Portfolio | Wild Kingdom

Meet 6 artists who depict animals of all kinds

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

Sandy Graves

Sandy Graves, Sport, bronze, 12 x 4 x 6.

Sandy Graves, Sport, bronze, 12 x 4 x 6.

Years ago, in a bronze sculpture class at Colorado State University, Sandy Graves was told to experiment with negative space. Her professor disliked what she made, but the experience opened a door for a career full of unique bronze creations. “I was given an open-ended question and, having the brain that I have, I interpreted it differently than everyone else,” Graves says. “I feel smiled upon by that ‘mistake’ because it allowed me to create something that is unexpected in the world of bronze.”

Graves’ sculptures depict animals, but more importantly, they capture the energy and motion of the animal in a way that touches the primal emotions of viewers. Graves says she uses negative space to allow audiences to fill in their own experiences, while also guiding them on a visual journey. “The patinas are alive and constantly interacting and changing in their own way,” she says. “They take on their own life, and there’s always something new to discover.”

Graves’ work can be seen at Altitude Gallery, Bozeman, MT; Artym Gallery, British Columbia, Canada; Worrell Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Harbor Square Gallery, Rockland, ME; Pine Moon Fine Art, Steamboat Springs, CO; Old Towne Gallery, Park City, UT; Ramey Fine Art, Palm Desert, CA; Rare Gallery of Fine Art, Jackson, WY; SmithKlein Gallery, Boulder, CO; Vue Gallery, Sedona, AZ; and www.sandygravesart.com. —Mackenzie McCreary

Lindsey Kustusch

Lindsey Kustusch, In the Wild Morning Air, oil, 24 x 24.

Lindsey Kustusch, In the Wild Morning Air, oil, 24 x 24.

After completing her fine-art studies at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, painter and animal lover Lindsey Kustusch found herself at a crossroads. Should she pursue a fine-art career or a veterinary one, perhaps caring for special-needs animals? Undecided, she got a job at a nearby shelter. “I let myself get completely wrapped up in animal welfare,” she says. During that time, she discovered the work of a local artist whose loose, impressionistic paintings of barn animals captivated her. “It broke all the rules of what I learned in school,” says Kustusch, who began painting portrayals of the shelter cats and her own feline critters at home.

Today the Oakland artist paints full time, and her oeuvre has expanded to include depictions of dramatic landscapes and bustling urban settings. The lure of heavy-impact scenes, notes Kustusch, helps explain her love for painting birds with a commanding countenance, especially ravens and crows. “They exude this sort of wild, ancient, prehistoric spirit with an intensity and sense of drama,” she says. “Aesthetically, they’re stunning animals, with their perfect balance of soft and hard edges, reptilian-like talons, and shades of velvet-black feathers.”

Using photographs for reference, Kustusch puts her own spin on her subject matter. When portraying ravens, crows, owls, and blue herons, she uses abstracted, painterly effects to convey their energy, personality, and soul. Small doses of photorealism help viewers fill in the gaps, she says. “By experimenting with abstraction and various kinds of mark making, and by using layers to mimic atmosphere, the end result feels more real.” See Kustusch’s work at Abend Gallery, Denver, CO; Studio Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; and www.lindsey
kustusch.com. —Kim Agricola

Phil Beck

Phil Beck, Makin’ a Splash, oil, 24 x 36.

Phil Beck, Makin’ a Splash, oil, 24 x 36.

Self-professed “animal person” Phil Beck likes to kid that the only wildlife he saw while growing up in Los Angeles were the rats scampering around downtown. He worked as a commercial artist in Chicago for many years, then returned to L.A. before moving to the pastoral environs of Arizona in 1980. There he began painting cowboys and Native Americans, often including cows and horses in the background.

Today the Scottsdale artist gives both creatures solo glory on his canvases. At the heart of his bovine portraits is the white-faced, sweet-natured Hereford cow. “Here I am, a city boy painting cows,” chuckles Beck, whose admiration for the cattle breed traces back to the 1950s, he says, when his family took Sunday drives into the countryside where the cows grazed.

Three years ago, Beck retired from teaching life-drawing and figurative painting at the Scottsdale Artists’ School for more than two decades, freeing him to paint more and travel in his RV, which doubles as a studio. During calving season he and his wife, Marty, head to southern Arizona ranches, where he’ll spend days studying, sketching, photographing, and painting the Herefords. The couple also ventures to the Salt River, where wild horses roam. Beck was one of thousands who contacted the U.S. Forest Service to protest their slated removal a few years ago; the plan was soon rescinded. “I’m in awe when I watch those horses,” says Beck, whose observations inspire his moving portrayals of them. “It’s a thing to behold. It’s really special.”

