Bonnie Marris | Touching the Wild

Bonnie Marris’ paintings reflect her devotion to animals and art

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Bonnie Marris, Social Viewpoints, oil, 36 x 48.

Bonnie Marris, Social Viewpoints, oil, 36 x 48.

This story was featured in the March 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  March 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

In the hundreds of hours Bonnie Marris has spent quietly waiting, watching, tracking, and hoping to witness and photograph wild animals in their natural habitats, perhaps the most poignant moment took place one autumn at Yellowstone National Park. She was observing a pack of wild wolves when two clearly alpha members returned from hunting. It was late in the fall, and there were no young pups in the pack at the time. So Marris was astonished to see one wolf exhibit puppy-like behavior as it ran to meet the returning wolves. Crouched with tucked tail, it made itself small before the two dominant wolves, who regurgitated food as if to feed a helpless pup.

Later Marris described the scene to a wildlife biologist, who told her the crouching wolf was actually the pack’s eldest female, unable to chew well enough to feed herself. Her puppy-like behavior elicited tender care by the other members of the pack. The experience reinforced the artist’s lifelong deep appreciation for the fact that every wild animal is an individual and that some, like wolves, live in social structures that are adaptive and complex. Surprised and touched by the scene, she added the experience to the countless moments that have inspired her award-winning paintings, whether of wild creatures or domesticated ones, especially horses and dogs.

The latter she always has close by. In winter, three horses and two dogs are companions for Marris and her husband, landscape painter Woody Palmer, at their rural southwestern Michigan home. Come May, the household and horses are hauled up north to what Marris calls “my paradise”—the couple’s summer home and Marris’ large log-cabin studio at the very tip of a peninsula on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. “It’s just where I was meant to be,” she says. Foxes and coyotes, her frequent painting subjects, reside in northern Michigan. But for the magnificence of grizzlies, elk, buffalo, and wolves, she travels at least once a year to remote regions in Montana, Wyoming, or Alaska.

Even as a child, wild animals were part of Marris’ life. At one point, in their Grand Rapids home, the family sheltered three full-grown wolves and a coyote pup for a few days until official rescue facilities could take them. “They all got along well,” she remembers.

For her part she was a bit of a loner. “I didn’t have a lot of friends because I was very weird,” she says, smiling. Instead, she went everywhere with a sketchbook and a dog. “I had a make-believe horse and a real dog—that was my childhood. I loved my childhood,” she says. One place she and her dog frequented was the home of an old man down the street who kept an easel set up. She fell in love with the smell of oil paints and the magic of watching the elderly artist paint.

At Michigan State University, Marris studied zoology and animal behavior, including a course in wildlife tracking. Focusing her thesis studies on wild canids, especially coyotes and wolves, she was 15 credits short of obtaining her master’s of science when one day a fellow grad student wondered out loud what could be done with such a degree. “I’d never thought about it—I had no idea what to do with a master’s in zoology,” Marris says. “It was a horrible moment. I lost all motivation.”

Her other passion was art, and she was painting on her own and doing medical illustrations for the university’s veterinary school. But Michigan State’s only art courses at the time eschewed representational art in favor of paint-what-you-feel. “I had all these questions, like what color would shadows be on the back of a chestnut horse,” she recalls. “None of my art professors had a clue.”

It was a zoology professor who introduced her to the work of renowned British wildlife artist and conservationist David Shepherd, known for his paintings of African elephants and rhinoceroses. One piece in particular drew her attention. “It was almost like a religious experience looking at that painting. The colors were mind-blowing—his use of color to create the illusion of an elephant coming right out of the canvas,” she says. “That’s when I thought: There’s nothing in life I want to do more than this.”

An important step toward that goal came when Marris attended a talk and met George Schaller, a top zoologist and the only person at the time to have photographed the rare snow leopard in Afghanistan. Schaller asked her to do a painting of a snow leopard for use in his conservation efforts. The experience began teaching her how to research animals with a focus on painting. A few years later, a Sedona gallery owner suggested the artist turn to animals from her personal experience—advice that “changed everything,” she says. From that moment on she has gathered her own material, primarily in the wild, although she also observes and photographs captive animals for reference in certain situations.

One such case involved details for the painting ICE PRINCESS. Marris was half asleep one winter night when she was suddenly struck with a fully formed image of a mountain lion climbing down an icy cliff. She jumped out of bed, found the largest canvas she had, and began the piece. Because the only photographs she’d taken of a mountain lion in the wild were in summer, she went to a zoo for details of the big cat’s paws in snow. She also photographed ice caves on Lake Superior as reference for ice-covered rocks. At the 2014 Masters of the American West Exhibition and Sale, the painting was reproduced as a 20-foot-tall banner for the exhibition’s entrance, and it earned multiple top awards.

Among the artist’s other recent honors, one of her paintings at the 2016 Jackson Hole Art Auction garnered a world-record price for her work. FAMILY TIES, a 36-by-48-inch oil on canvas, portrays a close and contented-looking family of wolves in the wild. Estimated to fetch $20,000 to $30,000, it far exceeded that by selling for $140,400. “Bonnie continues to create exceptional work that collectors always look forward to seeing at our annual sale,” notes Jackson Hole Art Auction partner Roxanne Hofmann. “Her ability to uniquely capture the true spirit of her animal subjects makes her style especially compelling, as seen in the vivid personalities of each wolf in the pack portrayed in the painting.”

“I do see animals as individuals,” Marris says. “I’m always trying to arrange for the viewer to connect with an animal or with a feeling or a moment in time. I want someone to feel like I did when I saw the elephant by David Shepherd, to really care. I want them to feel something that touches them so strongly that they want to do something to make a difference.”


Bonnie Marris, Spring Ice, oil, 36 x 48.

Bonnie Marris, Spring Ice, oil, 36 x 48.

What makes this painting significant for you? I think if I were to die this would be the painting to represent my life, because I’ve spent many, many years studying wolves. I’ve spent so much time with wild wolves and captive wolves. It’s very hard for me to be satisfied that I’ve gotten everything to work in a painting, but with this one, what I saw and felt in my head and heart found its way to the brush. When I look at the painting, my emotions are just what I wanted the viewer to feel. I feel a connection. It pulls me in. I see an individual in each wolf—its mind, its joy, a reverence for its place in life and in its pack. I feel I understand a little more about this animal.

How is this piece different from your usual work? Artistically, I broke a rule and put my subject upside down. My husband [also a painter] said, ‘You can’t do that.’ But I wanted to see if it would work, and I think it did. I wanted to show that silly, fun side of an individual and the other one that looks a little irritated.

What else do you especially like about this painting? Technique-wise, I wanted to symbolically shine a light on the many facets of a wolf. So the light travels through and lands on each one, and one wolf is in the back in the shadows, because symbolically there’s always that elusiveness.

Tell us about your color and composition choices. I was sort of in my Rembrandt mode with this one. I wanted to lose the image in the shadows. I love the way Rembrandt and Sargent use that color palette where the shadows stay warm. As far as the composition, I like the different angles that complement each other. I didn’t want it to be busy or irritating, but I wanted to show so many things.

What was your biggest challenge with this piece? I didn’t want it to appear anthropomorphic or too soft. I know all sides of wolves. They will play with ravens for hours, but they’re predators and very unforgiving. It’s a fine line to walk where the work stays strong and beautiful but not too cuddly. With wildlife, there’s always a fine line to keep them real and keep them wild.

Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Broadmoor Galleries, Colorado Springs, CO; Beartooth Gallery, Red Lodge, MT; The Plainsmen Gallery, Dunedin, FL.

This story was featured in the March 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  March 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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