CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Normally, encounters with fine art are personal affairs. Paintings might hang in museum galleries, attracting long lines of people but when they stir the soul, they do it one viewer at a time.

Never before had I witnessed a large crowded auditorium erupt spontaneously into a standing ovation with an unveiling of “wildlife art.”

But it happened last weekend in Grand Rapids, Minnesota when artist Brian Jarvi gave more than 700 people a sneak preview of his epic new masterpiece “African Menagerie: In Inquisition.”

I’ve been writing about wildlife art for three decades. One of the main criticisms—valid in my opinions—is that, yes, the genre has talented painters and sculptors very good at making pretty, superficial portrayals of animals but so few produce works that force us to think.

“African Menagerie” seizes our attention first with its size and the scale of what it covers. Measuring 30 feet across and climbing at its highest point to 1.5 stories tall—there you see the largely snowless profile of Mount Kilimanjaro—the artwork features 209 African wildlife species converging across seven interlocking panels.

However, the greatest impact is one that transcends physical dimensions. Jarvi’s intent is to engage us with an existential question: Are 21st century humans doing enough to preserve the richness of biodiversity we now hold in our hands?

While “African Menagerie” is unprecedented as a work of modern wildlife art, it historically follows in the tradition of other narrative paintings that asked important social questions, such as Raphael’s “The School of Athens” located in the Vatican and Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in Madrid’s Prado.

“African Menagerie,” too, is a grand narrative painting filled with dozens of coded visual messages. Jarvi’s overarching theme is wildlife conservation and the need for humans to be better stewards, but he isn’t delivering a lecture.

From the moment he conceived of African Menagerie years ago, he wanted it to be accompanied by the term “an inquisition,” meaning “a period of prolonged and intensive questioning or investigation.”

Known for his dramatic predators and prey scenes, Jarvi has been to Africa a dozen times on research trips yet part of his inspiration, he admits, came from visits made to Greater Yellowstone. He loves Big Sky.

Our region has an impressive abundance of species large and small, but whether here or halfway around the world, he’s not convinced we spend enough time reflecting on nature’s interconnections and, most importantly, how ecosystems are unraveling.

“I wanted to attempt a composition that had never been done before; that would bring the viewer inside a panorama where you can let your own imagination be your guide—to reflect and observe and feel the same sense of humility and reverence that I do,” he says. “I wanted viewers to be able to see something new with every viewing and to let beauty open our minds to a new level of awareness.”

Cleverly, Jarvi draws us in by using the patterns, shapes and outlines of iconic species we instantly recognize—elephant, mountain gorilla, zebra, giraffe, Cape Buffalo, chimpanzee and two species of rhino (one of which is now extinct in the wild). From there our eyes float between dozens upon dozens of others, many of them imperiled. Not only does the colorful massing inspire awe but it makes clear the magnitude of what’s at stake.

“In other words, It is my hope viewers will open their minds to considering other creatures that are just as important in the big picture but often overlooked,” he says. “Seeing them represented in the larger kingdom of nature and then asking the viewer to wonder what would be missing were they removed from existence?”

The animals form a confluence around a figure that Jarvi has dubbed “omega-man” but this is not a meeting based upon reverence for Homo sapiens; instead it represents a moment in which wildlife demands that humankind explain its actions.

“By the decisions we are making and the causes we support, we’re creating a world where many of the subjects in “African Menagerie” might not be around in another 50 years,” Jarvi says. “I wanted to give these animals a voice and help elevate awareness about the threats to their survival but do it in a way that comes across, foremost, as a celebration. The challenges facing Africa are a symbol for the world.”

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly. His profile of Montana politician Max Baucus appears in the summer 2017 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.