Can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to become an artist?
I was born in 1964 in Lewistown, Montana and adopted at 13 days old by two of the most wonderful parents a person could ever ask for; John and Cass Banovich. With two other adopted siblings and one sister 10 years my senior, their biological child, we grew up in the rough and tumble mining town of Butte, Montana. The world’s demand for minerals and copper made it one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi at the turn of the last century. Butte was rooted in deep mining history with big characters, spawning the copper king magnate William S. Clark as well as the motor daredevil Evil Knievel and recently the Navy SEAL who killed Osama Bin Laden, Rob O’Neil.
But Butte should never be judged by first appearances. Anthony Bourdain once said, “At first look, you’d think this is the worst place on Earth. A ravaged, toxic, godforsaken hill threatened from above, riddled with darkness from below. But you’d be wrong.” And oh, how wrong that would be. Mark Twain wrote in his diary, “Butte, Mont. Aug.1. Beautiful audience. Compact, intellectual and dressed in perfect taste. It surprised me to find this London-Parisian-New York audience out there in the mines.” That was Butte, a true paradox, rich in culture influenced by immigrants from 39 countries settling here to make a better life, a life crafted from their own hard-working hands. This mindset of self-reliance and “out of the box thinking” still exists today, and it has profoundly affected me to my core. Butte shaped my values, my work ethic and my appreciation for the wide-open spaces. Places that provide so much for so many hard-working, blue-collar families.
My early years were spent in those surrounding mountains hunting and fishing every chance I could with my late father. He was my forest guide, my mentor, the best man I had ever known. He was my hero. But It was out there with the animals where I found my religion or spiritual centre – my raison d’être. Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” I have always been painting and drawing for as long as I can remember and created my first oil painting from my favourite story of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book characters. There I was at age 7, sitting at our family’s dining room table with my sister, trying to get the value and shading right on Baloo’s belly. My parents were so incredibly supportive of my art from day one. They kept my material well very full, providing the time and place (what mother would allow a child to mix oil paint on her beautiful dark oak dining room table every day?) and even purchasing my early works. This was my father’s idea of teaching me basic negotiation skills and how to find value in my work. I was painting nearly every day growing up. Art became not something I did; it became who I was and still am today. In many ways, I guess I just never grew up.
Your art practice explores the beauty of wildlife and aims to draw attention to how humans threaten it – can you tell us more about this approach/philosophy?
I am an artist first and a naturalist second. And I can paint any subject but chose to dedicate my life to painting animals. Actually, it’s better to say that animals chose me. I am also the luckiest guy in the world because I get to leap out of bed every day and do the thing that I love to do. I would do it if I had to pay money to do it. Hell, I would do it even if it was illegal. I found my muse so many years ago, and after 47 years of painting animals in oil paint, I am just now starting to learn just a bit of understanding my medium. But it’s in the subjects of my work where I find my why – my drive to get it right. After 30 years of travelling the world’s wildest places, searching for these elusive big things with big teeth, I have come to learn a lot more about my subject by thousands of hours of interacting with it in the wild. During these wild sojourns, I have come to deeply understand the threats that face it at the local, regional, national and sometimes the international level.
I have friends who paint still-life or figurative works and spend their studio days filled with beautiful things or in the presence of nude women. But a day at the office for me as an animal artist is sitting at a waterhole sketching a herd of zebra, a parade of elephants or a pride of lions. It’s here in these intimate and tranquil moments where I get to pay homage to the beasts that were fortunate enough to survive the night. The wild kingdom is harsh; it can be a brutal place, and to suddenly come face to face with a male lion, for example, you know he has beaten the odds. He has not fallen to disease, poison or predation by a hyena. He has not been bitten by a snake, wounded or trampled. A sibling male, outside male or his father, has not killed him. He has arrived at this moment, his moment, a glorious and celebrated moment. This beast is the best of his kind, a survivor, and now I must honour that stature each day as I set out to capture him in paint! But in truth, the real threat to wildlife is not found in their daily struggles. The biggest and growing threat to all beasts is mankind and what we call the human/animal conflict. This is the greatest challenge of our time.
Where does this deep passion for wildlife stem from? Was there a specific experience you had that impacted you, or have you always been intrigued by this?
