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Painting the Prairie

Emilie Lee  /  Oct 26, 2017  /  6 Min Read  /  Community

A landscape painter volunteers her skills to help protect wildlife habitat in Montana’s Northern Great Plains.

Lone Bison, 12" x 6", oil on linen. Artist: Emilie Lee

My artistic heroes have always been the turn-of-the-century landscape painters: Frederic Church, Sanford Gifford, Thomas Moran, to name a few. They were rugged outdoorsmen, exploring places like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite on some of the very first European expeditions to those places. They trekked into the mountains with primitive camping gear and heavy wooden painting kits and returned with stunning artwork that changed the course of American history.

Before their time, landscape painting wasn’t taken seriously as an art form. It was merely a decorative aspect in the background of more important scenes. These artists declared that nature itself was worthy of being the main subject and their work was so popular that it became an art movement known as the Hudson River School—the first to ever originate on American soil. Their paintings showed Americans the value of unspoiled wilderness and helped usher in our country’s first conservation movement when they inspired U.S. lawmakers to create the national park system.

When I see these historical paintings in museums today, they never fail to take my breath away. I know that many of them are shameless exaggerations of real-life locations, but they succeed in eliciting the soaring emotions I feel when I’m alone in the wilderness, overwhelmed by my insignificance in the face of nature’s infinite power and beauty. As an artist myself, I’ve spent my life trying to make paintings that honor this feeling of awe and respect for nature.

Photo: Eugénie Frerichs

Emilie Lee works on a painting of the American Prairie Reserve. Northern Great Plains, Montana. Photo: Eugénie Frerichs

In my twenties, I painted scenes from my life as a climber, but my fascination with 19th century art led me to New York City where I studied with a group of artists who were bringing back the methods of the Hudson River School. At the time, the best document we had to guide our quest was an obscure and out-of-print series of letters from 1855 written by Asher Durand in which he urges aspiring artists to study directly from nature and to “scrupulously accept whatever she presents him, until he shall, in a degree, have become intimate with her infinity …” The letters go on in great detail about everything from color theory and atmospheric perspective to the spiritual benefits of time spent in the wild. I had a bootlegged version dictated on CD that I listened to on repeat while I was learning to paint.

As my abilities and my confidence grew, so did my dreams for how I could apply my own artwork to the modern-day fight for wilderness conservation. I imagined that I would end up traveling to the Arctic, painting the disappearing ice but as fate would have it, I found a lesser-known and more uplifting story much closer to home.

In Montana’s Northern Great Plains, a privately funded organization is working to protect 3.5 million acres of wildlife habitat—an area larger than any other protected landscape in the lower 48 states. It’s called the American Prairie Reserve (APR) and since 2003 they’ve been purchasing private land when it comes on the market, leasing adjacent government parcels and building a patchwork of protected properties that currently total nearly 400,000 acres. Their goal is to connect the puzzle pieces until there is one uninterrupted swath of wild prairie.

This struck me as a monumental vision and with its impressive success rate, an inspiring story for our generation to hear at a time when there is so much heartbreaking news about the fate of our wild places. I decided to go there with my paints and see what I could learn and what I could share. As the Hudson River School painters opened their viewer’s eyes to the value of preserving America’s wilderness, I hoped to shed light on the potential for wilderness to be re-established when the right conditions are in place.

Artist: Emilie Lee

First Prairie Sunset, 8″ x 6″, oil on linen. Artist: Emilie Lee

Located north of the Missouri River and south of Saskatchewan, this is not the lush grassland prairie of Willa Cather novels. It’s a 5,000 square mile sea of sage brush, prickly pear and cracked clay earth. It is a place of extremes—enduring blazing heat in the summer, forty below in the winter, debilitating “gumbo” mud when it rains and incessant drying winds all year long. Inhospitable as it is, generations of tenacious ranchers have managed to live and work here, and 90 percent of the native topsoil, held together by 15-foot-deep root structures, has never been plowed, making this one of only four remaining prairies of its size left in the world.

Animal populations were severely reduced generations ago, but with new wildlife-friendly ranching practices and the preservation of native plants, all the ingredients are in place for the return of a healthy ecosystem. With the exception of the swift fox, wolves and grizzlies, all of the species that once lived here can still be found and simply need time and space to reproduce. In 2005, the APR re-introduced sixteen native bison and today there is a herd of nearly 1,000 animals roaming the land, conjuring early accounts by Lewis and Clark who visited this area and described a scene teeming with bison as far as the eye could see.

Artist: Emilie Lee

Prairie Dog Hole, 8″ x 8″, oil on panel. Artist: Emilie Lee

As part of my research, I spent a week shadowing a group of volunteers from Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. We hiked for hours through the night to count mating sage grouse dancing as the sun rose, mapped prairie dog towns and checked camera traps on game trails, all in an effort to collect data on existing wildlife populations. In my first three days, I hiked 24 miles and asked a hundred questions about everything we saw.

Taking a cue from Asher Durand’s 1855 letters, I wanted my paintings to be informed by more than just an outsider’s first impressions of beautiful scenery. When I learned the tender lifecycle of the gumbo primrose and the fierce strength of greasewood, I took more interest in these plants and they became poetic characters in my paintings. The landscape that seemed at first so empty and monotonous soon revealed itself as a world rich with stories. Now and then we came across the dilapidated ruins of a cabin being swallowed by the grass, a poignant reminder that it wasn’t too long ago when the last bison was killed, Native people were confined on reservations and the land was given away to starry-eyed homesteaders, many of whom didn’t survive their first winter here.

Artist: Emilie Lee

Prairie Primrose #1, 8″ x 6″, oil on linen. Artist: Emilie Lee

I’ve visited the American Prairie Reserve three times and made over 50 paintings. I witnessed bison thundering across the plains, listened to elk bugling outside my tent, woke up to raging winds in the night and the sweet songs of meadowlarks in the morning. I sat at the table with scientists, activists, journalists, donors, volunteers, artists and native Montanans who inspired me with their passion and commitment. My paintings capture the particular beauty of this harsh landscape, but to me they also preserve moments of bliss, each one transporting me back to the time when I made it, reveling in the feeling of being so small and alone in the presence of such a vast, wild place.

Each time I visited the prairie, there were new achievements to celebrate. When complete, the American Prairie Reserve will be the largest protected area in the continental U.S. and home to all the native animals that once roamed the Great Plains. It will provide visitors an unparalleled opportunity to experience the history and heritage of this landscape in all its wild, hostile beauty.

Photo: Eugénie Frerichs

Photo: Eugénie Frerichs

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