by Simon Gilpin
On September 7, Kari Lehr’s exhibit Wild Things opens at 5 p.m. at the North End Gallery
It’s no secret that Alberta artist Kari Lehr loves bears. You only need to look at her bright and expressive bear “portraits” to see she has an affinity with animals.
Lehr, who lives in Crowsnest Pass, has developed quite a following in the Yukon over the past few years, despite the fact that she has never visited the territory. With her first visit to the Yukon coinciding with a show of new paintings at North End Gallery, in September, I talked to her about her career and why her paintings seem to speak to so many people of all ages.
Where did you grow up? And how long have you lived in Crowsnest Pass?
I grew up in Calgary and lived there until 2004 when my husband, three children and I moved to Crowsnest Pass, Alberta.
You are known for painting in acrylics. How long have you been painting for?
I have been painting since 2007. Prior to that, I was an illustrator for twenty years, working primarily in chalk pastel. Switching to paint was an awkward transition, but soon I was hooked. I started in acrylics and have stayed with that medium ever since, as it is so versatile and quick-drying, which is nice when you tend to work on a show up to the 11th hour!
Do you paint full-time? And at what point did you become a full-time artist?
I have been a full-time artist for about seven years. It has always been my primary occupation, but a daily studio practice has only become a part of my life in recent years—more so since I began doing art shows and markets in 2011, followed by a wholesale business in 2015 in which my husband and I marketed the reproductions of my line of Wild Things animal imagery to retailers across Canada.
You clearly have a talent for capturing a sense of life in the animals you paint. What attracted you to painting wildlife?
I have always been fascinated with wildlife and wild places. My earliest memories include the weekly ritual of watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Walt Disney’s live-action animal stories. We know now that there were perhaps unethical methods used in the filming of these shows, but, as a child, they completely captured my imagination. Today I am still enthralled by award-winning shows like the BBC’s Planet Earth series.
But painting animals wasn’t something I practised until later in life, when I finally started listening to the bears in my mind that kept trying to get my attention. I would like to begin a collection of portraits of animals from other parts of the world as well. African animals figured so prominently in my early imagination that a bucket list dream of travelling through Africa was realized in 1990.
Once you started to paint animals, did bears always feature so prominently in your work?
Bears have always been a preoccupation. I had a poster of the Kuhtzumeteen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary on my wall during my teens, and hope to visit it someday. My husband birthday-gifted me with a trip to Knight Inlet, to view the grizzlies there in 2016, and it was a bucket list experience for me.
Growing up, I had a lot of bad dreams about bears, and I think that painting them has been therapeutic for me in many ways. From the beginning, I painted them as portraits with a focus on the eyes, which I connected to and conversed with during the course of the painting. I was never interested in creating a portrait of a threatening animal, though, preferring to endow them with a sense of the awe, respect and compassion I feel for them and what they’ve meant to me over the years. I don’t see bears as either cute and cuddly or vicious. They do display so many human-like characteristics that we can tend to anthropomorphize them, and I do understand the desire to connect with them. We see bear jams in bear country, with tourists taking photos and trying to get close to these animals, but people don’t realize the potential harm they are subjecting bears to with this behaviour.
You create interesting textures and have collage elements in your work. How does this process evolve from piece to piece?
I have always loved textile arts, and my love of incorporating collage elements in my work stems from a desire to create texture and depth in my work that isn’t always achievable with paint only. I tend to use it more in my figure and landscape work, where the layers of texture can create a depth that lends itself to the narrative quality that often comes through in that work. Often I incorporate it into the landscape in the Wild Things imagery, as I like to create a rich textural environment to balance the animals, which are often very simple in form. I usually make my design decisions during the process—most of my paintings begin as a thumbnail sketch in my sketchbook and then I dive in; I’m usually impatient to begin working, as the magic usually happens on canvas during the process.
So do you ever work from observation while creating wildlife paintings?
I very rarely sketch from life, except for a few times at the zoo. Time is almost always a factor, and so I always have my camera on me and take hundreds of photos when I’m out and about. I rarely have opportunities to take the photos I want for my paintings, so I usually work with the photos I take of landscape and its elements, and then put my animals into that landscape or mindscape. I have been very fortunate to have had photographers share their animal photos with me. Generally, I prefer to let my imagination have complete reign over my compositions. For example, the mountain goat I painted for the show is a compilation of photos I took at the Calgary Zoo, the Crowsnest River by my house, and Galiano Island. The final painting is an image I have never actually seen, but imagine coming across on a hike.
Tell us about your most exciting wildlife encounter.
My most memorable wildlife encounter, to date, was at the end of our four-day hike on the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail on Vancouver Island. We rounded the bend to find a beautiful big black bear feeding contentedly on salal berries. He wasn’t remotely interested in us, and after observing him and assessing the situation, we passed by within a few feet of him and went on our way. I have never seen a grizzly while hiking, but every sighting, whether from the car or on our Knight Inlet trip, is magical to me. I still love seeing deer in our yard, and recently have observed a beautiful doe with her twins who have been hanging around a neighbourhood close to my studio.
You are visiting the Yukon for the first time in September. What do you hope to see while here?
I am so looking forward to the drive to, and through, the Yukon and expect it will be an “overview” trip that will leave me wanting to plan a more extensive visit to the area. I will have my camera in tow, and look forward to possible wildlife viewings and just taking in the expansive scenery. It will be thrilling.
Finally, why do you think people identify so strongly with the wildlife in your paintings?
I like to think that people feel the sense of the wonder and respect that I feel when I create my portraits, and that perhaps the face-to-face element in my paintings creates a connection. It is not uncommon for people to get emotional when viewing the portraits, and I have been so fortunate to have had many people share their stories with me, both in person and through email, when they come across the imagery and feel compelled to write to me. How lucky am I?
Kari Lehr’s show Wild Things opens at North End Gallery on the corner of Front and Steele in Whitehorse on the 7th of September at 5 p.m. The show continues until the end of the month.
Simon Gilpin is the fine art manager for North End Gallery and he is happy to discuss art every day.