I am not entirely sure where it all began; my deep fascination with the animal kingdom. But as far back as I can remember, it has infiltrated every space of my conscious and unconscious mind. One experience stands out as perhaps igniting the flame. When my siblings and I were between 6 and 9 years old, my parents took us to Disneyland as well as a place called Lion Country Safari where a sign greeted you at the entrance warning, “No Trespassers – Violators will be Eaten”. Now, this was my kind of place! Within minutes of entering, lions clambered all over our rental car, and even one big male plopped itself down across our hood, and that image would never ever leave me. From that moment on, lions were in my blood, and I was part of their pride.
I also remember the first night I spent in Africa, in early 1993, and felt a lion roar outside my tent, and it suddenly seemed like I had come home. A few years later, I encountered a large blackened-mane lion who was reared as a cub and lost all fear of humans but was now living wild on a game reserve bordering Kruger Park in South Africa, so we set off to visit him. He was a spectacular MGM-looking male. A muscular, full-bodied cat with a long face, perfect roman nose and a thick dark black mane fringed with blond edges. So one afternoon, we went off to find him, but along the way, we had to give some antibiotics to a cheetah (who had a severe eye infection) wrapped in raw meat so she would ingest it. A few minutes later, when we found the big male lion, the scent of fresh meat had emanated from our open-top Land Cruiser with no doors on it and the windshield folded down. It was too much for this king of beasts to resist. He jumped onto the side of the vehicle, my side, of course, and pressed between me, the dash and the back of my seat, where he proceeded to step on me and across me in search of that mystery meat scent.
Now a lion is an animal that resembles crossing an industrial-sized refrigerator with the speed of Hussain Bolt and the dexterity of Mikhail Baryshnikov armed with razor-sharp claws and four-inch canine teeth with bone-crushing jaw strength. This is enough to reveal why having this evolutionary killing machine climbing into your vehicle is not a good idea for so many reasons. I remember when this 500-pound cat stepped onto my thigh, the massive paw pushing down felt like a Ford F-150 truck was upon me. After getting a mouth full of a lion, as soon as he cleared me, I bailed out of the vehicle only to discover the driver had fled many moments before me. The lion then made his way to the back of the vehicle and began sniffing to locate the source of the meat. Unfortunately, my camera pack was back there, and he must have mistaken it for the kill. So he did what lions do when they scavenge someone else’s dinner – he grabbed it in his teeth and looked for a place to go eat in private. But the pack had all my camera equipment, my sketch pads and all my other valuable gear. This was early on in my career, so really anything I had of value was now dangling out of this male lion’s mouth. I had to get it back, so I extended out my monopod (still in my hand) and went in closer. He just stared at me with the pack (his kill) swinging back and forth, with a look in his eye, saying, “Go ahead, make my day.”
In desperation, I stepped closer and let out a halfhearted yell, and without dropping the pack, the lion roared and made a false lunge in my direction. As Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.” I dropped my monopod and said, “You can keep the pack,” and was ready to give him my wallet, passport, keys to my cars and anything else he might need as long as he didn’t eat me. And then he leapt from the back seat to the front seat, and as his hindquarters flopped over and hit the steering wheel, it bent it in an inch towards the dash! He then proceeded to step onto the folded down windshield. It shattered under his enormous weight, and this is the damage he was making just by moving his body, not wanting to really tear up the Land Cruiser! He then jumped off and walked into the forest, attracting some females along the way. I had to retrieve my backpack, so we hopped into the vehicle, revved the engine, rammed the bush a few times to chase them off, and recovered the ripped-up camera pack. But to my delight, a large, hardcover bound sketchbook (sustaining deep teeth marks) protected all my equipment. Moral of the story: always carry your big sketchbook!
What impression do you hope your artwork will leave on its audience? How do you get this message across in your artwork?
I feel the reason I was put on this Earth is perhaps to be their spokesperson and tell a wild animal’s story. The real story, raw and unfiltered. I spend nearly a third of my time each year in the magnificence of the wild kingdom and, through my work, hope to move, reveal and inspire people to seek a deeper understanding of the world around us. I hope my art can paint a face on an issue, a cause, a species and inspire someone to act positively. Wildlife art is the oldest art form in the world, from cave drawings dating back over 10,000 years ago. They painted what was around them. And man’s relationship to his environment is the oldest relationship we have. But our ancestors viewed nature as something to have dominion over, to control and subdue. Today, in this so-called modern world, we have created all these extraordinary things, but most people don’t really engage in the natural world. But we have such an incredible history with our environment. Remember, the environment, at one point, was everything to us. Today it’s not – or we feel it is not. Man has civilised his environment, controlled it, tamed it, ordered it, and in many ways disconnected from it. So I want people to connect with wildlife and wild places viewing our natural landscapes as ecological treasures. Inspiring places for all of us to enjoy, utilise, learn from and protect.
