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Art Turned Loose: Yellowstone Bison, Grizzlies And Wolves To Roam American Cities
January 25, 2023
Art Turned Loose: Yellowstone Bison, Grizzlies And Wolves To Roam American Cities
Lori Ryker's 'wildlifes' art initiative aims to heighten awareness about Greater Yellowstone's iconic animals among urban folk who may never get here
by Todd Wilkinson
With its astonishing array of public wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is an American treasure recognized around the world. Now Lori Ryker of Livingston, Montana, wants people living in distant urban areas to realize their voices matter in protecting the region’s amazing trove of biological diversity.
Ryker’s tool for piquing awareness among city folk who may have never been to Yellowstone or seen a grizzly or bison in the wild: street art made by Los Angeles artist and designer Eric Junker, known for creating contemporary animal and nature-based figures that read like a combo of modern hieroglyphs, pictographic symbols and stylized graffiti that resonates with younger eyes.
This is art made for our time, art that can reach far more masses of people than a single painting on a wall in a museum, art that subtly will promote a conservation ethic, Ryker says, noting that “art allows us to take the wildlife of Yellowstone to viewers on their own turf."
As the first artist in residence of a new initiative called wildlifes, a project of nonprofit Artemis Institute, which Ryker founded, Junker hopes to this year unleash a flurry of pop-up imagery focused on a triumvirate of Greater Yellowstone’s iconic species—grizzly bears, gray wolves and bison.
Potentially, over time, they could net millions of views.
"wildlifes is inspired by the wild animals that set Greater Yellowstone apart," Ryker says. "It is intended to elevate public awareness about the incredible terrestrial migrations that still happen here and some of the key species that figure at the center of the region’s conservation story and mystique."
“We are in danger of losing so much in Greater Yellowstone to development pressure and climate change," she adds. "Art can be a catalyst for helping urban Americans, young and old, realize they can experience a sense of connection to the Yellowstone ecosystem in their own community. It's my hope that it will also spark feelings of advocacy they carry forward with them.”
Ryker has devoted her career to bringing about change in conventional thinking. A graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, she has worked professionally as an environmental-friendly building designer, college educator of architecture students, and is herself a nature artist. She sees wildlifes as an extension of ecological education championed by the Artemis Institute.
For more than a decade, Artemis Institute offered an immersive study program—Remote Studio— to college-aged architecture students from across the country and abroad. Its mission was getting participants to reflect on how architecture—the built human environment— can be more ecologically compatible with preserving wildlands and pastoral landscapes. A protegee of the noted place-based architect Samuel Mockbee, Ryker is author of a monograph about Mockbee and his partner, Coleman Coker, who pioneered place-based thinking in the South. She also wrote two books about how to approach living off the grid.
Ryker enlisted Junker based on his ability to translate inspirations from wild places into a visual language that resonates with urban human denizens. Many readers here might have encountered his art before. His “psychedelic nature-pop murals” can be found throughout Southern California and in New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Baja Mexico, Costa Rica and New York City. His talent has also earned him a client roster that includes Oculus, Louis Vuitton, Patagonia, Coach, Target and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His work has been referenced on CBS This Morning, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and other publications. He’s also a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design.
In Paradise Valley, Eric Junker unveils some of his designs created on site and en plein air in Greater Yellowstone.
Along with the fun artwork being produced by Junker, Ryker is encouraging citizens who live in the Rockies and beyond to flaunt their love for Greater Yellowstone by putting ovular “GYE” bumper stickers on their vehicles. By design, the stickers resemble popular stickers motorists have proudly displayed for decades touting their country of origin. Ryker is making four "GYE" and wildlifes stickers available free to anyone who reaches out at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To fully utilize Junker’s skills, Ryker chose grizzlies, wolves and bison because each species has its own strong and vocal following of advocates. Plus, they hold reverential status in Indigenous cultures. Social justice issues are near and dear to Junker’s heart and he sees parallels in wildlife conservation.
The Yellowstone bison and wolves in wildlifes won't be shot when they cross the national park boundary into Montana. They are being created, in fact, to defy boundaries associated with the urban-rural divide.
“With urban audiences who are far removed physically from our region, Eric’s art is intended to, first, seize their attention and arouse their curiosity,” Ryker says. “Art is a powerful medium and it can remind us there’s a bigger world out there beyond our daily experience.”
"Art can be a catalyst for helping urban Americans, young and old, realize they can experience a sense of connection to the Yellowstone ecosystem in their own community. It's my hope that it will also spark feelings of advocacy they carry forward with them.” —wildlifes founder Lori Ryker
For his part, Junker, an urban animal himself, readily acknowledged that while he knew Greater Yellowstone was a good place to watch wildlife, he didn’t understand until he explored the region why migrations and interconnections between public and private lands matter. And that here, they function at scale. Ryker’s first assignment for gathering research about his charismatic subjects was getting out into the backcountry, meeting with scientists and conservation leaders, pouring over migration maps, and surveying the terrain by climbing mountains and fishing in remote places.
“It made me realize how the concentration of wildlife in Greater Yellowstone is unlike any other region because it’s still here,” Junker said. Greater Yellowstone, he added, represents a stark contrast to the human dominated environs in the megalopolis of Southern California.
After Junker returned to Los Angeles, he created a mural reminding viewers that once upon a time Southern California was home to grizzlies, a species that, in fact, appears on the state flag. The last known wild grizzly in California was shot and killed in Fresno County a century ago in 1922.
Junker says he always had a stereotypical impression of Yellowstone but after pondering how animals must move in order to survive, he appreciates more than ever before the value of having terrain that is ecologically still intact. Scientists in the region called to his attention the fact that development pressure is squeezing habitat on private land and rising levels of outdoor recreation are displacing sensitive species on public land.
As much as some ranchers in Greater Yellowstone would gladly export real bison, grizzlies and wolves to cities, wildlifes wants thoughts of those creatures to achieve a larger-than-life presence in the country's concrete and asphalt jungles.
Foremost, Ryker says, the goal is to capture the attention of young people. Rather than waiting for them to someday visit Yellowstone, her strategy is to bring the powerful animal iconography into spaces they inhabit. Ryker presently is scouting possible venues for Junker to create wall murals in cities like LA and Austin, Texas, and she’s hoping to line up some locations in Greater Yellowstone, too.
“We’ve been talking with some local conservation-minded businesspeople about having Eric’s pieces appear on the walls of their buildings,” she explained. “We want to convert the wildlife issues in Greater Yellowstone from being out of sight and out of mind to have more of a front-and-center presence.” The same with the bumper stickers, she says. By getting residents in the three-state Greater Yellowstone area to embrace a common regional identity, she believes it can help build public support for actions necessary to save landscape intactness so crucial to sustaining wildlife that depend on it for survival.
Ryker has been a columnist for Mountain Journal which is also a creative collaborator with her on wildlifes. She has lots of surprises planned for rolling out art installations and collectible pop-art posters through wildlifes. Visit the website by clicking here.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Below are examples of how wildlifes and Junker plan to deploy some of his Yellowstone wildlife motifs in cities:
This bison (artwork) created on location in Yellowstone by Eric Junker honors the backcountry closure sign but Ryker hopes the motifs will wander visually far and wide, awakening people to the notion that wildlife and the land it inhabits is worth protecting. From Greater Yellowstone, his art could appear.....
or show up in unobvious places where encountering Junker's art becomes a discovery (and visual adventure), like unexpectedly meeting wildlife while hiking a trail,
and, potentially, the images will appear on t-shirts that declare one's values. All images above courtesy Eric Junker