Momma Is Watching…or Chasing Bison

Some of my favourite memories from the prairies are the countless hours spent at Elk Island National Park east of Edmonton, AB. The highlight was always the bison. After years of photographing the herds and lone bulls, I finally caught a moment I had to paint. That was a few years back, but it’s worth resisting.

The composition is simple. I focused on one of the cow’s watchful eyes and the calf’s curious but wary eye. Out of sight, a bull rolled in the dust. I pushed it further to obscure the rest of the herd.

Now that the art part is on the table…the rest of the story. I don’t want to think about how many photos I took of bison that were “okay”. The biggest challenge was lighting. No matter how much I tried to be on the right side of the herd or a lone bison to get the sun hitting them just right, bison do what they want to do when they want to do. Running to get ahead of them is plain dumb. These are wild creatures who will turn you into a lump of mangled flesh if you’re intellectually challenged enough to treat them like domestic pets. So you get what you get when you get it.

The photo I took that eventually became “Momma is Watching” is the result of a serendipitous timing. Driving through the park, I came upon a small herd basking in the fall sun in a place they seldom stopped. A large bull was rolling in the dust as bison like to do. The worn grassless rolling pits are a sure sign of a regular bison hang out. I saw the dust cloud before I saw the herd. In my mind, I saw a scene reminiscent of a Robert Bateman painting. I’m no Robert Bateman. I painted my own take on it.

On the subject of bison, they are silent in the woods. On one occasion, I was painting beside the road near a marsh, while my wife sat nearby reading a book. Neither of us noticed a bull behind us in the trees across the road until I realised the dark shadow I had mistaken for an uprooted tree was in a different place from the last time I looked. As it emerged from the trees, we slowly retreated to the car. Alas, the beast had no interest in fine art and walked off down the road. On another occasion, I was walking along a crude road through the woods to see what was there. When I turned to head back, I noticed a couple of young bulls watching me from the trees. I didn’t run, but I didn’t linger either.