A different kind of portrait: Dawn Siebel brings individuality to her paintings of endangered animals

  • Dawn Siebel is seen here in her Easthampton studio with some the paintings from her upcoming Northampton exhibit. To the left behind her is Thai, an Asian elephant; to the right above is Simunye, an African elephant. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dawn Siebel is seen here in her Easthampton studio with some the paintings from her upcoming Northampton exhibit. To the left behind her is Thai, an Asian elephant; to the right and above is Simunye, an African elephant. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dawn Siebel is seen here in her Easthampton studio with some the paintings from her upcoming Northampton exhibit. To the left behind her is Thai, an Asian elephant; to the right and above is Simunye, an African elephant. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Oil painting by Siebel of Talali, an Amur, or Siberian, tiger in a zoo in Wichita, Kansas. Image courtesy Dawn Siebel

  • Siebel’s portrait of Nzinga, a gorilla in a zoo in Santa Barbara, California.  Image courtesy Dawn Siebel

  • Oil painting of Ajari the gorilla. Image courtesy Dawn Siebel

  • Xolani, an African elephant in a zoo in Wichita, Kansas. Image courtesy Dawn Siebel

  • Kianga, an African lion. Image courtesy Dawn Siebel

  • Agathe, a California Condor. Photo by John Polak/courtesy Dawn Siebel

  • Siebel’s portrait of a markhor, a wild goat that lives in the mountains of Pakistan and nearby countries. Image courtesy Dawn Siebel

Staff Writer
Published: 11/28/2018 3:55:34 PM

Back in 2009, artist Dawn Siebel, then living in Colorado, took up an extended series of painting: oil portraits of all 343 New York City firefighters who died in the inferno of 9/11.

Now living in Easthampton, Siebel has become absorbed in the last few years in a new series of portraits, this time of subjects facing a different kind of threat: extinction.

In an exhibit that opens Dec. 6 at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, Siebel will introduce detailed profiles of some of the world’s most storied big animals — Indian and African elephants, tigers, lions, leopards, gorillas and rhinoceroses — all of which she studied extensively in various zoos to capture not just their look but what she says are their distinctive personalities.

“We tend to project our feelings and interpretations onto animals,” Siebel said during a recent interview at her Eastworks studio, where some of her paintings of elephants were hung about nine feet high, roughly the height of the animals’ shoulders. But animals, she noted, "have their own feelings and facial gestures, their own habits, which are not really connected with what we do.” 

“I think what this project showed to me is that I paint portraits,” Siebel added with a laugh. “I’m not a wildlife painter.”

The 30-odd oil paintings that will be part of “Wild at Heart: portraits of endangered species” do in fact feel like the animals posed for Siebel, with most of the creatures looking directly at the viewer. The black backdrop of the large paintings — some as large as four by four feet — combined with the rich, textured colors of the animals, adds to the effect of a studied portrait.

Siebel, who began observing animals in 2015 and then painted them over the past three years, says she’s been concerned for many years about endangered species, poaching and their loss of habitat, most notably in Africa and Asia. As one example, she says wildlife experts have estimated there may be no more than 40 to 50 Amur leopards, in the far east of Russia, left in the wild, though a study earlier this year suggested there could be more (still a dangerously low number, experts say).

“We’re making it harder and harder for so many of these animals to survive,” said Siebel, who is devoting 10 percent of sales from her upcoming exhibit to animal conservation in the field.

Born in the Midwest, Siebel moved to New York City in the 1970s to take up acting, later learned how to dye hand-crafted clothing, then began doing watercolor painting. After moving to Colorado in 1994, she took up oil painting, a medium that she says served finally to anchor her artistically.

In Boulder, Colorado several years ago, she saw an exhibit in which artists used a variety of data about climate change to offer a visual interpretation of the growing danger to the environment posed by rising global temperatures. “I was looking for a new project, trying to decide what to work on, and that [exhibit] made me realize ‘I need to deal with this subject,’ ” she said.

Finding her subjects

Siebel began painting a few endangered animals about five or six years ago, but working from remote images, she felt something was incomplete. In 2015, she traveled to a number of zoos — in Houston, in southern California, in Wichita, Kansas and in Cleveland — that had good reputations for animal care and significant populations of elephants in particular (she also had friends in some of these places with whom she could stay).

The Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, for instance, had brought over several elephants from drought-ridden Swaziland and built a large new habitat for them and their two existing elephants. Through an old connection — the zoo’s soon-to-retire director, Mark Reed, was the brother of one of her old college roommates — Siebel was able to spend several days at the zoo closely observing the elephants, taking photographs and making eye contact with them when she could.

Indeed, she describes “meeting” these animals rather than just seeing them.

She became particularly attached to Stephanie, the zoo’s oldest elephant and for awhile the only one there; the aging African elephant then developed a close attachment to a young elephant from Swaziland, Siebel notes, the two bonding like a mother and her natural offspring. Another elephant that appealed to her was Simunye, a 19-year-old brought over from Swaziland.

Siebel spent time in the other zoos following the same process: taking photos and notes, gleaning what she could about the animals’ habits and quirks from zookeepers, and doing other research on the side. Back in her studio, she blew up her photographs to full-portrait size and used them as a template for her paintings.

Her “endangered” portraits at first glance have a luminous, almost photo-realist quality, but that’s deceptive. Up close you can see the leathery texture of an elephant’s skin, for instance, or the hazy, multicolored hue of a tiger’s fur that Siebel, a self-taught artist, has created through what she calls continual observation, trial and error and many, many brushstrokes.

As she notes on her website, “I want to pull together the spiritual and the earthly in my work, to get to the essence of my subjects…. I experiment continually to achieve the textural details of their hide or skin or fur or feather without specifically painting it, depending on translucent layers, textures, and cheap frayed brushes.”

What comes through the paintings is Siebel’s evident love of these animals and how much she enjoyed watching them. Take “Barika and Baby,” an oil on wood portrait of the gorilla Barika from the Sedgwick County Zoo; the seated Barika looks toward the viewer while holding the baby gorilla in its lap with its front paws.

“He was a 10-day-old papa when I met him, a very proud poppa,” said Siebel.

Siebel has also captured some smaller animals, like an unnamed chimpanzee from a California zoo, and two California condors whose portraits are limited mostly to their colorful heads and beaks. She’s also depicted a markhor, a wild goat found in the mountains of Pakistan and neighboring countries. The markhor’s curled, corkscrew-like horns are highly prized by hunters, which has endangered the species, Siebel says.

In the end, she believes her project has been strengthened by a sense that the animals she saw “let me paint their portraits.” And she has many more to go: She sees this as a project that will keep her busy for some time, both to follow her muse and to raise awareness of the threats many animals face.

“I’ve pretty much gone down that rabbit hole,” she said with a laugh.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Wild at Heart: portraits of endangered species” opens Dec. 6 at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery and runs through Dec. 31. There will be an opening reception Dec. 14 from 5 to 8 p.m. to coincide with the city’s monthly Arts night out. Visit apearts.org and dawnsiebel.com for additional information.







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