We have all travelled to places where the big things with big teeth have been displaced or removed. Something always feels dead to me in those hallowed environments. There are still a few vestiges of habitat that harbour the megafauna and intact ecosystems that lift our minds, replenish our spirits and renew our passions for living. In fact, spending time in wild, open spaces has scientifically proven health benefits. I hope my work depicting wild animals will challenge people to ask themselves: “Will I value big things with big teeth, these so-called monsters of God, enough to coexist with them, giving them a place to call home, in our future human-dominated landscapes?”
How would you characterise your artwork, and what makes your artwork so special in your opinion?
To paint is to lose yourself entirely to the subject, the medium and your voiceless communication. To arrive at a place and then stay there where you don’t know if 10 minutes or 10 hours have passed. This I call the dance – when your pallet, brush, hand, and heart become one. All done in a light-filled studio which I call the womb of creativity. Where your most intimate ideas are conceived, born, nurtured and given life. Creating something that, in the end, always will reveal more about the artist than the subject. I work similarly to a filmmaker, where you come up with an idea (script) for a story, sketch out those thoughts (screenplay) and go out to various locations looking for the correct settings and subjects, capturing the soul of the animal. Sometimes this means I must swim with elephants, walk with lions or stand inches away from a grizzly bear.
Research is the essence of good stories. You can’t fake it; you must live it. Armed with a camera and sketch pad to record details, I then go back to my studio (editing room) near Seattle and compose the perfect visual narrative to tell my story. This is performed with a series of concept sketches done quickly and gesturally with pencil and paper until l feel the composition is dramatic and strong. Then I often do a more detailed concept sketch and work out all the nuances to fully capture the subject’s character. All of this is then sketched onto a full-sized gesso primed, Belgian linen stretched canvas, and under painted translucently like the old European masters did with a sepia tone (burnt sienna and burnt umber) to establish a relationship of tonal values and form. This is especially important to do on large canvases, some reaching 4 meters in length. Once the idea is staged on the large canvas, I begin the deep dive into the bowels of creativity, where nothing matters outside of this canvas.
Friends, relationships, things I must do – everything in my life becomes subservient to the goal at hand so that I can breathe life into this story. Often working for 20 hours at a time, my painting becomes the goggles I view my world through until it’s done. It is clamped onto me when I talk to my children, wife, friends, and extended family. It’s the filter through which I take every breath. I literally become obsessed with it until I finish, and sometimes this is a 4-6 month process. And when I am done, I have nothing left. Every single ounce of emotional and physical energy is spent there in the studio. I suppose it is a trait leftover from my bodybuilding days in the late 1980s. I gave every breath I had to the iron paradise when sculpting my body to win regional competitions with a dream of qualifying for Nationals or the Mr America Competition. But this hyper-focused process allows one to endure extreme discomfort that pushes you to the edge of our human capacity. This is where the really good stuff in life happens!
Do you have any favourite collections or pieces, and why these ones?
One of my favourites is a recently completed work titled “Enthronement of a King”. Marking my 1000th painting, this squared canvas is nearly 3 meters framed and features an eleven image tableau depicting the story of a lion’s life from its very first breath to its very last, highlighting all the milestone moments in between. It defines the different chapters-trails and tribulations in his life. He rises to become king and then falls to become part of the circle of life.
The exclusive Yellowstone Club in Big Sky Montana has one of my largest commissioned paintings to date (framed dimension is 8-16 feet) created for the Warren Miller Lodge and features the iconic species of the west, the American Bison. It depicts a family of Bison ploughing through a deep drift of fresh snow and it is called “Cold Air-Deep Powder.” I featured various ages of Bison, cows and bulls, as the perfect subject to reflect the club’s mantra of “a place where Families gather.” The owner of the Yellowstone Club is Sam Byrne, Co-Founder of Cross Harbor Capital, who exclaimed at the unveiling, “It’s perfect. I have always had a vision of what a Banovich painting would look like in this space, and he executed it perfectly. We wanted to create something experiential for the Yellowstone Club, and he nailed it.”
