Linda Besse is an established star in contemporary wildlife art.
Besse isn’t a star because she’s a woman; she is instead among the pack of painters and sculptors at SCI who make the annual Convention a showcase for original collectible fine art. Besse paints the entire year and saves her best work to unveil in Las Vegas.
While growing up, it was the stories of a great uncle who had hunted in Africa 70 years ago that whetted her own imagination. Initially, upon graduating from Colgate University with a degree in geology, she thought she might be a field scientist, but art became her way of relating to the wilderness she craves.
Besse and husband Jim Olson make their home in the town of Mead, Washington in the foothills of the Selkirk Mountains where moose, deer, wild turkey, grouse, quail and coyotes are common visitors with bears and mountain lions also leaving tracks as evidence of their presence.
Her collectors are a diverse lot. Her work has been juried ten times into the Birds in Art show hosted by the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin and in 2016, a painting is touring with the Masterworks Museum exhibition organized by the International Guild of Realism. A few years ago, she made the shortlist, out of hundreds of entries, for the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation Wildlife Artist of the Year competition in London.
Notably, while Besse’s paintings are much in demand these days, she stills finds time for her research trips. And, she loves the excitement.
“When the huge bull comes into view, or you spot a big cat stalking you, you aren’t thinking about what is for dinner or the meeting next week. Your energy is fully focused,” she says.
When I asked Besse, the SCI Foundation’s 2014 Conservation Artist of the Year, what SCI Members can expect to see from her in 2016, she replied simply: “Paintings that speak the truth of wild places.”
In 2008, Besse was among a group of eight rugged artists dropped off via bush plane into an isolated section of northern Labrador. “This was outside my comfort zone, but I went for it because it’s the only way to grow as an artist and fuel a deeper understanding of the world around me,” she says. From out of that trip came inspiration for a brand new piece that will debut at SCI titled The Battlefield, a colorful, gripping portrayal of sparring caribou in the rut.
On another outing, Besse canoed the crocodile and hippo-filled currents of the Zambezi River. With another adventure, she paddled more than 450 miles from the headwaters of the Noatak River in Gates of the Arctic National Park to the coastal village of Kotzebue. She did it for the rare opportunity to encounter musk ox in the wild. She’s also snorkeled with wild beluga whales in Hudson Bay, scouted for wapiti in the northern Rockies and traipsed alongside salmon streams in Alaska at the height of brown bear convergence.
Besse’s been to every US state, 35 countries and all seven continents, gathering reference material or visiting world-class museums. She is especially an admirer of classical Italian Renaissance painting and period works by the 19th century British Pre-Raphaelites such as Frederic Leighton and groundbreaking sporting artist Edwin Landseer.
We can see her yen for drama in another new piece appearing at SCI, “Call of the Wild,” piqued by Robert Service’s lyrical poem of the same name. “It contains one of my favorite lines, ‘Then listen to the Wild—it’s calling you.’’’
Sometimes untrammeled nature answers not with a whisper, but it roars as you enter it. Perhaps my favorite Besse anecdote involves a goose-hunting trip to northern Manitoba where decoys lured in more than waterfowl. “My husband has been a hunter all his life and one of our favorite trips is one that takes us up north,” she says. “When you are sitting in a blind in polar bear country, hunting snow geese takes on a different flavor.”
The massive white bruins have lumbered into the decoys and even taken downed birds for a snack—without resistance coming from Besse or her husband.
This year, Besse was staked out in the blind alone, soaking in the elements, and a pack of wolves passed by. “One stopped, and, within 50 feet of me, stalked one of the snow goose decoys. He didn’t realize his error until he leaped on the plastic form. Good decoys!”
There is nothing artificial about the moods and feelings exuded from Besse’s surfaces. Crockett Jones owns more than a dozen and a half of her paintings “I collect the work of one artist and that’s Besse,” the SCI Life Member said.
The first Besse he bought at auction was a cheetah painting. Crockett says he’s commissioned works, purchased others at Besse’s booth and online, but he really enjoys bidding on works at SCI auctions, knowing they are of superior quality and that a portion of the proceeds go to support SCI’s vital program areas.
A few years ago, he acquired a series of four Besse paintings featuring encounters between two lions and a Cape buffalo. The first shows a lion and lioness waiting for the opportune time to engage the big Cape buffalo. The second piece presents the cats’ attack. The third shows the lion and Cape buffalo still sparring but with the lioness dead, and the finale, as a tribute to lion and Cape buffalo, depicts them bloody and wounded, each walking away as a survivor. Some have said the series is worthy of display in a major museum.
“I’ve found Safari Club collectors to be quite sophisticated and their tastes and interests broad,” she says. “My paintings remind them of places they’ve seen and often we find we’ve had similar wildlife encounters.”
“When it comes to antlered animals, I am less interested in painting a world record than trying to communicate the genuine experience of the person who saw the buck or bull,” Besse says. “It doesn’t have to be the biggest in order for the viewer to relate.”
Besse paints subjects from around the world, but her primary genre is wildlife. “I want to hold onto the sense of timelessness one experiences when in the presence of wild creatures in their habitats,” she says. “I’m not thinking about tomorrow, yesterday, nor what time it is. I am present fully in the moment. I’ve had a lot of heart-pumping close encounters with wildlife and want to relive that exhilaration in my paintings.”–Todd Wilkinson