When she was growing up, horses weren’t the only animals on painter Kathryn Mapes Turner’s family’s Triangle X Ranch in Grand Teton National Park. Her family also kept pet elk, ravens, eagles, coyotes, and owls. Handling these animals fueled Turner’s love for animals and informed her eventual career as an artist.
“My father [John Turner] was a zoologist and specialized in ornithology of raptors,” Turner says. “Before wildlife rehabilitation centers, the [Wyoming] Game and Fish [Department] would bring hurt animals to my dad because of his reputation of being a Grizzly Adams.” Turner’s talents didn’t lead her to follow her father’s career in zoology. Instead, the Jackson, Wyoming, native found that she could engage both her passions: art and animals.
I put a lot of effort into learning artistic techniques,” says Turner, who began by working in watercolor and later switched to using oils but with watercolor techniques. “Talent is not God-given. What is God-given is a deep passion that motivates you to learn something. I was also blessed by talented artists who took me under their wings.”
One of her mentors, master draftsman Ned Jacob, taught Turner the discipline of drawing. In order to draw a horse head in real life, Jacob instructed her to get a horse skull and draw it bone by bone. “Finally I learned the planes of the skull bones and drew the head,” Turner says. “But I couldn’t get the muzzle to look right because, of course, it’s all cartilage and muscle. And I hadn’t gotten that far in my studies. So I went out to the ranch and felt around a real horse’s nostrils and found this [alar] cartilage that sticks out sideways. I wouldn’t have gone to that extent if I hadn’t learned to study the bones underneath the skin.”
Although Turner enjoys painting various animals, she is best-known for her horses and cranes and has spent much of the past four years focusing on sandhill cranes. To study the birds, Turner traveled to the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. “I was so excited,” Turner says, “because what did I see in the foundation’s front office: a sandhill crane skeleton in a glass box. I sat there all day and drew the skeleton. I finally learned how the skull connects to the neck vertebrae.”
After painting 50 large-format cranes, Turner feels she can correctly capture the essence of the bird. Crane researchers have noticed her ability, and her painting entitled Splendid graced the cover of TheSaturday Evening Post’s March/April 2018 issue to illustrate an article about sandhill crane migration.
“Art can play a special role in helping people appreciate animals,” Turner says. “There are 15 crane species in the world, and 11 of them are vulnerable or endangered. I love the elegance of the crane: their long legs and necks, and that they mate for life and are very relational. I am a complete fan. There’s a term for us: We’re called craniacs — people who just love cranes.”
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