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Q&A with Wildlife Art Journal

Todd Wilkinson is the founder/editor of, an online magazine devoted to the global celebration of art in nature. He is also a national journalist and author that has been writing about the environment for more than a quarter century.

From his home in Bozeman, Mont., he continues as western correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and a regular contributor to several magazines. In 2013, his long-awaited biography on media mogul turned bison baron and eco-humanitarian Ted Turner will be published.
"The full array of flora and fauna, beyond that which can be fixed with a price, is akin to a painting with the widest possible palette. Step closer and you see subtle hues and brushstrokes, initially nearly invisible, that are vital in conveying the majesty of the scene."

-Todd Wilkinson

Art has long been associated with nature, from cave paintings to Christo. What is it about nature that inspires artists?

Todd Wilkinson:

I think for most artists, interpreting nature heightens the bond of connection. In turn, what they create has an unspoken, ineffable resonance with viewers. Artists are trying to distill the essence of their own emotional response, and the tools they use are light, color and mood. Oftentimes when we think about nature, there is an ambiance that lingers in our memory. Artists are important interpreters and translators of that. How many times have you stood before a great painting or sculpture and been staggered by its impact, the same way that we’re left awestruck by a mountain, herd of elk trailing single file across a foothill or a warming sunrise?

Art is often associated with an aesthetic—does nature have a particular aesthetic?

Todd Wilkinson:

Of course it does and we feel it when we see it. The power of our response is embedded deep in our psyches. What I’ve come to appreciate from interviewing hundreds of artists is that the aesthetic is multi-dimensional and multi-sensual. Part of being human is having a conscious awareness of beauty.

Does our appreciation for art have roots in nature?

Todd Wilkinson:

I think you hit on it in the first two questions. While anthropologists often think of early pictographs and petroglyphs as being documentarian, what’s far more intriguing is when they ponder how that art was interpretive and rendered in celebration and part of the narrative of life at the time it was created. When I think of art, and the designs, patterns and texture inherent in nature, the two are inseparable.

The works of John Jay Audubon, Frederic Edwin Church, Georgia O’Keefe and others have played a role in raising awareness for conservation. In a world with high-speed, high-definition imagery, what role can non-photographic art play in helping the cause of conservation today?

Todd Wilkinson:

The short answer is a very important role. Those of you working professionally in conservation are on the front lines of a troubling social-cultural phenomenon—nature deficit disorder—best articulated by Richard Louv. We are primarily an urban nation in an ever increasingly urban world and the strands of connection to nature known to our ancestors have become seriously frayed. Art can serve as temporary proxy, it can fuel our longing to get out and remind us what’s at stake—in addition, of course, to providing daily inspiration, the value of which is priceless. I like all forms of nature art—photography, painting, sculpture and experimental expressions but often the most impactful pieces involve artisans who are responding from the heart and not trying to merely replicate.

There are some species that have no known “benefit” to people, other species, or natural systems. If their only value is beauty, are they worth conserving?

Todd Wilkinson:

Ah, yes, existence value. While I admit that I do see some merit in the arguments made by free market environmental economists, I also agree with those who would assert that certain numbers crunchers are very good at calculating the price of everything yet in so doing they end up appreciating the value of nothing. There is no market formula that can ever adequately account for the total value of beauty or the worth of an irreplaceable organism that is the product of eons of evolution. Beauty is all around us and it’s profound. Over the course of research for my book on Ted Turner, I came upon a study that showed the more exposure people have to nature, the more likely they are to be empathetic, compassionate, non-narcissistic, non-material and generous in how they live their lives. Since this is an interview about conservation and art, let me just say this: The full array of flora and fauna, beyond that which can be fixed with a price, is akin to a painting with the widest possible palette. Step closer and you see subtle hues and brushstrokes, initially nearly invisible, that are vital in conveying the majesty of the scene. The more we know, the more we discover how everything is interconnected with fairly narrow degrees of separation.

Same question, but what if the critter in question is “ugly”?

Todd Wilkinson:

Ugly in whose eyes? I don’t care what the organism is—a microbe in a Yellowstone hot spring or an elephant, I’m not one to think about assessing a creature in those terms. We have telescopes that can peer into the deepest corners of the Milky Way, a galaxy with millions and millions of stars and yet, so far, there is only one planet we know of with active life forms. We’re spending billions of dollars to find the scantest evidence that life existed on Mars. If you find that quest exciting, take a walk across a natural landscape and do a census; you’ll find more biodiversity than is known to exist in the rest of the universe.

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