By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Painter Virginie Baude remembers the moment wolves captured her imagination. She was six years old and a mobile library came to her small town in the south of France. She came across an edition of the Jack London classic “The Call of the Wild” with an image of a howling wolf on the cover.
Baude’s fascination with wolves never left her, and fueled a dream to live in Yellowstone National Park and study the animal in its natural habitat.
She pursued this end by earning a master’s degree in wildlife biology from a French university, but remained uncertain about how she would make her dream a reality.
But getting to Yellowstone turned out to be a matter of serendipity. A college friend told her about the J-1 Visa Program that gave foreigners the opportunity to work in the U.S. for five months and travel for another two.
Baude applied to numerous national parks, and the only one she received a job offer from was Yellowstone.
She was ecstatic, but her parents were not. She had a master’s degree and was going to bus tables?
“I didn’t care,” Baude said. “All I wanted to do was go to Yellowstone—if I had to start at the bottom I was going to do that.”
She didn’t get any closer to working with wolves, but returned for a second season anyway, and began sketching in her free-time.
Upon a friend’s suggestion, Baude decided to spend a season in Alaska, where she started assisting mushers with their sled dogs.
“That’s where it really all started,” she said of her deepening affinity for the wild. “I was out in the middle of nowhere with the dogs and it’s so quiet and peaceful, and there are the northern lights—I felt an overwhelming love for nature and wildlife and began sketching animals.”
Her American visa opportunities having run out, Baude took seasonal, outdoor-oriented jobs in Australia and New Zealand, her sketching turning to painting.
While working on the South Island at the Franz Joseph Glacier Visitor Center, she met a local artist who had a show at a nearby lodge and invited Baude to display some of her work.
She made more money from the sale of two paintings than from all of her odd jobs combined and, for the first time, thought maybe she should give being a professional artist a shot. But she wanted to do so in North America.
“The Down Under was not for me,” she said. “I was missing the snow, the North, the landscape, the bears and the wolves—the call of the wild, really.”
In another show of the universe aligning, a friend from Alaska called in need of a dog handler.
Baude went and began painting wolves out of a longing to see them. One day, in what was only her third sighting, she saw a big black wolf running across a frozen river.
“It was amazing,” she said. “I wish I could’ve stopped time; it was a fleeting moment and it was gone.”
That was 2006; Baude was 28 and still hadn’t gotten any closer to becoming to a wolf biologist.
Then she went to Canada on a one-year work visa to be a biologist’s research assistant. In the winter she’d return to Alaska to guide dog-mushing expeditions.
There was a radical break in her story when she married and moved to the East Coast, where she couldn’t find meaningful work. Then, a near-fatal car accident landed her in a wheelchair for three months.
She remembered the words of an aboriginal man she knew in Australia.
“If you were a millionaire, what would you still do?” he had asked her. She answered without hesitation: She would paint.
“I decided life was too short. I was going to go for it,” she said.
She took a painting workshop in Montana’s Flathead Valley, and began to think that instead of studying wolves, she could honor them in paint.
Her wolf paintings were quickly picked up by galleries in Jackson, Wyoming, and Whitefish, Montana. Since 2011, the value of her paintings has increased from $5,000 to upward of $20,000.
“Since I read that book, [wolves] are the only animal to me that represents the spirit of the wild. I didn’t become a painter because I love painting,” she said. “I became a painter because I love my subject so much I want to give it justice on the canvas. For most painters it’s the other way around.”
Baude is now settled in Driggs, Idaho, where she’s close to Jackson’s thriving art scene and has easy access to the parks and wildlife that feed her artistic soul.