Another one of my favorite projects I have done is a nearly life-size depiction of the moment an elephant attacked and nearly killed my friend and silicon valley tech titan, Tom Siebel, one morning while he was out for walk with his guide in Tanzania. Titled “Bad Day,” this personal painting was painstakingly researched so I could get all the details right, encapsulating that dark day that nearly ended his life. The drama lies in the details, including Tom’s reflection in the elephant’s eyes just as the elephant came down upon him and aggressively smashed his body into pieces! After two years of nearly 19 surgeries, Tom proudly lives an active life again, including being back on the golf course. This work will always remain as a testament to Tom’s relentless resolve in surviving the un-survivable!
One of my favourite and most ambitious installation commissions is now in the new Singita Kwitonda Lodge in Rwanda. Set at the base of the Virunga mountains, it depicts the Mountain Gorilla family called Kwitonda. A group of 34 gorillas led by three giant silverbacks making it one of the most unique troops in all of Volcanoes National Park. Spending time with this troop over several years to really understand their personalities allowed me to document their story on a nearly 2-by-3-meter canvas now installed in the main lodge dining room. My painting called “Kwitonda” shares with visitors the epic experience they will encounter on their treks, providing an intimate window into the world of the rare Mountain Gorilla.
The Singita Grumeti Reserve also has several of my works; one in the main dining room above the fireplace has become an iconic image of a large bull hippo that has just unleashed a load of hippo attitude on the viewer; titled “Confrontation.” Also, Serengeti House has nearly 16 images throughout the newly redone interior of the elegant and sophisticated private home sitting right in the middle of the wildebeest migration route, perhaps my favourite place in all of Africa to visit.
Do you tend to gravitate to specific animals or landscapes or is there anything in particular that draws you to a specific subject? If so, why?
I paint to maintain sanity. I paint nature because it is sane. Although I have painted everything at some point in my 49 years of painting, the reason I was put on this Earth is to be “their” spokesperson and tell the wild animals’ story. The real story, raw and unfiltered. It’s the large carnivores and herbivores that seem to dominate my canvases. Although I love the smaller things as well, including the avian world, I look for unique stories to tell, trying to make what seems ordinary, extraordinary. Sometimes it’s the obvious, but most often, it is the subtle stories that inspire me the most, closing the chasm between our world and theirs. And if you look closely, you see there is much to discover.
Also in my work, I set out to document this profound time we are living in – the Holocene or Anthropocene era but with Pleistocene Wildlife. A time where we have one foot in the old world, and one in the new modern world. We still have vestiges of habitat that harbour the megafauna, roaming free and in an open system. When I was born in 1964, there were only 3.5 billion people on Earth, and now there are over 7.7 billion people, and this number is growing every hour. Because of competition for resources, there is simply not enough places for wildlife to live. As a result, a staggering half of all amphibians on the planet now face extinction while a third of mammal species are similarly threatened. The IUCN has assessed and identified 16,928 species of flora and fauna worldwide as being threatened with extinction, or roughly 38 percent of those assessed.
Problems are huge in Africa. We all know that Africa is a land of great ecological and cultural diversity, and that it is massive. In fact, you could place China, India, New Zealand, Europe, Argentina, and the continental United States inside Africa and still have room to spare. There are over 100,000 species of known insects, over 3000 species of fish, 2600 bird species, 1100 mammal species, and 60 species of carnivores. It has the world’s largest desert and the world’s longest river. Over 3000 different ethnic groups and an exploding human population up to now 1.3 billion people.
We dominate every landscape on Earth, and of the 8 million species on Earth we are practically the only ones who are rapidly growing in numbers. We are now facing the 6th mass extinction, and if we don’t do something profound now, then wildlife and wild places will be gone forever. Never before has the wild kingdom faced the level of threats as it does right now. Animals are being poached and slaughtered at an unprecedented rate, and millions of human livelihoods depend on their survival. Rural people around the world can benefit from the utilisation of wildlife. Still, the animals continue to be poached, removed and exploited because they are viewed as an expensive burden. If this continues, humans will lose not only the great ecological diversity that has separated our planet from the entire solar system, but we will forever lose a part of ourselves.
Tell us about some of your other projects and their significance, such as your philanthropic efforts and art centre?
I recently had a museum show that toured the Western USA called “KING OF BEASTS: A Study of the African A Lion.” This exhibition took 5 years to assemble and gathered over 24 of my major works from around the world, showing them together for the very first time. “KING OF BEASTS” carries a strong conservation message on the plight of the African Lion (the world’s only social cat). This beast is an evolutionary marvel and perfectly adapted killing machine designed to dominate its world, yet it faces an uncertain future. A message echoed by our Lion P.R.I.D.E. conservation initiative aimed at protecting lions across their range states. We also have an accompanying new book on the African lion of the same name as our show; “KING OF BEASTS”. This is the third one-man museum exhibition I have had in my life, of which they are like ultra-marathons – you only have so many in you!
