By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Colorado artist Ezra Tucker has been fascinated with the physical feats of the animal kingdom since he was a young boy. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, and diagnosed with asthma at six weeks old, Tucker had to spend much of his time indoors while other children were playing outside.
He entertained himself with reading, and by 6 years old he was drawing pictures of the passages he read in the Bible—his father was a minister—and Aesop’s Fables; later, ancient mythology and the encyclopedia; and, once his family got a television, what he saw on nature programs.
Tucker used an NBA basketball metaphor to explain his fascination with animal prowess. “When you see people like LeBron [James] and [Michael] Jordan perform almost unhuman feats with their bodies, it’s phenomenal,” he said. “I’m fascinated with what the human body can do; I’m fascinated by what animals can do.”
Despite admonishment from his practical parents, Tucker pursued his dream of being a wildlife artist at Memphis Academy of Art, now Memphis College of Art, intent on proving to himself and his family that he could make it as a professional artist.
“Everybody has to start somewhere, but if you do something well, money will follow,” Tucker said. “But you have to decide what you want to do and do it well—and opportunities will come to you.”
After graduation, Tucker worked as a Hallmark illustrator, and later in Hollywood drawing storyboards that translated descriptions into visual imagery for characters that include the flying dog-like creature in “The Neverending Story.” Always moving between the imaginary and the real, Tucker also created poster and advertising art of the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales, and fantasy art for paperback covers.
Tucker began to segue out of the commercial world and turn his focus to fine art in 2005, by which time digital technology was rendering traditional illustrators like him obsolete.
Unchallenged by the art curriculum at university, Tucker’s professor suggested he spend the next two years sketching in the neighboring zoo. When he started noticing the difference between animals in captivity and those running wild and free, his work took on a conservation component.
“They were sagging, not as muscular,” he recalled. “They looked healthier in the wild than in the zoo, their definition, coloring, the look in their eyes—wolves in the wild have piercing eyes. You see the same animal in the zoo and that intensity is not there.”
Tucker says his art—realistic acrylic renderings of North American wildlife as well as those of the African bush and beyond—can inspire people to observe wildlife in a way they hadn’t before and, ideally, spark greater respect and compassion for their non-human counterparts.
He gives the example of a detailed, anatomically correct portrayal of an elk hoof. Perhaps the viewer had never really thought about what an elk hoof actually looks like, and is being educated through the artwork. He points to the time someone stood before one of his fox paintings, crying. She told Tucker she felt like she knew this fox, from the glint in its eye, the expression of personality in its form, and that she would never perceive a fox in the same way.
That is one of Tucker’s primary goals as an artist—he wants the animals he paints to feel alive, as if they could leap out of the painting at any moment.
Tucker also likes to paint animals in intimate, not-often-portrayed scenes, such as a wolf lying his head on another wolf’s back, to further humanize them.
“If we don’t see each other as human beings we tend to not be kind and not be fair,” he said. “[Animals] are just as valid to be on this planet as we are. We depend on them so much more than we realize.”
But if you want a large-scale, dramatic piece, like the 9-foot-by-5-foot painting of an angry grizzly bear he’s working on for a home in Aspen, Tucker also does commissions. Between custom paintings and keeping the nine galleries that represent him stocked with fresh work, Tucker has 12-plus paintings in progress at the moment.
“There’s always something going on here that’s creative,” said Tucker about his home studio, situated at 8,000 feet in an old growth pine forest halfway between Denver and Colorado Springs. His wife is a jewelry-maker and his children have their own art space in his studio.
“It makes it easy to be dad and a professional artist at the same time.”
Ezra Tucker is represented locally by Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky. Tucker is one of approximately 50 artists contributing regionally inspired works to the Big Sky Art Auction on July 26 under the Big Tent at the Big Sky PBR arena in Town Center. Visit creightonblockgallery.com and ezratucker.com to learn more.