By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental columnist
Amid the fervor over Greater Yellowstone’s inundation by COVID-19 refugees with some transplants possessing little awareness of what it really means to live in a wild place, there are many examples of people who “get it.”
Some are not only exponents of having a high level of appreciation, but by what they do for a living they’re consciously contributing to public respect for wildlife conservation.
Just over a year ago, Jim Bortz made an impetuous move from Pennsylvania to Cody, Wyoming, and the result catapulted him into the stratosphere. Bortz is a wildlife artist who was mostly known, among the piscatorially-minded, for his portrayals of fish ranging from trout to muskies and bass.
Being raised, as many sporting artists are, on a staple of dramatic illustrations that appeared in outdoor magazines, Bortz dreamed of one-day going west where he could live closer to charismatic megafauna.
For those who don’t know, “charismatic megafauna” are big, lumbering creatures that can injure people who aren’t respectful of them, like grizzlies, moose, elk and bison.
Bortz was especially attracted to our region because of the fact that Greater Yellowstone is the lone ecosystem in the Lower 48 that still has healthy populations of all of the mammal and bird species that were here in 1491, before Europeans invaded the continent.
“I’d been searching for a place to land in the Rocky Mountain states for a couple of years,” Bortz said. “When I got accepted into the Buffalo Bill Art Show in Cody, I started doing a little research on the community and it wasn’t long before I headed to the West with my entire life condensed into a 6-by-12 U-Haul trailer.”
Bortz, in his 50s, was ready to entertain reinvention.
The Buffalo Bill Art Show is among the premier annual showcases for contemporary Western art and it includes an auction where historical works by deceased masters are sometimes sold.
Being invited to display one’s work there is a big deal, and Bortz knows it. “That show has opened some doors for me that I’m still trying to wrap my brain around,” he said. “There are times when none of this seems real.”
Bortz has been compared to painters Carl Rungius and the late Bob Kuhn. As those heroes aged, they made their portrayals of animals as beautiful as any artist could with the human figure.
“Accurate drawing is vitally important, but I’m working toward an impressionistic style of painting while hoping to maintain pleasing level of believability,” Bortz said. “My hunting and fishing adventures enrich my life and inspire most of my work.”
This year he’ll fulfill another dream by having his paintings appear in the Western Visions show at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole.
Indeed, Bortz is a rising star in wildlife and equine art and he’s having trouble keeping up with demand for his work.
That’s the paradox of becoming successful. You come to Greater Yellowstone so that you can spend more time outdoors hunting, fishing and wildlife watching so that you can produce better paintings. Yet, when your art career takes off, you find yourself stuck in the studio more often.
Still, Bortz makes sure he puts his brushes down. Not long ago, he posted an image on Facebook. He had been out bow hunting mule deer in the Absaroka Mountains near Cody. When a grizzly bear showed up unexpectedly, he clutched his bear spray in one hand, camera in another and he began talking gently to the visitor, slowly backing away out of mortal respect.
That’s showing a lot of poise for a newcomer. With Bortz’s work, locals or people from outside the region can vicariously roam on adventures rooted in real-life encounters, which heightens the sense of being there.
“Everything I love about the sporting life is now pretty much right outside my door,” he said. “My love of western big game and fly fishing make this area one enormous unexplored playground. Even when I’m getting run off the river by an approaching grizzly, I find myself grinning ear to ear by the time I get back to the truck. I’ve never felt more alive.”
Most importantly, Bortz keenly understands that the region is the last and best of its kind in the West, and is a vocal advocate for wildlife conservation and protecting habitat.
Visit jimbortzart.com to see more of Bortz’s work.
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He also authored of the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399.