We also have a conservation foundation WILDSCAPES. Our mission is to foster cooperative efforts to conserve the Earth’s wildlife and wild places benefitting the animals and people that live there. We accomplish this in three ways:
- Supporting important scientific research and education.
- Protecting large conservation landscapes.
- Finding ways to benefit community development.
One of our conservation partners, to whom we have just recently dispersed a large grant called the Gorilla Doctors, are the front line to primate conservation across all landscapes, including Gorillas. They are real conservation heroes, and through their work, the Mountain Gorilla population has gone from around 800 to 1063 in just the last few decades. Very few large species are increasing in numbers, but this is one of them.
Also, we are working in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the largest chimp orphanage in the world, where baby chimps are rescued from the illegal pet trade and given a second chance at life, with the intentions of eventually releasing them back into a safe place in the wild. I also had dinner recently with the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. We continue to applaud support this country’s trajectory out of the dark shadow of genocide and continuing on the path to reconciliation, education, and development.
We also partnered with the Wheelchair Foundation and distributed over 250 brand new off-road wheelchairs to the rural area of Bugasera, bringing the liberating gift of mobility and independence to adults and children, giving them the dignity to be contributing members of their families. I have also just completed, as an Executive Producer, two eco-thriller documentaries. One is called “The Last Horns of Africa” and tells of the rhino poaching crisis. With unprecedented access, it gives a gripping and intimate look at the current rhino poaching war raging across Africa and dives into the debate on whether the trade should be legalised or not. Our story follows the journeys of two heroes who put their lives on the line to protect the rhino in their care, all the while a top-secret, covert operation endeavours to bring down South Africa’s most notorious rhino poaching syndicates. The other film is called “The Edge of Existence”. It documents the human/animal conflict sweeping across sub-Saharan Africa, and the challenge conservationists face to meet both the needs of wildlife in protected areas and people living on the edge.
I also hosted Kenya’s Governor Tunai of Narok County (and his delegation) to the USA on an exploration of business opportunities, education and health sector synergies. The Governor is an influential political leader in east Africa, especially in the wildlife sector. He is a conservationist, and an out of the box thinker. He is very devoted to his people and the famed Masai Mara Wildlife Reserve, which lies in the heart of his district. He is also the “Mara Triangle” founder, a place where most of the wildebeest migration occurs. Together, we want to empower movements that will make a difference for people and wildlife in Africa and other developing regions.
As an artist and conservationist, I have travelled for over three decades all throughout Africa, attempting to understand human perspectives from the presidential palace to the primitive boma, getting to the heart of where Africa has been and where it’s going. I have been looking at how to play a role in helping it successfully navigate this new emerging paradigm so that Africans don’t capitulate to foreign pressures for quick gains. One of the best ways to save both wildlife and people is through sustainable tourism. And for the last decade, I have been designing safaris for myself and for others. Through our luxury travel company, Wildscapes Travel, we are designing the world’s most unique itineraries focused on supporting the continent’s most important conservation landscapes. Those keystone areas are the heart and lungs of sustaining biodiversity. When, at some point Africa’s human population surpasses 4 billion people, these biomes will ensure it retains viable populations of animals for our future generations to experience and enjoy.
With my partners, we truly understand the luxury African Safari industry and how it makes a profound difference in protecting and sustaining the creatures and culture that travellers come to experience. Soon we will be launching this bespoke travel design service globally, intending to inspire and connect people to the places that harbour tigers, jaguars, grizzly bears, polar bears and all of the species they share their home with. Through luxury tourism, we can share with people the adventure found amongst these primitive cultures, wild animals and wide-open spaces, connecting our guests to incredibly wild places where they become active participants in this successful conservation story playing out.
Today we are at a precipice, and the decisions that we make now will seal the fate of wildlife for the generations to come. Just read the headlines – we are all well aware of our civilisation’s challenges in many areas like politics, terrorism, natural disasters, disease, famine, climate change, etc. But one bright spot is that some animal species have made heroic comebacks from the brink of extinction. Animals are tenacious and resilient. Like us, all they need are the fundamentals of life to survive. We do not need to have one single species to accomplish this; all we need to do is provide land, food, water, and a safe place to live. Then the animals will save themselves.
Find out more about John Banovich and his work on his website.
Images © John Banovich