Art Inspired by Wildlife

Contemporary or traditional . . . this art has broad appeal.


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Since the birth of human consciousness the earth’s fauna have been subjects of great interest for magical artists, shamans and myth-makers. Artists living between 32,000 and 17,000 years ago embellished the undulating cave walls at Chauvet and Lascaux in France and at El Toldos in Argentina with beautifully executed and designed animal imagery. The stunning earthen-hued paintings came alive under flickering firelight from oil lamps used to light the way for ancient artists and initiates.

Though speculation about their use and meaning abounds, the most likely purposes for cave paintings were religious and practical education. Ancient people knew that animals deserved reverence and high regard since they provided food, clothing and–in the case of the now extinct mastodon–shelter. Archaeologists recently discovered mastodon bone shelters in Northern Europe that were built near the end of the last ice age. The structures with their literally ribbed arches may have been the precursors of later vaulted cathedrals. Ancient peoples intuitively understood the interconnectivity of life and recognized spirit in all things.

Contemporary New Mexico artists Star Liana York and Holly Roberts embrace the essential spirit and beauty of ancient art as well as living animals in their traditional and modernist works.

When York moved from Maryland to Santa Fe 20 years ago she discovered petroglyphs during long hikes in the river gorge near La Cienega. The powerful images with their simplicity and grace impressed and inspired York’s imagination. “Those early encounters with petroglyphs and pictographs were magical experiences that were reinforced when I visited the Chauvet and Lascaux caves in France. From those experiences and Joseph Campbell’s interpretations of mythology I came to see animal spirits as mediators between the spirit world and humanity,” York said recently.

Garnet's Stream

Image: © Star York/Jeff Brock
"Garnetís Stream"
Bronze and sculpted stone
Coutesy Manitou Galleries remote Santa Fe


“My first sculpture, related to rock art, was inspired by a visit to Laguna Pueblo ten years ago. We saw a six by seven-foot pictograph of a deer in a large amphitheater on the reservation that truly inspired me”.

The work evolved into horses and grew beyond local imagery to include cross-cultural sources.

York and her husband Jeff Brock are currently collaborating on fetish inspired animal mixed media sculpture. York fashions the bronzes and Brock carves the fetishes. Their efforts are combined into magical imagery. “When I studied ancient animal art it wasn’t hard to extrapolate that animals are the liaisons between humans and the spirit world,” York said.

Holly Roberts, a renowned artist and teacher transfigures photographs by painting and drawing over them until an essence emerges. Her imagery often combines humans and animals into Shaman-like deities that have the visual impact of antediluvian idols and cave paintings.

“I’ve always worked with animals. I was the best horse drawer in third grade because I felt comfortable drawing them. It took awhile to move on to people. When I combine the two it comes from a deep place that I’d rather not talk or know too much about for fear that it will go away,” Roberts said.

“When I watch Pueblo dancers I believe that I’m seeing living animal spirits. I don’t question the human under a costume. For me they are alive. I look for that experience in my own work. But it can’t be forced or turned into something trite”.

In her teaching Roberts is known for her ability to identify with her students’ individual sensibilities and not impose her own vision upon them. “When it comes to my students work with animals I tell them that they can do anything that doesn’t include killing something,” Roberts said.

Roberts’ painted photographs are, at once, romantic, ancient, modern and unique. Since she is the photographer the image emerges through total technical control and innate intuition. The combination bridges the false Cartesian distance between spirit and matter.

Haitian-born artist and ornithologist John James Audubon trekked into the wetlands and forests of eastern America to paint hundreds of wonderfully alive and awe inspiring watercolors of birds and their habitats during the early 19th century. Though he captured and killed his subjects to make long study possible Audubon was a consummate artist and scientist who helped reconnect modern man to nature. His decades long observations allowed Audubon the insight into human environmental impact that contributed to the contemporary study of ecology.


Image: © Holly Roberts "Elkman"
Mixed media, 12" x 15"
Courtesy Parks Gallery remote Taos

Audubon published “The Birds of America” a portfolio of 435 engravings of 1065 different birds in 1827. By mid-century Audubon’s efforts had expanded into a seven volume set that included “The Ornithological Biography” that he co-authored with Scottish Naturalist William MacGillivray. Audubon’s watercolors and engravings continue to inspire artists.

Sculptor Tony Angell lives and works in the Pacific Northwest where he carves stones and casts bronzes depicting birds, mammals and fish.

“For me Audubon is a giant among artists who took a quantum leap in depicting nature in art. His enormous contribution is unparalleled. That he accomplished so much without modern tools like four wheel drives, cameras, telephoto lenses and other technologies is what I find inspiring,” Angell said recently.

Angell said that since he doesn’t have a studio filled with assistants he uses every means available to move excess stone away from the core image. Angell uses saws, grinders, and chisels, wet and dry sandpaper and whatever else to get to the surface of his image.

“But ultimately it’s up to me to get my hands on it and make that translation. Like Michelangelo who could see the figure in the stone and remove everything down to that final skin, when you get down to that last skin you have to work it with your fingertips. You can’t have a bunch of tools between you and that subtle form. You’ve got to dance around your subject and see it from every conceivable angle, edge and shape. To see what’s happening and bring it forward there can be nothing between your hands and the stone,” Angell said.

Angell said he prefers to work with natural rather than quarried stone because he often sees the final subject in the form of the stone.

Though Angell relies on photographs and reference books for detail he feels the camera has a way of getting in the way of the artist and separating them from the reality of nature and its sensory impact. Angell explained that he gave up his own use of the camera more than 20 years ago.

“I decided that I’d used it as much as I needed to. I can go a lot deeper and do work that has greater dimension by just applying everything that I’ve got. My touch, my kinesthetic, my visual, auditory, olfactory and other senses because that’s what I’m putting into my art,” Angell said.

Thanks to Wesley Pulkka, artist, critic and arts writer for New Mexico and national publications.

Originally appeared in The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque – Vol 19

Related Pages

Indian Fetishes article

Contemporary Navajo Folk Art article

Collector’s Resources


Gallerie Imaginarium rem 301D Central Ave NW |
Concetta D Gallery | 505-243-5066

Elsewhere in New Mexico

Corrales Bosque Gallery | 505-898-7203

Santa Fe

EVOKE contemporary | 505-995-9902
Santa Fe Art Collector | 505-988-5545
Dominique Samyn-Werbrouck | 505-424-1742
Ashley Collins rem Studio by appointment | 310.713.1308
Alexandra Stevens Fine Art | 505-988-1311
Gerald Peters Gallery + Peters Projects | 505.954.5700
Greenberg Fine Art | 505-955-1500
LewAllen Galleries | 505-988-3250
Manitou Galleries | 505-986-0440
McLarry Fine Art | 505-988-1161
Meyer East Gallery | 505-983-1657
Nedra Matteucci Galleries | 505-982-4631
Reflection Gallery | 505-995-9795
Sage Creek Gallery | 505-988-3444
Shidoni Galleries / Sculpture Garden / Foundry | 505-988-8001
Joe Wade Fine Art | 505-988-2727
Wadle Galleries Ltd pic 128 West Palace Ave | 505-983-9219
Bill Watson pic An online service | 505-995-0773
Wiford Gallery 403 Canyon Road | 505-982-2403
Zaplin Lampert Gallery | 505.982.6100

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