Larger than Life: the art of John Banovich
April 06, 2011
By DAVE REESE
Livingston artist travels the world to combine his passion for art and love for wildlife
Monet had his garden, where he found inspiration for his art.
John Banovich has Pine Creek.
Banovich, a Butte native, is a world-renowned wildlife artist who has a home on the Yellowstone River near Livingston. It's here that he not only paints, but like Monet in his garden, gathers inspiration for his paintings of tigers in Russia, jaguars in South America or lions in Africa.
Like artists who travel to Montana to view and paint our wildlife species, Banovich gets to travel the world in search of these exotic animals to experience. "With these species you get the opportunity to travel and learn a tremendous amount about them," he says.
His paintings are rarely found in Montana, but walk into a home of a major collector of exotic wildlife art and you're likely to see a Banovich painting. "African subjects don't do well in Montana, largely because of the interior design aspect," he says.
He paints his subjects large. It's almost as if you're looking at his art on an Imax screen, instead of a 36-inch television.
The inspiration for a painting might come from a visual he's seen while traveling, or a juxtaposition of themes. For instance, he had an idea to paint a bengal tiger as the jewel of India. In order to link the culture of India with its native wildlife, Banovich painted the tiger as being in a temple.
His theory of art is to document the human experience through one interpretation. "I'm a relentless editor," he says. "If you're successful, you should engage the person. You're really trying to tell your own story, and an artist does that through telling how he feels about things."
There's more to being a painter for Banovich, 42. He's an active participant in wildlife conservation in Africa, where he has traveled, studied and painted more than 20 times. Kenya, for instance, was once one of the "greatest wildlife countries" in the world, Banovich says, but the country has lost 70 percent of its wildlife through poaching and disregard for its wildlife resource.
The key to the recovery of Kenya's wildlife is not from banning hunting - it's from enacting hunting, Banovich asserts. Hunting was banned there in 1977.
Hunting, Banovich says, can bring an economic boost to the country. "Without an economic value, wildlife is not important them," he says.
With the help of Banovich's "Lion Pride Initiative" to restore hunting in Kenya, the Kenyan government is now reviewing sport hunting practices, he says.
"Conservation is a complicated issue, and anti-hunting agendas are buying off politicians with huge funds," he said.
In neighboring Tanzania, wildlife is doing "extraordinarily well because of wildlife management," Banovich said. "Hunting generated an extraordinary amount of money."
One reason Kenyans don't want big game wildlife around them is because it's sometimes dangerous. "It either eats their livestock, their crops or it eats them," Banovich says.
Banovich, however, needs to get close to the dangerous animals he paints.
Unlike the late Steve Irwin, who made wildlife react to him, Banovich tries to get just close enough to be able to reveal the character of an animal, whether it's the gentle nurturing of a female lion with her offspring or the tremendous roar of a herd wildebeest fleeing across the sand.
Banovich began painting fulltime in 1993. Since then, his artwork has struck a deep chord among collectors of art of exotic big game animals.
But he didn't stop with his success as an artist and just keep painting. Banovich wants to be a conservationist, as well.
"They go hand in hand - the art and the conservation," he says. "It's a way for me to preserve the wildlife that I want to paint and it's a way for me to give something back to the animal kingdom that has given me so much."
When it came time to settle down in Montana from the west coast, Banovich drove east "until it quit raining," he says. That spot he found was where the Yellowstone River diverges into three channels and converges at his house.
"The wildlife is extraordinary," he says. "It's a very inspiring place. When I'm painting and need to take a break, I need a quick recovery. When I look out over the river, it really fills my soul back up and I'm ready to get back to work." •