A near life-sized black bear, maybe 500 pounds, rises from her easel, standing on its hinds, locking our eyes. Nearby, the vision of a red fox, peering through a wild bouquet of Carolina jasmine, appears to hold the light of Old World masters.
Soon, the bruin will be bound for a collector’s wall and the vixen headed cross-country to Thomasville, Georgia, where painter Lyn St. Clair was a featured artist at the Plantation Wildlife Arts Festival.
For 30 years, I’ve written about hundreds of nature artists, some of whom, disappointingly, project photographic slides of animals onto blank surfaces and then trace the outlines of their subjects.
I’ve also interviewed talented artists known for their portrayals of American wildness and the creatures dwelling inside of it, yet seldom do they find the opportunity to actually prowl around it themselves.
“Get in,” St. Clair said. “Let’s go for a ride.”
The invitation came shortly after I arrived at the door to St. Clair’s studiorecently, an airy, high-ceilinged space situated in an old renovated country schoolhouse. The sun-drenched sanctum on a ranch near Livingston, Montana, overlooks the Absaroka Range’s rugged backside.
As I climbed into the cab of St. Clair’s pickup, I took note of the special Montana license plate on the bumper. It held the letters “T-R-U-E” perched above the phrase “Women of the West.”
St. Clair had pointy, stylized cowboy boots on her feet, was wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt and had a pile of saddle tack in the truck bed. Her painting hands weren’t soft. They were firm, strong and slightly calloused from holding ropes and reins.
A native daughter of Tennessee, she is a consummate horse person as well as being a dog person and a naturalist never far from sketchpad, camera and binoculars.
Before the truck reached a distant timbered ridgeline, she pointed to game trails where she’s seen black bears and mountain lions feeding on elk and deer carcasses, hills where she’s heard wolves howl. Along the way, she called my attention to soaring golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and harriers dive-bombing prey.
“I live what I paint,” she says. “For me, I want to be authentic. I believe in painting what I know and if I’m going to paint it, I better know it.”
A cancer survivor, St. Clair has overcome tragedy and adversity. The zest of her painting is an expression of pure gratitude—and fearlessness. She credits a move to the Greater Yellowstone Region decades ago as being a pivotal step in the evolution of her work.
She settled first in Victor, Idaho, on the other side of the Tetons from Jackson Hole and used it as a basecamp for launching long wildlife watching excursions in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Eventually, she headed north to be closer to Yellowstone’s wildlife-rich Lamar and Hayden valleys, little American Serengetis where grizzly bears and wolves intermix with elk, bison, moose and deer in a dynamic intersection of predators and prey.
On the day I visited St. Clair, she was finishing up a large, almost op-artish tribute to a famous grizzly titled “Icon.” The bear, given the identity Grizzly 211 by researchers, was known colloquially to others as “Scarface.” The bruin had been shot in autumn 2015 just outside Yellowstone’s northern border under suspicious circumstances.
Most of the time, St. Clair hikes or hoofs her way on horseback to spots vehicles cannot go.
“I constantly see animal behavior that is new to me,” she says. “There are countless little discoveries and amazing things that I have seen while spending time in the wild. Similarly, when it comes to training the horses, they teach me more than I could ever teach them.”
Donald Zanoff and Mick Burlington run A Stone’s Throw Bed and Breakfast in Livingston and were St. Clair’s neighbors on C Street when she lived in town. Zanoff remembers when St. Clair would rush to Yellowstone and camp out of her vehicle for weeks, studying birds in the spring as they approached fledging or elk mothers and calves as they were on the move.
“The stories she tells in her paintings are genuine,” said Zanoff, adding that he and Burlington commissioned St. Clair to draw portraits of four pets, including an animal that passed away.
“The thing I love most about art is that you never get ‘there,’” St. Clair says. “No matter how hard you work, there is always more to learn, a different direction to explore, another edge to push your envelope toward and something new to discover about what you are capable of. Each painting inspires the next one.”
That may be, that it’s really about the journey and not the destination. One thing is certain: St. Clair’s work transports us.
Todd Wilkinson has been a journalist for 30 years. He writes his New West column every week, and it’s published on explorebigsky.com on EBS off weeks. Wilkinson authored the recent award-winning book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 astounding images by renowned American nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen. His new article on climate change, “2067: The Clock Struck Thirteen,” appears in the winter 2017 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine, on stands now.