Legend and myth inspire Craig Kosak’s bold animal imagery
By Rosemary Carstens
It all began on a day hike near Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Craig Kosak was ambling along a trail in the sunshine, soaking up the park’s dramatic natural beauty, when two ravens joined him. Darting overhead from tree to tree, they squawked, dropped pinecones on him, and aggressively demanded his attention. “They were basically saying, ‘Look at us! We’re trying to tell you something!’” he says. That encounter provided the first spark of inspiration for the direction Kosak’s artwork would take. Later, while at Yellowstone National Park, he attended a ranger presentation about myth and legend that ignited the concept to full blaze. The artist realized that mythology and legends help us understand ourselves, see how we fit into the universe at large, and, importantly, how we bond with other living creatures who share our planet.
Kosak’s paintings feature wildlife he has connected with on his travels, primarily ravens, bison, wolves, and horses. “Bison found me in Yellowstone,” he says, “wolves in the California Sequoias, and horses in the hills of New Mexico.” Each of these animals represents a specific emotional quality for the artist: “Ravens guide me to accept my most secret self, my uniqueness, to celebrate who I am rather than hide it. The bison inspires confidence and reminds me of that part of myself that is anchored, persistent, and able to withstand hardship. Horses are a sign of strength and sensitivity, while wolves speak to me of wit and intelligence.”
Ravens were the first of his four primary subjects to emerge. These intelligent, vocal creatures have played a unique role in mythology and legends throughout time. Considered tricksters, creators, ancestors, and totems, their symbolic meanings shape-shift depending on their cultural connections. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once suggested that the raven obtained mythic status because it was a mediator animal between life and death, and the Norse warrior god Odin is said to have relied on his two ravens Huginn and Muginn (thought and memory) to fly around the world every day and keep him informed.
Kosak’s painting THE RAVEN OF JACKSON LAKE is a prime example of the complexity of meaning in his iconic images. The bold raven challenges viewers with its audacious gaze and entirely dominates the Teton mountain peaks, lakes, and meadows in the background. The artist has symbolized the creature’s duality by creating a dark night scene within its body. In Kosak’s characteristic style, expanses of canvas have been textured and deepened with broad, intense swathes of alternately opaque and translucent paint. Faint pictographic markings—created from rubber stamps he’s designed himself—are also strategically placed. Along three edges of the canvas are what Kosak calls “edge ribbons,” a record of the color development of the painting.
Kosak’s frequent travels to the American West’s national parks are an unending source of inspiration. He returns to his studio with fresh insights about, and enthusiasm for, the natural world and the human condition. His goal is not to chronicle the flora and fauna he’s seen but to capture the feelings and emotions of his explorations. He has his sights set on visiting the grand gallery of Anasazi rock paintings in Canyonlands National Park in 2013, to finally see, in person, images that have been haunting him for years. “Each trip consists of both a journey through the physical world and an inner journey of self-discovery,” he says. “My paintings are about both worlds and how they relate. Each trip is, in a sense, a vision quest.”
The artist’s special bond with wild creatures became evident very early in his life, but, at the time, he could not have imagined where that interest would take him. Growing up in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle, WA, he experienced his first step on the path to becoming a wildlife artist in kindergarten. His teacher brought a stuffed eagle with outstretched wings to class and asked her students to draw it. Kosak’s efforts were exceptional. By the time he was a senior in high school, he had completed all of his required coursework and was allowed to take art classes, to paint all day, every day. Large, photorealistic representations of automobiles were his subject matter. When a local Mercedes dealer saw his work, he was commissioned to paint several of their models, which led to early professional recognition. But as much as he dreamed of being a full-time artist, he decided to take a more practical approach to a career and became a graphic designer.
Other than a year spent studying at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, at the encouragement of senior design professionals in his firm, Kosak is essentially self-taught. As his 30-year design career evolved, however, Kosak found the work increasingly unfulfilling. Much of his spare time he spent at his home easel long into the night and on weekends. In 2004, with his daughter leaving home and becoming independent, the timing was right for him to realize his lifelong dream, and he quit his job to become a full-time artist.
