Chad Poppleton captures the beauty of animals in the wilderness
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the August 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art August 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
Early one morning last autumn, Chad Poppleton was hiking on a secluded trail in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. “It’s a secret spot,” he laughs. “I’ll never tell anyone where the place is.” He turned a corner into “a little meadow pocket,” and suddenly, there before him, was a herd of elk, grazing in a burn area. “The bull elk had his harem gathered,” Poppleton continues. “And then he started bugling, trying his best to keep them all together.”
Working quickly but deliberately, so as not to disturb the animals, Poppleton pulled his Nikon from his backpack and began snapping images of the scene. He also scribbled into his notebook, recording not only visual subtleties no camera could capture but also his thoughts and feelings about the emotional content of the scene: “This big bull is having a hell of a time keeping his cows together. The grass is a different, lighter shade of green than the trees. The elk have more of a red tint in the morning sun. Shadows are cool. Distant pines are a bluer color than the nearer ones. The bull’s bugle is still penetrating and ringing in my ears.”
Weeks later, back in his studio not far from the northern Utah home he shares with his wife of 18 years, Amy, and their five children aged 6 to 15, Poppleton “dissected” his photos and notes, sketching thumbnails “to find the best pose that fit my vision” while planning out other elements like the perspective and symmetry. Finally, on a 24-by-40-inch canvas that he hand-stretched and primed himself, he drew in the larger shapes with a graphite pencil; went over those lines with thinned-down burnt sienna paint; brushed in a value painting with warm-toned cadmium red and cooler blue; and then began applying his oil paints, working back and forth between simpler and more complex areas, background and foreground, until his vision was finally realized.
The resulting painting, entitled THE BIG MAN ON CAMPUS, became Poppleton’s submission to the big 30th-anniversary show at Coeur d’Alene Galleries in Idaho, which opened on July 8. It represents, he says, “that one moment that made the biggest impression on me, something I had to paint because I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
It can be tempting to claim, after the fact, that a successful artist had been born to paint. But the details of Poppleton’s life seem to leave no other possible conclusion.
“I knew from the get-go I was going to be an artist,” says Poppleton. “There has never been any other thing I wanted to do.” Indeed, his father, Craig, was also trained in that calling, though he no longer paints; Chad now works in the studio in his parents’ home that his father originally set up for himself. The middle of five children, Chad grew up on the farm and ranch lands of Hyrum, UT—in the Cache Valley near the border with Idaho and Wyoming—where his pioneer Mormon ancestors settled in the mid-19th century. “We’ve got a really rich history and heritage here,” he says with quiet pride.
He wasn’t particularly distinguished in academics in the local school system. “I was always, always, always drawing,” he chuckles. “I never had to sign my name to anything because there was always a drawing of a bear or an elk or a horse or a deer on my work, and my teachers knew whose paper it was.” At the end of each school year, he recalls, he could always be found in the classroom with a big eraser in his hand, tasked by his teacher to eliminate all traces of his doodles from the textbooks.
During the same time, however, a more serious education was going on in Chad’s home life. “My parents fostered in us a love of the arts and of nature,” he says. When they went on family road trips, long or short, “the car was always stopping for us to look at something beautiful.” Galleries in Arizona and Wyoming represented his dad’s work, and his parents took their kids along to visit there. “We would walk the streets and look at paintings in all the galleries and dissect the art,” he says. “My father would ask questions like, ‘How did this person paint? How was this done?’ And he always told me, ‘You could do this. Just keep at it, and this’ll be you.’”
While Chad never earned an A in math in school, he did receive great encouragement from his art teachers, even taking Advanced Placement art classes in high school. He entered his work into every student contest he could and won a few blue ribbons along the way. “I didn’t win everything, though,” he says. “It taught me to be steadfast. I learned to put myself up in front of people, to get over the criticism, to recoup and try again.”
That attitude served him well when he entered the art department at Utah State University and began his studies under the legendary Glen Edwards, who founded the illustration department there and taught drawing and painting for 32 years. “My dad had been one of his first students, and I was one of his last,” says Poppleton. Looking back, he describes studying under Edwards as “boot camp. He was incredibly demanding and had no mercy. He was tough on us about our technical skills. But he also taught us to be able to take criticism, accept it, and then improve upon our work without being demoralized.” Poppleton so thrived on that mentorship that he stayed on the honor roll throughout his time at Utah State, earned 50 more course credits than the 125 necessary for a degree so he could take Edwards’ class over and over again, and finally graduated with his bachelor of fine arts degree in 2003.
By then, he already had gallery representation. “I was pretty lucky,” he relates. One day in his sophomore year, he drove to Park City to attend a show by another of his professors. “I walked into the gallery next door and started looking at the works there, going back and forth with my face 2 feet to 1 inch away. I obviously had ‘art student’ written all over my face.” The gallery owner asked Poppleton if he’d like to send her some slides of his own paintings, which he did, and she asked to show several of them. That same year, Poppleton entered the prestigious Arts for the Parks competition, and his submission was chosen as one of the top 100.
Still, he wasn’t yet ready to consider himself a full-time fine artist. With a growing young family to support, he also earned steady income as a licensed contractor, building houses along with his dad, as well as ranching and farming on the family land. “I’d work at construction four 10-hour days a week and then paint two or three hours at night along with every Friday and Saturday,” he says.
That exhausting schedule continued until 2008, when he added Legacy Gallery, with locations in Jackson, Bozeman, and Scottsdale, to his roster of representation. “I finally decided to take the leap of faith and put all my effort into art,” he says. “And we’ve been blessed ever since.” Some of those blessings can even be counted, with Poppleton’s works having been chosen for exhibition at such prestigious institutions as the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which presented him with its Robert Kuhn Award in 2014, and the C.M. Russell Museum, which in 2013 made him the youngest inductee among just 22 members in its elite Russell Skull Society of Artists.
But then blessings are, in a very real way, at the heart of Poppleton’s work. He considers the animals he portrays in his paintings, and the wild places he traverses regularly in search of his subjects, to be sacred subjects. “Wildlife deserves the utmost respect, and I aim to honor it by portraying it in its natural environment,” he says. “I love the wild places. I can’t get over being up in the mountains or out in the wilderness, or on roundup gathers and branding with the cowboys. That’s what allows me to be more authentic with my work.” And in canvas after canvas, that air of authenticity rings out, whether the herd of elk in Yellowstone; or the lone grizzly he spied one recent summer in Glacier National Park; or, closer to home, the migrating mule deer he’s grown familiar with in the Cache National Forest over more than two decades.
What he seeks to capture on his journeys into nature, he goes on to explain, “are those sparkling moments, an element of poetry, that I can relay onto the canvas and share with others. Art has the power to lift up and positively stimulate the emotions on a daily basis. If I can get a collector to be uplifted just a little bit every day by viewing one of my works and becoming a participant in it, then my job is complete. Successful art is a collaboration between its creator and the patron, unified in grace.”
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