At the foot of a cliff face in Namibia, Laurel Barbieri stood with San bushmen, admiring a “canvas” of imagery thousands of years old. Filling the smooth, shadow-dappled surface were ancient pictographs— hand-drawn portrayals of nomadic hunters stalking a range of charismatic megafauna. Some of them were painted with mineralized pigments mixed with eland blood.
As Barbieri’s native guides translated their meaning, the American artist and hunter from Oregon could feel her own heart beat faster, summoning up a rush of emotion from somewhere deep inside. Most of all, she says, there surged a connection to other artists, whose names we’ll never know, but who left behind personal tributes to some of the mightiest beasts on earth.
Fortunately, most of those animals are still with us. Barbieri hopes that collectors of contemporary wildlife art receive similar rewards when encountering her modern cave art, inspired by the symbolism of primitive artisans on several different continents.
“I don’t even know how to describe Laurel’s work because there’s no easy explanation. It’s so different and refreshing compared to what other artists are doing,” says New York big game hunter Gerry Scelzo, who owns seven original Barbieris. “They are conversation pieces that leave you transfixed.”
Barbieri is considered one of the most original American wildlife artists working today. In “Rhythm of the Bush,” the narrative reads like a storybook filled with visual symbolism there to be unpacked. Every viewing of the work delivers something new.
The outlines of two lumbering sets of giraffe represent mountains; the silhouettes of elephant ears shape the African continent and splashed with blue brushstrokes that signify the vitality of running freshwater, essential for survival to both humans and animals. Warriors are represented in various phases of the hunt, be it pursuing game with bow and arrows, field dressing animals or celebrating their harvest. Barbieri has even incorporated a pair of hunters intended to remind us of the kinship of hunters young and old, parents and children, best friends, going afield together.
For Barbieri, the intent is to communicate multi-layered messages at once: that our human connection to wildlife is a sacred tradition stretching back to time immemorial; that modern art connoisseurs too can derive visual sustenance and meaning from primitive motifs; and that non-traditional sporting art can have wide appeal among both older and younger audiences.
Indeed, millennials now coming into their professional primes have made it clear they have different aesthetic tastes and interests than the generations of their parents and grandparents. One of the vexing challenges facing the sporting community, too, is how to keep hunting and fishing relevant and inviting to those who were not brought up with regular exposure to wild places.
Barbieri’s artwork touches a common chord, Scelzo says, noting that his own experience provides affirmation. “In my family, three different generations feel drawn to her paintings. My kids have her work hanging on their walls and so do my grandkids,” he says.
Barbieri spent much of her childhood near the Pacific Ocean on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. She was the eighth of 13 children and sought out nature for solace. With the Olympic Mountains rising nearby, she wandered through rainforest canopies columned by towering 150-foot cedars. Haunting the woods were bugling Roosevelt elk and blacktail deer.
“When I left the Olympic Mountains at age 18, I vowed never to hunt again— to get far away and create a more ‘sophisticated life’ for myself. And I did leave hunting, but something was missing and I didn’t even know it,” she says. Today, she and her husband set out on elk hunts that deliver not only a solid source of natural food for the year, but she believes it makes her art more impactful. Glorious sunrises and sunsets figure prominently.
Her colorful acrylic paintings are thick with texture, some possessing an almost sculptural quality. In the history of humankind, long before there were written words or complicated spoken language, pictures documented the dreams, euphoria and fears of our distant ancestors. Barbieri says that in the 21st century, with so many technological distractions and hurried pace of life, we fail to make time for sitting still long enough to soak in nature, which is eternal.
She recalls hunting last autumn when everything that happened around the harvesting of a wapiti was as satisfying as making a clean shot. “To see the sun rise over the Seven Devil Mountains, admiring them in their jagged edge, the magic of Hells Canyon where we hunt elk comes to life,” she wrote to me in a description of why she loves to be out on the hunt. “You take note of the sun glistening on glaciers in crisp morning air. There are a million different expressions of beauty. Why else would a person go out in the wilderness in ridiculous weather conditions? We hunters see things other people don’t.”
Similarly, Barbieri believes that artists make visible elements of nature that viewers might not otherwise see and then, once registering, to glory in them.
Scelzo dwells most of the time in an urban jungle among steel and glass skyscrapers shaping the skyline of Manhattan. The Barbieris on the wall at his office make him sigh. He remembers vividly when he saw his first Barbieri. It came as he was strolling past her booth at SCI.
“I had just been on a mountain lion hunt in Arizona,” he says. “My guide brought me to a place in the Superstition Mountains where there were pictographs telling stories that went back centuries. Not long afterward, I saw Laurel’s artwork and it caused me to do a double take. It was as if she had been there and painted her own interpretation of what I saw.”
Later, he commissioned Barbieri to make a bison painting, triggered by a harrowing and mystical experience he had in South Dakota. While hunting on a remote section of western prairie, Scelzo got caught in an autumn blizzard that forced him to bivouac in his vehicle while the storm raged around him. Amid the foul weather, a bison appeared out of nowhere and trudged by.
For years, he had the bison painting displayed at his office (he works in the construction industry) where it attracted attention from clients but he brought it home and it always sparks discussions among guests. “Another thing about Laurel is that apart from her amazing art, she’s a sweetheart,” Scelzo says. “She’s always helping to support wildlife conservation or wounded soldiers or rock art protection organizations. The warmth of her personality shines through in her paintings.”
Barbieri’s research for her cave art pieces have involved paying visits to Africa, natural alcoves in the US desert southwest and studying the animal imagery adorning the French caves at Lascaux and Chauvet.
When I reached Barbieri, she was working on three cave art commissions and two others—one of them being a portrait of a bald eagle and U.S. flag. In recent years, her imagery has attracted attention with Barbieri licensing some of her designs to appear on Blaser rifles, apparel products, high-end scarves and home décor. It has elevated the premium mystique of her original paintings. She also has been contracted by interior decorators to paint ceiling and wall murals in high-end homes.
In Namibia, Barbieri says her mind was opened by a San woman named Emmelda as they traveled through Etosha National Park and she seemed to have a sixth-sense ability for being able to locate wildlife. While sitting together one morning watching a cheetah mother and cubs, Barbieri wanted to know the secret behind her innate wildlife radar system.
“She said her mother was of the land. And that she couldn’t really explain how she knew where the best animals would be each morning but that she would just ask herself, in her own heart and mind, ‘where?’ Where will they be today and the location would present itself to her and it’s right where she went.
“Reverence and respect for wildlife is written across landscapes wherever humans go to have a communion with nature,” she says.
“Primitive is a hallowed word to me. It makes me pause when I say its name. It’s a time long past when people lived with the earth and not on the earth. It was a raw, honest but often deadly existence where wealth was measured by an endless supply of fresh water, good hunting grounds, a spacious dry cave and a warm fire to gather around at day’s end and replenish strength,” Barbieri explains. “People who go afield today have an understanding and a desire to find similar meaning in the bush where it isn’t the material things that shape you but the experiences you are willing to have with powers bigger than yourself.”
Ancient artists, she says, were celebrating the very things that gave them life. “The act of art creation was their tribute to the majestic animals they hunted and harvested—the circle of life, prey and predator. And so, too, it is mine,” she says. “Life without the hunt would have been like life without the sun, water or air. I’m willing to guess that current-day hunters feel every bit as much the same level of excitement as the ancients. We have a common bond. I hope it comes through in the stories I paint.”