Stylistically, Kosak calls his work “contemporary wildlife, grounded in realism but with abstract passages,” with a nod to influences such as N.C. Wyeth, John Nieto, and Nathan Oliveira. His process is straightforward, yet his results are complex. He finds a story he wants to tell, does a few thumbnail pen-and-ink drawings to get his composition and design worked out, and then gets going on canvas. He begins by blocking in the largest shapes and then, as he puts it, “I just keep breaking down the painting into smaller and smaller shapes, adding details, creating the background atmosphere, beginning the process of layering.” Using rich, intense quinacridone paints (synthetic pigments that are known for their colorfastness), he glazes, patinas, and marbles textures onto the canvas, alternating transparent and opaque layers. Slowly the forms build, and the layering creates added depth and luminosity. He works until “it seems to come alive, has a life, feels like it has become something more than the sum of its individual elements. My greatest challenge is not technical,” he says, “but emotional. I want to communicate at the deepest level possible.”
DAWN OF PEACE, inspired by a close encounter with a bison in Yellowstone National Park, illustrates the powerful effects of his process. Although Kosak almost never paints what he has not seen himself, this piece portrays a white bison, the harbinger of peace and unity in Native American legends. The buffalo stands before an open sky intersected by sweeping, horizontal jet trails, as well as an array of painterly gestures, fields, drizzles, and drips. Teepees reflect the tradition of the white bison as soothsayer in Native people’s lives, and the geometric color fields in the sky suggest indigenous textiles. Note the other inclusions typical of Kosak’s work, such as pictographs and color registers to show the work’s palette progression.
Since first appearing in galleries five years ago, Kosak’s artwork has become increas- ingly sought-after. Palin Wiltshire, director of Giacobbe-Fritz Fine Art in Santa Fe, NM, still remembers the first time she saw it. For a postcard show at the gallery, Kosak had submitted a painting of a single raven. Wiltshire immediately showed it to Deborah Fritz, the gallery’s owner. “I love how his work is illustrative,” says Wiltshire, “yet with many subtle and beautiful contemporary elements—a unique juxtaposition. His last show, Myth and Legend, was breathtaking and extremely successful. It was wonderful to see his fresh interpretations of his four signature, iconic creatures.”
Within six months of joining Giacobbe- Fritz, Kosak’s art was receiving phenomenal attention. He branched out from painting only ravens to painting bison, another huge hit, and then added horses and wolves and, during the holidays, his golden retriever. His recognition continues to grow, and he exhibited in the prestigious Birds in Art show at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in 2010 and the National Museum of Wildlife Art’s Western Visions show in both 2010 and 2011. In 2013, he will have his first-ever solo museum show at the Museum of the Southwest in Midland, TX, as part of their Myth & Legend series. Cristi Branum, the museum’s curator of exhibitions, is enthusiastic about his participation: “The artists selected for this series keep alive the associated ideas and imagery of public dreams derived from various cultural sources. Craig Kosak’s work is a perfect fit. His narrative style, using recognizable imagery of meaningful shapes and color, conveys a powerful story in each composition.”
Kosak is passionate about art and is never short of ideas for new work and innovative techniques. He recently acquired a huge calligraphy brush from a Japanese manufacturer—it’s over four feet long and, when fully loaded, it holds about a quart of paint. He says it’s a “fearsome thing”—but he can’t wait to wield it. His enthusiasm and willingness to embrace change and personal authenticity are key strengths in his art.
Kosak is not busy chasing the art world and whatever is in favor at any given moment. He’s focused on following the raven’s path, being true to who he is, and finding out who he’s supposed to be by traveling the road to self-knowledge through his art. “Wild things inspire me,” he emphasizes. “It’s the balance of nature that draws me, the promise of harmony and enduring peace that compels me. The subjects of my paintings transport me to a world that offers peace, a place of acceptance, a world in balance.”
Featured in March 2012.