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"Young Bachelors on Alert"
Maureen Enns, "Young Bachelors on Alert," 2009, charcoal on paper, 25” x 21”.
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"Maureen Enns in her studio"
Photo by Bob Blakey
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"Wild Horses, Wild Wolves" book cover.
Maureen Enns, "Wild Horses, Wild Wolves" book cover.
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"Stud Guarding his Foal"
Maureen Enns, "Stud Guarding his Foal," 2009, mixed media, 40 x 30”.
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"Ghosts of the Forest"
Maureen Enns, "Ghosts of the Forest," 2006, charcoal on paper, 21” x 30”.
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Maureen Enns, "El Rosario," 2011, mixed media, 31” x 29”.
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Maureen Enns, "Caesar," 2006, acrylic on canvas, 22” x 28”.
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"Bachelors Pause in Front of Rod"
Maureen Enns, "Bachelors Pause in Front of Rod," 2013, photograph, 14.5” x 19”.
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"Pocaterra Watching Hope and I"
Maureen Enns, "Pocaterra Watching Hope and I," 2013, photograph, 14.5” x 19”.
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"Windtower to Mt. Lougheed"
Maureen Enns, "Windtower to Mt. Lougheed," 2012, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 36” x 48”.
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"On the Windy Ridge"
Maureen Enns, "On the Windy Ridge," 2010, oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 48” x 36”.
Maureen Enns and the Art of Conservation
By Lyndsie Bourgon
Let’s start at the end. Maureen Enns has come to some conclusions, and they’re where she tends to begin. Sitting at a table in her studio in the Ghost River Valley west of Calgary, drinking black coffee from a pottery mug, Enns explains how she came to understand the wild horses that roam the region and how they have inspired her art. Her studio, tucked into rolling ranchland, resembles a cabin retreat – a log house built into the surrounding woods over so many years that it’s almost part of the natural order. The place suits her art, which is so interwoven with her concerns about conservation that it’s hard to separate where each begins and ends.
Perhaps best known for her work with grizzly bears, Enns has spent the last six years studying wild horses, a controversial topic in Alberta. “What I concluded was that the whole notion of these free-roaming, feral horses is an overwhelming generalization,” she says. She believes the horses – some re-wilded over generations, others more recently released or escaped – are distinct from their feral and domestic cousins. They are as wild as grizzlies or wolves, she maintains, and just as misunderstood.
In Wild Horses, Wild Wolves: Legends at Risk at the Foot of the Canadian Rockies, published this year by Rocky Mountain Books, Enns tries to give readers a deeper understanding of the wildlife at their back door. The text is accompanied by her photographs and art – charcoal drawings, vibrant paintings and mixed media pieces, some of which have been shown at the Masters Gallery in Calgary. While her subject matter and material approaches might not conform to the rarefied expectations of the contemporary art world, Enns, who taught at the Alberta College of Art and Design for more than 20 years, is comfortable enough to joke about it: “If you’ve looked at prairie art, doing charcoal drawings of horses is probably the kiss of death.”
Enns is driven by her need to gain a deeper appreciation of other species that share the planet. Over the years, she has developed a working method – lengthy periods of uncompromising research, often in far-flung places, in return for epiphanies about the natural world. She does her own field research, observing wild animals in their natural settings. Only as her research accumulates does she begin to make art, letting its intuitive approaches help her sort through and make sense of her discoveries, always mindful of her desire for humans to coexist peacefully with wild animals.
Her process brings to mind American author Joan Didion, who once said she writes in order to understand what she thinks. Indeed, Enns calls herself an investigative artist, and says art is “the vehicle for me to try and work it out.” This depth of research and intensity of purpose are a strength of her art, which has an intimacy that’s hard to describe. Looking at it, you can almost hear the soft pulse of a horse’s breath or the silky swish of tail and mane. The bright pigments she sometimes adds to photographs gives them an ethereal feel.
Enns was born in Chilliwack, B.C., where her parents owned a logging company and ran a ranch. She spent a lot of time outdoors.Her siblings were much older and she rode their hand-me-down horses after they left home. Eventually, she moved to Vancouver to study education at the University of British Columbia – while there, she took an art history course. It was a pivotal experience. “I thought: ‘This is where I’m going,’ ” she says. After finishing her degree, she traveled in Europe and Australia, even opening an art school for a time. “It was the brassiness of a 20-year-old,” she says. “You think you own the world and everyone else isn’t very bright.” That same drive later took her to the University of Calgary, where she earned her MFA in 1971.
Enns returned to Australia in 1986 for a trip through the Outback, spurred by her curiosity about the region’s arid expanses. The work she produced was shown at Expo 86 in Vancouver. Then she was off on her next adventure, to Africa, where she sailed down the Zambezi River and worked on a series inspired by elephants and the ivory trade in Kenya.
On her return, Enns began searching for a project closer to home. She came up with the idea of grizzlies. “Then I thought: ‘Oh, shoot, I’m terrified of grizzly bears.’ ” But it turned into a life-changing experience. The bears took her from warden outposts in Banff National Park to the wilds of the Kamchatka wilderness in Russia, where she lived and worked with Charlie Russell, son of Alberta author and outdoorsman Andy Russell.
“We realized that to really understand the possibility of coexistence between humans and bears, you couldn’t do it in North America,” she says. “There was too much opposition.” For nine years, Enns and Russell spent each spring with seven orphaned bears. They wrote two books together, Grizzly Heart and Grizzly Seasons. Enns was also part of Walking With Giants, a documentary shown on PBS. She says fate halted the project – her favourite bear was brutally killed, perhaps by poachers – and she snapped out of her obsession.
Wild horses took the place of bears. There’s thought to be at least 850 horses roaming a broad swath of land along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Ranchers say the horses, which have been rounded up for slaughter under a controversial provincial management plan, destroy their pastures. Meanwhile, environmentalists want the horses designated as a heritage animal and protected from culls.
As part of her research, Enns interviewed dozens of ranchers, farmers, environmentalists and aboriginal leaders. She also spent time riding her horse back and forth through the Ghost Forest public land use zone, a 600-square-mile wilderness recreation area near her studio. When she noticed the wild horses had become comfortable with her presence, she took a step back. “It was a disappointment because it was really fun,” she says. Instead, she set up remote cameras she had bought at a hunting store and monitored the horses from afar. As she watched, she noticed some behaved like deer, others more like domestic horses.
Enns turned to her art to work through her confusion. Much of her work from this period shows horses amid painted yellow and orange swirls. “I’m not an artist that goes out and takes a landscape picture and then comes back and paints it,” she says. Indeed, Enns’ art is probably best understood as a process of exploration. Her courage in confronting the unknown is remarkable. Afraid of grizzly bears, she went to live with them. Knowing that wild horses stir up heated feelings, she tracked them for years. Now between projects, she’s looking once again for something to engage her relentless drive to understand the natural world.