Wild things on exhibit at the Louisa Gould Gallery


During a recent telephone interview with the artist Linda Besse, she mentioned casually that among the many adventurous outings that she has undertaken in search of subjects for her wildlife paintings, she and her husband were once stranded for eight days in a remote area of Manitoba, where the couple had traveled alone in order for her to study polar bears in the wild. 

After being dropped off by helicopter, Besse and her husband found their two-day visit extending to over a week due to unnavigable weather. Stuck with no cellphone service (but an adequate supply of food), Besse made the best of the situation, and used it as an opportunity to gather more field sketches, small paintings, and photos of her intended subjects, and to relax and enjoy the total immersion in nature. 

While that might sound like the premise for a dramatic film, in actuality it was just another day in the life of the awardwinning wildlife artist who has traveled to every U.S. state, 35 countries, and all seven continents in search of subjects to depict in their natural environment. 

Besse is also a skilled landscape painter whose work has garnered her numerous awards, and has earned her admittance into a number of prestigious national art associations, including Oil Painters of America, the Society of Animal Artists, and the American Society of Marine Artists. 

Besse, whose history with Martha’s Vineyard goes back to her childhood, has been showing her Island landscapes and seascapes at the Louisa Gould Gallery for a number of years. Now, for the first time, locals and visitors will have a chance to view a selection of the artist’s wildlife paintings up close and personal. The show titled, appropriately, “It’s Wild!” features 13 of Besse’s lifelike paintings including, among other things, portraits of zebras, a leopard, an oryx, and a giraffe, which she studied during her numerous treks to Africa (which included a 70-kilometer canoe trip on the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe).

Also included are images of animals captured in their natural environment in spots around North America, the Arctic, and elsewhere. The sense of immediacy and intimate familiarity with her subjects elevate Besse’s meticulously rendered portraits well above your average wildlife art.

The artist’s love of the natural world led her to originally pursue a career in geology. During time spent earning a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in her chosen field, Besse developed a fascination with wildlife and, at some point, decided to pick up a paintbrush to capture the subjects that captivated her interest. She has never looked back. 

Besse’s background in geology, and her husband’s work as an exploration geologist, have allowed her access to areas that would normally be off-limits to the amateur explorer. Among her most memorable adventures, Besse has traversed remote tundras in Labrador researching the caribou migration, been dropped off by floatplane at salmon-filled streams to watch grizzly bears in Alaska, paddled 459 miles above the Arctic Circle on the Noatak River, and snorkeled with wild beluga whales in Hudson Bay.

And she doesn’t limit her exploration of nature to exotic locales. Among the works featured in the “It’s Wild!” show are an image of a moose and her calf that Besse encountered in her own backyard (in a very rural area outside Spokane, Wash.), and a spectacular large-scale painting of wild horses roaming the unspoiled plains of Wyoming. The latter image was completed following a private tour of the Pryor Mountains, which took Besse and a professional guide to a remote area accessible only through a combination of four-wheeler trip followed by an arduous, boulder-filled hike. The remarkably muscular stallions, whose coats, as captured by the consummate professional, glisten in the sun, are descendants of Spanish conquistadors’ horses. Besse explains that the animals she visited represent one of the few remaining herds of their particular breed to be found in the U.S. The spectacular panoramic painting recently won the second-place award at the American Academy of Equine Artists National Show.

Dedication to her craft has prompted Besse to seek out experiences as authentic as possible. She notes that she prefers to book private African safaris, where she has control over the experience. For example, she explains that one of her favorite photos of a leopard came after waiting 45 minutes for the big cat to come down from a tree. On a group tour, the guide would no doubt have moved on, rather than hope for a closer look. Instead, Besse was able — and willing — to wait out the moment, while examining her subject quietly from many angles. 

Likewise, Besse and her husband once undertook a 450-mile canoe trip above the Arctic Circle, with no guide and no resupply, to see musk oxen in the wild. “I’m willing to take a risk,” says Besse, with characteristic understatement. 

Closer to home, Besse has also snorkeled with beluga whales in Hudson Bay and, most recently, examined manta rays during a night snorkel in Hawaii. No creature is too unremarkable to warrant closer inspection by the artist. She has painted shorebirds on the Vineyard and elsewhere, pheasants and foxes in places throughout North America, and numerous wild neighbors around her 12-acre property in Washington State, including deer, wild turkeys, coyotes, bears, mountain lions, and moose. 

“Everywhere I go, I look for my subjects,” says Besse. “Much of it is putting down the camera and the sketchbook and just being aware of the environment.”

During the course of the show, the artist will be on hand for two separate meet-and-greets at the gallery. Besse clearly enjoys talking about her travels and her process, and she is quite obviously a woman with more than a few exciting stories to share. 

“It’s Wild! The Wildlife Art of Linda Besse,” at the Louisa Gould Gallery, 54 Main St., Vineyard Haven, through June 20. Meet-and-greets with the artist are scheduled for June 9 from 4:30 to 7:30 pm, and June 12 from 12:30 to 3 pm.