By Michael Somerby EBS STAFF
BOZEMAN – A multicolor composition depicting a posse of five skunks nosing through Indian Paintbrush wildflowers as magpies look on, aptly titled “Stinkers,” hangs in the back corner of Visions West Gallery, the contemporary Western art showroom on Main Street in downtown Bozeman.
The synthesis of these black- and white-patterned creatures evokes a story: Jenni Lowe-Anker’s grandmother would feed food scraps to the Western birds from her home in the Grasshopper Valley, attracting the smelly scavengers in droves.
What says more, however, is that these two creatures are traditionally maligned; skunks for their pungent weaponry and magpies for often-vicious scavenging tactics, such as raiding other birds’ nests to eat their eggs and young.
But in the piece “Stinkers,” carefully crafted by Jenni Lowe, as she’s known in the art world, the animals are handsome and charming, balancing the colors of their surroundings with their lack of pigment to create a swirling, “whimsical” dance of animal life.
For Lowe-Anker, capturing the creatures of Montana and the lifestyles of the region is a life’s work, underscoring her legacy here in the Treasure State and the emphasis she places on its wildlife.
To understand that drive is to simply look back on her heritage as the great granddaughter of Montana homesteaders that settled in the Grasshopper Valley area, to her early days growing up cowgirling on those same plots of land and in her hometown, Missoula, to spending many a day in, on and around the incredible natural features of this great and expansive corner of the Lower 48.
If her Big Sky Country roots weren’t evident enough in the Montana bottled into each piece, take the fact that she exclusively uses cattle/livestock markers, a pastel- and paint-like medium used to mark animals and stock in auction and ranching settings.
“They come in about 10 colors, so I do a lot of blending,” Lowe-Anker said of the “folk medium,” as she calls it. “It means you have to have a very intimate understanding of color.”
According to Lowe-Anker, her style started off “rudimentary and simple,” and over time has adopted a more realistic quality. Still, they uphold a calling card of Lowe-Anker’s work.
“They always had and will have a very whimsical nature to them,” she said from her Bozeman studio in early October. “And that’s present in the portrayal of the wildlife and imagery I grew up with in Montana.”
Lowe-Anker’s connection to nature has provided her with an acute awareness of the effects climate change has rendered, a consciousness she’s proud to have passed on to her three adult sons she raised with world-famous alpinist Conrad Anker after Alex Lowe, their biological father and Anker’s friend and climbing partner, died in an avalanche during a Nepal ski mountaineering expedition in October of 1999.
“With species declining more rapidly than they ever have in the history of mankind, it’s dire,” Lowe-Anker said. “So when I look outside and see a nuthatch at my feeder, I think, ‘thank God they’re still here.’ To me that’s joy, to see those species still here, to be there for them and to protect them.”
She’s conveyed that joy to show audiences and patrons over her more than 30-year-long career, a unique form of conservation advocacy that celebrates what remains.
“One-third of all birds have died in the last 30 years,” she said. “That’s a statistic the Audubon Society has put out. That’s horrible. Do you want a painting of a bunch of dead birds?”
Lowe-Anker calls a piece hanging in the front entrance of Visions West, “Polar Vortex,” among her more aggressive in its pro-conservation messaging. Named after the harsh winter conditions that descended upon the region last winter, it portrays artic foxes, wolves and hares, polar bears, and a white ermine assembled across a sheet of snow and ice.
The animals look regal. They look comfortable in their arctic habitat, seemingly unaware of the environmental peril rushing to meet them. Words lace the spaces between them: “Climate Change is a Global Crisis Bold Action Needed.” Beneath them, etched into their shadows: “The artic is warming faster than any region on Earth,” and “1/3 of species predicted to be extinct by 2050.”
Listen to Lowe-Anker: Thank god these creatures, like the humble nutchatch, are still here—it’s reason enough relish in art, like hers, that represents them as they are in existence, full of spirit and whimsy.