Bonnie Marris, Art of the West, January-February 2016

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January/February 2016

For All Fine Art Collectors

Bonnie Marris




By Sara Gilbert Frederick


n an ideal world, Bonnie Marris would get out for a long horseback ride every day. Especially in the fall, when the trees around her northern Michigan home transition to brilliant yellow and reds, she would love to settle in for a daily ride. But it doesn’t always work out that way. “I would feel too guilty,” Marris says, “because of the dogs. It’s too hard to bring them with, and I can’t seem to do much without them. I don’t know who has more separation anxiety—them, or me.” That connection to her animals— she and her husband, landscape artist Woody Palmer, have a Belgian sheepdog, a collie and four horses—defines Marris almost as much as the artwork 42

for which she’s known. Animals have always been her first love. In fact, if she had been any good at math, she might have pursued a career as a veterinarian rather than a wildlife artist. “I never really wanted to go into art,” she admits. “I wanted to work with animals. Drawing was just something I had always been good at. Art was the only thing I could do really well.” So, even though Marris had started attending Michigan State University with the intention of majoring in art, it was the zoology classes that she enjoyed most. “I was pretty much flunking out of art school,” she says. “But I took every single zoology class that I could. My professor even let me take some of the graduate level classes as an undergrad, just for fun.” Above Frosty Winter, oil 36˝ by 48˝

Opposite Page Cool Clear Water, oil, 40˝ by 30˝

“I was camping in Montana and awoke to sparkling frost everywhere. The grasses were tall like crystal straws and all colors were muted and frozen. Through the frozen dawn appeared this beautiful dreamlike wolf. My frozen fingers and toes were completely forgotten once again.

“One of my favorite subjects: the red fox. The light, patterns, and textures are what intrigued me during this interlude. Capturing a perfect moment is a daunting task sometimes.”

ART of the WEST • January/February 2016

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It was a zoology professor who helped Marris see how she could connect art and animals—although accidentally. He had taken her to the home of a friend in Detroit, where Marris saw a David Shepherd original hanging on the wall. “It was amazing,” she remembers. “When I looked at his painting, it made me feel the same way I felt when I was with a real animal. I wanted to be able to help other people feel like that, too.” That was in the 1970s. At the time, there were about as many women working in wildlife art as there were in zoology. But Marris remembers her professor encouraging her to be one of the first to do both. “He said, ‘I know you’re a woman, but you have got to get out there. Put your hiking boots on, get out in the field and do this,’” she recalls. So she did. In the four decades since, Marris has gotten up close and personal with wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions, and polar 44

bears. She’s studied in Alaska, Minnesota, Montana, and anywhere else she can find predators in the wild. And she’s turned those experiences into award-winning paintings. Marris relies on her scientific background every time she starts a painting. She understands the bone structure and internal organs of the animals she paints, so she knows what an animal’s body can and can’t do. Sometimes, she says, that knowledge becomes a bit of a burden. “I’ll look at a painting and say, ‘That toe is too big’ or ‘That ear needs to be bigger,’” she says. “It’s never ending.” But it’s essential to successful wildlife art. Marris remembers hearing a sculptor say that artists, who don’t know anatomy, break every bone in an animal’s body. That won’t be her. “You can’t go bending a knee in the wrong way,” she says. “You have to know where the bones end. You have to be true to the animal and get it right.” Marris’ extensive zoological stud-

ART of the WEST • January/February 2016

The Power of Freedom, oil, 24˝ by 36˝ “It is a force in all of us to break away, and this painting reminds me to strive for that on many levels. Here, the white horse (a gray, actually) has broken her rope of bondage to run with the wild ones.”

ies as an undergrad at Michigan State University gave her a solid anatomical foundation. They also impressed upon her the importance of getting into the wild. During college, she went on field trips, learned how to track wildlife, and discovered the difference between seeing a wolverine in the wild and in a zoo. “I learned that you really need to immerse yourself in animal behavior,” she says. “And I’ve gotten more and more into it, as time goes by.” That’s why she continues to spend as much time as she can on research excursions. Most of the time, Marris goes out in search of predators— particularly wolves and bears. Her goal is to get as close to them as she can, within reason. “I’m very, very

