7 Visual Artists Changing How We See Wildlife

#EcoList of Things We Love

Cybele Knowles
Center for Biological Diversity
5 min readSep 9, 2016


We humans are just animals, but animals with exceptional capabilities and talents. We’re set apart from nonhuman animals in numerous ways, some of which we don’t fully understand.

The ways in which we’re similar to, and different from, other animals make our relationship with them profound and complicated. We may see other animals as friend or foe, self or other, food or equal, disposable or sacred. Here are seven contemporary artists who depict facets of that fascinating bond.


“Dreamcatcher” by JADE

This mural by Peruvian artist JADE (Jonatan Rivera) is located in the Chorillos district of Lima, Peru. It’s one in a series of paintings featuring people wearing ghostly animal masks, usually while relating to an animal. Here, a man wearing a bird mask embraces a surrealistically large sparrow in a gesture that expresses a desire to connect with nature and to inhabit a nonhuman animal body and consciousness.

2. Karlee Rawkins

“Around the Bend” and “King of All Birds Wedgetail” by Karlee Rawkins

Karlee Rawkins is an Australian artist who paints plants and animals in vivid colors, organic shapes and bold compositions. Inspired by outsider art, folk art, and traditional textiles and patterns, she often renders her subjects so large that they overspill their canvases. Rawkins endows her subjects with a great vitality, power and presence.

3. Roger Peet

Mural of pink mucket pearly mussels and Cumberlandian combshells and their habitat, by Roger Peet for the Endangered Species Mural Project, Center for Biological Diversity, 2016.

Roger Peet is a Portland-based artist and the director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Endangered Species Mural Project, which places murals of local endangered species in public spaces throughout the United States. The above mural, located in Knoxville, Tenn., depicts two endangered mussels, the pink mucket pearly mussel and Cumberlandian combshell. The goal of the Endangered Species Mural Project is to raise the profile of local species, helping us to notice and know them — and save them.

4. Chris Berens

“Tasmanian Angel” by Chris Berens, 2016

Chris Berens is a Dutch pop surrealist whose painting style is informed by Old Master painters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt. His images may look digitally composed, but are entirely hand-painted. “Tasmanian Angel,” pictured above, blends the neoclassical style of the 19th century with the 21st century’s significant obsession with cute animals. Among other things this intentionally romantic image evokes and depicts important feelings of nurturing love many of us feel toward both domesticated and wild animals.

5. Kiki Smith

“Litter” © Kiki Smith, courtesy Pace Gallery

Kiki Smith works in many media to explore the subject of body and the natural world. Her lithograph “Litter” depicts a cat nursing her kittens. The bodies of the kittens are almost indistinguishable from the body of their mother. Parts of the mother cat’s body are decorated with gold paint, including her eyes, nose, pads — and a nipple placed in the middle of our field of view. The flat design and gilded details of this piece are reminiscent of a religious icon. This connotation elevates a humble scene of nonhuman motherhood into a sacred image.

6. Brandon Ballengée

“RIP Sloane’s Urania: After W. F. Kirby,” 1897/2014, by Brandon Ballengée. Artist cut and burnt print hand-colored stone lithograph, etched glass urn, and ashes. 13 ¾ x 11 7/8’’. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Brandon Ballengée’s Frameworks of Absence series directly addresses the current extinction crisis. Scientists estimate that we’re losing dozens of species a day in the worst wave of extinction since the dinosaurs. The terrible part is that while previous extinction crises were caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans.

For his Frameworks of Absence series, Ballengée cuts out images of animals from documents printed at the time when the depicted species became extinct. To create the piece shown above, he removed the image of a Sloane’s urania butterfly from a copy of A Handbook to the Order Lepidoptera, written by W.F. Kirby and published in 1897. In 1895 this butterfly went extinct in its native habitat of Jamaica. The altered image is framed so that the surface behind the artwork is visible through the space where the animal used to be. Meanwhile the animal images excised from the historic documents are burned and the ashes scattered.

7. Helen Sear

“Spot no.10” lambda print © Helen Sear, 2003

Helen Sear’s Spot series presents digitally altered photographic portraits of birds. Each beautifully detailed bird is depicted in front of a soft-focus, naturalistic background and overlaid with flat shapes of foliage. As shown above in the portrait of a barn owl, the bird’s eyes are masked by spots that interrupt what would otherwise be a pleasing and comfortable aesthetic experience with questions and anxiety. Why can’t we see the bird’s eyes? Why can’t it see us? What does a photograph really “show” or “capture,” anyways? Through a seemingly simple technique, Sear questions the ability of human technologies — and by extension, the sizable brains of which we humans are so proud — to bridge the ever-present gap between us and other, differently gifted animals.

Flotsam is a list of things we think are cool. Send us your ideas at flotsam@biologicaldiversity.org.