Beck’s work can be seen at Hueys Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Southwest Gallery, Dallas, TX; Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; and www.featherstonearts.net. —Kim Agricola

Jennifer O’Cualain

Jennifer O'Cualain, Sonoran Skyrise, oil, 47 x 72.

Jennifer O’Cualain, Sonoran Skyrise, oil, 47 x 72.

Growing up in rural Wisconsin, Jennifer O’Cualain says with a laugh, “My best friend was a cat.” Prior to going to art school, she had no interest in figurative painting, but that’s what she ended up studying. “The professors knew that teaching figure drawing and painting was the most effective way to teach you to draw what you see,” she says.

O’Cualain, who now lives in Arizona, brings that trained eye to her favorite subject matter: animals. Expanding on the Peaceable Kingdom theme, the artist creates works that tell allegorical stories and that simultaneously illustrate the flora and fauna that keep ecosystems in balance. “I like to anthropomorphize the animals slightly,” she says, “putting them in settings where they are interacting with each other, not unlike people do.” Her compositions include predators and prey in a single frame, coexisting.

Working from her own photography and clay models she sculpts to explore light and shadow, she completes multiple compositional drawings until she finds the one that feels right. She then transfers that drawing to canvas, which can be anywhere from 6 inches square to 6 feet. A large canvas may take her four months to complete, building up layer after layer of oil paint and letting each layer dry. “It’s good if you can live with something in your studio for a while,” she says. “Your brain realizes things you need to adjust.” O’Cualain’s work can be found at Manitou Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Mountain Trails Gallery, Jackson, WY, and Park City, UT; Mountain Trails Galleries, Sedona, AZ; Lord Nelson’s Gallery, Gettysburg, PA; Berkley Gallery, Warrenton, VA; Lovetts Gallery, Tulsa, OK; Blue Heron Gallery, Wellfleet, MA; Gallery 166, Vail, CO; and www.ocualaingalleries.com. —Laura Rintala

Sharon Markwardt

Sharon Markwardt, Goat Cheese!, oil, 12 x 12.

Sharon Markwardt, Goat Cheese!, oil, 12 x 12.

Texas artist Sharon Markwardt half-jokes that the vibrant color in her animal portraits is the result of a head injury. But after she took a particularly bad spill off of her horse, a lot did change in Markwardt’s life. For starters, getting back on the horse required a new and immediate courage, and she brought that same boldness into her art. Secondly, and perhaps more remarkable, was her shift in color. “It probably wasn’t because I hit my head,” Markwardt says, “but it could be.” Regardless of the cause, she began to look at color differently. “I saw more color, and the more color I saw, the more I looked for,” she says. Although she paints western scenes and animals, Markwardt says, “there is not a single earth tone in my palette.” Working from her own reference photos, the artist closely examines the colors found in her subject matter, and then she “bumps them up. I think it adds life to the animals,” she says, “particularly in the eyes.” Combined with striking cropping, the results are expressive, vivid, often humorous portraits of the animals around her.

A resolute animal lover, Markwardt approaches her work as a form of communication. “Most people value dogs and cats as individuals,” she says, “but they see livestock as commodities.” In a world in which technology continues to distance people from what’s real and what’s natural, Markwardt hopes her paintings can bring animals and people closer together, “making viewers realize that all living creatures share many of the same emotions.” Markwardt’s work can be found at Waxlander Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Your Private Collection, Granbury, TX; and www.sharonmarkwardt.com. —Laura Rintala

Val Warner

Val Warner, Wapiti Power, oil, 28 x 50.

Val Warner, Wapiti Power, oil, 28 x 50.

Despite a rough-and-tumble upbringing, Val Warner was always compelled to paint. As she grew up, the artist always found ways to work in her craft, such as attending county fairs where she painted and sold portraits of children.

At 42, Warner enrolled at the San Francisco Academy of Art, but she left quickly when professors told her she was too advanced. After struggling to make her mark, Warner joined a tourist-focused gallery that represented her for 11 years. Now, having left the gallery, Warner faces a new chapter. “I wasn’t getting to where I wanted to be as an artist,” she says. “Now I want to do more highly refined work, rather than making things specifically for a gallery.”

Warner is known for her realistic depictions of wildlife found near Lake Tahoe, CA, where she focuses largely on elk and bears. She also visits ranches in Nevada and photographs wild horses that become frequent subjects. While she loves to draw, Warner usually arranges compositions using Photoshop before she begins to paint. The artist applies the lessons she learned from studying the palette-knife technique favored by Monet to convey nuances of light and reflected color.

Now, Warner is looking to heighten the quality and depth of her work while maintaining the joyful nature that radiates from her paintings. “I am open to the future, although I don’t know what it’s going to be,” she says. “I just want to do the best work I can do.” Warner’s work can be seen at Marcus Ashley Gallery, South Lake Tahoe, CA, and at www.valwarner.com. —Mackenzie McCreary

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

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