David Shepherd. “It stopped me cold,” she says. “He made that elephant breathe. You could feel the very dust around it.” Before that, she says, she never knew that simply looking at a painting could make you feel like you were standing there in front of an animal. Marris also took note of Shepherd’s technical approach: “He could lay one color next to another to create an illusion of depth and heat and emotion. He had captured both the tenderness and the power of the animal.” Enamored of Shepherd’s work, Marris and her mother traveled west to see his paintings in person. “We went to Texas and Nevada, and I would take notes and study each painting,” she recalls.
Complementing her commitment to pursue a career in art, Marris’ degree in zoology provided her with two powerful tools: a deep understanding of animal anatomy and well-honed research skills. “I learned to do a lot of field research,” she says. “I studied wolves and foxes in Canada and Minnesota, and I learned how to camp by myself.” Unwilling simply to rely on her knowledge of anatomy, Marris decided to study animals in their natural habitats. “A painter misses the mark when there’s technical skill and knowledge but no life,” she explains. “There must be a passion that’s so strong it’s an obsession. The animals must come alive.”
After college, Marris took a workshop with western painter Dan Mieduch. “He really knew [Frederic] Remington’s and [James] Reynolds’ palettes,” she says. “Within ten minutes Dan had answered every artistic question I had wondered about in my life. At that point I never even knew certain colors were warm and cold!” She marks this as a major turning point in her artistic development: “I felt like I had been a cave painter, and then someone had suddenly handed me a camera and a brush.”
Today Marris maintains two studios in Michigan. One is on the ranch she shares with her husband, their dogs, and four horses in Ada, and the other is farther north on the Leelanau Peninsula. “I work every day,” she says. “I go up north every other weekend in winter.” Her husband, a landscape painter, designed the studio she uses in Leelanau. “We do our research work together,” she adds.
Marris’ wildlife paintings—with their expressive subjects and arresting narratives—capture the sense of life so many wildlife painters miss. A grizzly bear wallows in a mud bath; a mountain lion pauses before it pounces: Though these creatures may stare at you with unnerving depth, they also exude serenity and a sense of belonging. “It’s like you’re eavesdropping,” Marris says. “When you come face to face with a wild wolf, for example, it doesn’t look at you—it looks through you.”
This expressiveness emanates predominantly from Marris’ technique, including a fine mastery of oils. She renders fur, especially, in a highly textural manner that appears complex and detailed yet is made up of almost impressionistic brush strokes. Color and shadow often convey a dance between the animal and its environment. The artist’s propensity for working in oils dates back to her childhood, to a friend and neighbor who was an oil painter. “When he died, he left me his paint box. I loved the smell of the oils and the pigments,” she says.
Marris often begins a painting by using her reference photos. “Recently, I took a research trip to Yellowstone to photograph buffalo. I shot nothing but close-ups of their eyes, ears, feet, and tails,” she says. Sometimes, however, she lets inspiration be her guide. “I’ll see a painting in my head after a research trip,” she comments, “and I’ll just start painting. I don’t even start with sketches anymore.” In the past few months, she has been working on a mammoth 8-by-24-foot painting of a herd of horses—without a reference photograph in sight. “It’s the most thrilling thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says.
LIGHT SLEEPER offers a prime example of Marris’ informed affinity for the subject matter. The painting features a lone wolf, curled into a sleeping position but awake and eyeing the viewer. The canvas exhibits a subdued chromatic sense, heavily dependent on chiaroscuro for effect. “I used darkness and brightness to convey the wolf’s aloofness from the world,” explains Marris. “It was a way of entering his world, but part of that world is always in shadow.” The wolf’s coat, with its rich folds and soft golds and grays, illustrates the artist’s deft handling of texture. “I love to get lost in that,” she affirms. But it is the dense darkness enveloping the wolf that brings him into strong relief. “It’s an ethereal sense,” says Marris. “You can never really know something as magical as a wolf.”
LAZY DAYS ON THE BIG CROOKED offers a more laid-back narrative in which a fox lounges on a downed tree straddling a stream. “I love studying fox when they’re so meditative,” observes Marris. Compositionally, she employed a number of contrasts for narrative effect. “I used dark and shadows under the log to convey the cool and warmth of the day,” she notes. “I also contrasted the softness of the fox’s fur with the hardness of the log. On this canvas, I wanted to play with juxtapositions.” Most intriguing is the background, featuring a magical realist approach to light and nature. “I wanted to create a twinkling light coming through the trees,” says Marris. The effect borders on cinematographic. “It’s like those scenes in old movies with light refracting off the water,” confirms the artist.
Marris says she hopes her work is growing in sophistication. “I want to do for someone else what David Shepherd did for me,” she says, recalling her encounter with the elephant painting years ago. “I want to make someone take a second look at an animal, to make others feel more affinity for the wild. When I’m with a horse, or a dog, or a wild wolf, it’s an unbearable passion—it’s more than a life force. I want others to feel that same thing.” And undoubtedly they will, looking at any one of Marris’ wildlife canvases, which exude the affection and understanding that only a true lover of animals could convey.
Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY.
Featured in June 2011.