By Michael Somerby EBS STAFF
HAMILTON — Imagine, for a moment, the grizzly bear.
The creature leads a dual existence, straddling roles as a symbol of rugged American wildness and that as a notorious icon of political, ecological rift.
They are the stuff of myth and pride, legend and nightmare.
But for young Montana painter James Corwin, mostly their “gentle and observing” soul is abundantly present in his hyperreal re-creations.
The 28-year-old grew in Kalispell, in a cabin with no television or video games, just a rarely paralleled proximity to the wilds of northwest Montana.
“My mom grew up in New Jersey, but her dream was always to have a log cabin in Montana,” Corwin said. ““I was forced to spend my playtime outside in nature, acres and acres of forest where I’d go shed hunting and exploring, catching insects and critters to care for them.”
At the time, Corwin had no apprehension that countless moments spent roaming the surrounding forests and fields observing their natural order would ultimately dictate his profession.
It was his senior year of high school, during an art class he chose to round out some missing credits, that Corwin discovered a prescient ability to draw and paint, innate talents that quickly landed him a scholarship that allowed him to attend any art institution in the country.
Since graduating from Marietta College in Ohio, a liberal arts institution where Corwin was a six-generation legacy, he returned to Montana, established a studio in Hamilton and produced dozens of paintings to remarkable acclaim.
Back to the region’s (in)famous bruins—in Corwin’s piece “Monarchs,” a large grizzly idles in tall, summer grasses while observing a Monarch butterfly flapping by.
He has never observed this in the wild, but he has seen the ways in which wild bears exhibit a highly inquisitive, curious, gentle and lumbering nature as they browse for food and suitable places to take a nap. So when painting “Monarchs,” Corwin figured why not create this relationship on canvas with a goal of fostering an emotional bridge between observer and wildlife.
“People think they’re so scary and dangerous, and yes they are, but they’re also gentle and observing. I wanted to create an emotional connection with something that can be perceived as aggressive,” Corwin said. “When I choose to feature wildlife instead of landscapes, I know I can portray that emotion much easier.”
Some deem his works whimsical, a quality Corwin says he doesn’t always perceive, but one could argue it is a persistent theme of his work.
For example, “Serendipity III” depicts a grizzly lying on its back looking up at a hummingbird flying overhead; “A Pika and a Bumble Bee” shows the named creatures looking eye-to-eye on a lichen-specked rock next to a bloom of wildflowers; “The Morning Report” has a praying mantis seeming to whisper in the ear of a sleeping raccoon.
Yet, there is a quality of natural solemnity in other pieces, such as “Resilience,” where a bull moose stands in a grove of charred timber, or “Sockeye,” in which a large grizzly rips a live salmon from the water, thrashing it about in the air.
No matter the nature of the composition and the creatures illustrated within them, there is little room to argue that emotional connection has not been established for the viewer—it would require a plain lack of regard for the natural world to claim otherwise.
With growing prestige, pricing some pieces as high as $30,000 and with commissioned clientele including the likes of Kevin Plank, CEO of popular athletic wear manufacturer Under Armour, it seems Corwin will have no foreseeable shortage in the demand for bringing that emotion into homes and hospices around the globe.
With the fate of wildlife perpetually hanging in the balance, perhaps it is pertinent for us all to consider grizzlies as the gentle souls Corwin has shaped. The notion might just preserve them for generations to come.
Visit jamescorwin.com for more information about the artist and how to purchase a piece.