By Donna Bryson, Associated Press
Arturo Garcia rose, bundled up in a puffy green vest and denim blue hoodie, and staked his easel amid the pale golden grasses of Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho. It was so windy he had to keep one hand on a canvas the size of a school notebook.
It was so cold an onlooker got out of her car to offer him her gloves — he could only wear one, as he needed a bare hand to manipulate the palette knife he uses instead of a brush to apply energetic lines and bold colors. Grass blew into his paint.
The Mexican-born artist based in the Denver area persevered for an hour and a half to record the moment last autumn when 10 American bison, tails whipping like flags, lumbered out of a trailer. The mini stampede and a similar release a year earlier were part of an effort by tribal leaders, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation to restore the majestic mammal to an ecosystem of which it is a key part and to the stewardship of a people who see their own marginalization paralleled in the near annihilation by white settlers of an animal sometimes called buffalo.
“I could not let that opportunity go,” Garcia said in an interview months later in the kind of space in which he’s more used to working: a cozy, well-lit studio at the Denver Art Museum, where he was doing a short residency.
“I did the real deal — plein air, 30 degrees, which felt like 30 below,” he said of his work in Wyoming. “It’s very challenging painting like that. Especially in the morning when shadows change so fast. The more challenging it got for me, the bigger the smile I got on my face.”
The opportunity came to Garcia after conservationists and Wind River residents took note of his connection to bison. In 2014, he had set himself the task of painting the animals for which Colorado is known. He depicted elk, moose, sheep.
“The bison was the last painting I did in the series. It produced something in me I can’t explain,” said Garcia, whose work has been exhibited in U.S. and Mexican galleries. “I go on painting binges — portraits, trees, bison. Bison has lasted longer than any other.”
He has seen bison in small herds in preserves near Denver and photographed them in Yellowstone. A quest to learn more about his muse led to conversations with Native Americans. As Garcia gained Eastern Shoshone and other friends, he thought back to his own past.
“All my uncles were skinny, tall, with big foreheads,” he said. “People would refer to them as Indians. And they didn’t like it.”
Garcia began to question that sense of shame. He came to a realization: “To be Indian is a beautiful thing. To be human is a beautiful thing. I am of the land. I am of the universe.
“The bison has brought me to an encounter that I did not have any idea I was going to have with myself.”
As a wildlife artist with Mexican roots, it was natural for Garcia to take part in the Americas Latino Eco Festival, an annual event in Colorado co-sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation that has since 2012 brought artists, scientists and policy makers together to discuss environmental concerns. The children of NWF Rocky Mountains Regional Executive Director Brian Kurzel took part in a workshop led by Garcia during the 2015 festival. Kurzel said he got more time to speak with Garcia at the festival the following year, when he learned of the artist’s interest in bison and shared details of NWF’s Wind River project.
The 2.2 million-acre reservation had been part of the bison’s habitat before the U.S. government encouraged the extermination of millions of buffalo across the Great Plains and the West in the 1800s. For more than a century, no bison had roamed Wind River.
Garcia’s work could inspire others to learn more about bison and “help create the next generation of advocates,” Kurzel said.
By the time NWF brought Garcia to Wind River for both the 2016 and 2017 releases, he had already done scores of bison paintings. In addition to creating more of his own work while in Wyoming, the artist led workshops for Native American school children.
Jason Baldes, in charge of the bison project for the Eastern Shoshone, said in an interview that Garcia’s paintings capture the animal’s power, its connection to Native Americans, and the possibility of healing for both the beast and the people who have been pushed onto reservations.
“And he’s such a caring individual,” Baldes said. Garcia “wanted to provide young people the opportunity to express their own art.”
Native elders also responded to Garcia. NWF’s Kurzel described a Shoshone woman closely observing the painter at work after she gave a traditional blessing at a bison release.
“These two great artists came together,” Kurzel said. “They were part of illustrating the connections between nature and people.”
Baldes, the son of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who had worked to rebuild the reservation’s game populations, said that returning bison to Wind River is for him and other Shoshone “a way to reconnect with an animal that was removed from us as a way to kill us off.”
The animal’s meat provided his forefathers food, its hide clothing and shelter, its bones utensils.
“The bison, being a gift from the creator, was essential to our spirituality,” Baldes added.
Garcia’s bison works recall cave paintings of the animals on which prehistoric humans relied, too. Garcia depicts bison and dramatic landscapes in cool blues and grays and sunset browns enlivened with primary colors streaked on the animals’ bodies that are reminders that nature offers surprises to those who look closely.
“At first I was a little bit taken aback by” the modernist bright dashes, Baldes said. “But they grow on you.”
Garcia, meanwhile, was looking forward to visiting Wind River again one day.
On his last visit, the artist said, “it felt like home.”