Tsunami, oil, 36˝ by 48˝ “An immeasurable, heart-stopping power and force: a grizzly. I used the sun to add punch (not that a grizzly needs punch).”

careful,” she says. “I’m never really afraid around wolves, but especially with bears, the scariest thing is surprising them—then you can get in trouble. But most animals give you several warnings before they attack. They’ll let you know if they are bothered. You just have to watch for the signs and be careful.” Marris is not opposed to going out alone, but she’s always happy to have company, when she’s out in the field. She laughs about the fact that she used to rate the men she dated by who could tolerate waiting for wolves with her. “I was knocking names off the list left and right,” she says. “But Woody never complains about it. He’s happy to wait patiently with me.” Sometimes finding wolves requires more than just waiting. Marris dedicates hours to track-

ing, retracing steps, and looking for signs. On occasion, she and Woody have even sat down next to a carcass and waited for wolves to show up at the site. “People often ask me how to find wolves,” she says. “You just have to be patient.” That patience is sometimes rewarded with extraordinary interactions, like the time Marris watched two young wolf pups—she guessed that they were seven-months old— playing in a field with some buffalo. They were running around, pouncing at the buffalo, almost as if they were on a hunt together. “The buffalo weren’t bothered by it at all—they seemed to know that they were just practicing,” she says. “And pretty soon, the wolves gave up and starting chasing ground squirrels instead.” Observing those behaviors informs Marris’s work almost as much

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Ice Princess, oil, 48˝ by 36˝ “I woke up about 3 a.m. one winter morning, having dreamed this painting. I could see it all in extremely vivid detail: the light hitting the ice, the look in the cat’s eye, everything. It was so vivid that I got up and started the painting like a crazy person.”


ART of the WEST • January/February 2016

American Anthem, oil, 36˝ by 48˝ “The mustang is a true symbol of our country: courage, strength, freedom, power, and beauty. It’s these elusive qualities we, as Americans, live and die for.”

as the photos she takes. “I come back with so much to work with,” she says. “I want to be able to tell this story and that story. I want people to be able to connect to exactly what I saw.” That’s not easy. Sometimes the connection Marris made in the field is hard to translate in a two-dimensional medium. But when it works, it’s incredibly gratifying. “Every now and then I’ll hear someone who’s looking at a painting say exactly what I was going for in that piece,” she says. “Then it’s all worth it.” Those are the times Marris remembers what it felt like looking at that David Shepherd original years ago. As she began to consider a career as an artist, she traveled to the big-game shows at which Shepherd often exhibited. Each time, she

found herself more inspired by his work. “When I saw how he was able to move people so much with his paintings and how he was able to save animals’ lives with his work as a conservationist, I realized that that was what I wanted to do,” she says. It helped that Marris also was able to meet other artists, who were able to make a living doing what they loved. That gave her the courage to start painting and to sign up to participate in shows. “I started earning credibility as a painter and started getting some collectors and found out how much fun it was,” she says. She only wished that her dad had been around to see that success. Although her mother, who had been involved in theatre before getting married and having kids, had always

encouraged Marris’s creativity, her father, who passed away while she was in college, took a more practical approach. “My mom always said not to give up on any dream, but my dad was the opposite—very practical,” she says. He was worried, she says, that she would never be able to have the things she wanted—a house in the country, for example, and a horse of her own—if she became an artist. On a day when Marris has been for a long ride on a horse of her own and has been able to sit in the sunshine on the porch of her home in the beautiful Michigan countryside, she wishes her dad were alive to see how it worked out. “I still can’t really believe it myself,” she says. Sara Gilbert Frederick is a writer living in Mankato, Minnesota

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