I was talking with Ivan Carter the other day, not solely about dangerous animals, but the kind of adrenalin-pumping animal art he enjoys seeing on the wall. That’s when the legendary hunter, guide and anti-poaching activist from southern Africa shared this observation about a painter well-known to readers here.
“If you were to ask me ‘How would I assess the work of Joshua Spies,’ I’d reply that it’s the wrong question,” he began. “When I think about Josh, it’s the passionate sportsman, willing to do anything to promote wildlife conservation and the persistence of hunting, who comes first to mind. In his case, it’s the character of the man who informs the quality of his art. Josh’s scenes are as extraordinary as he is.”
Spies (his name is pronounced like the profession belonging to James Bond) is a lumbering presence at 6’4”. He’s been a perennial favorite to art collectors at SCI. Unassuming, he’s no pretender when it comes to his passion for journeying to wild far-flung places. He thinks of himself as neither a halfway hunter nor is he halfhearted about what he chooses to put between the frame.
There’s no use for being in-between, no room for ambivalence when it involves the things you care about, he says. Spies told me from his new studio in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “Sometimes you have to take a stand for what’s important to you, what you believe in, and not sit on the sidelines. My art is one way I try to contribute and when it comes to conservation, I’m all-in.”
“Josh’s artwork,” Carter says, “is an authentic representation of his values and, as hunters, they are our values too.”
Spies’ paintings of mammals, waterfowl and upland birds have directly and indirectly helped raise millions of dollars for conservation. A prestigious winner of the 2009-2010 Federal Duck Stamp competition, he gained national acclaim when his portrayal of a long-tailed duck was printed on waterfowl licenses that millions of us carry into the field, putting him in rare company with the finest American sporting artists who ever lived.
Some $20 million was generated through duck stamp sales, benefitting the operation of the National Wildlife Refuge System and pushing private-public partnerships to safeguard wetlands and other habitat. With Carter, he has donated work with proceeds going to combat rhino and elephant poachers, pay for game guards and fund an orphanage for young chimpanzees.
“I want people to know that whenever they buy a painting, I’m not going to preach at them, I’m going to give back,” Spies says.
A rising star, Spies has won awards from half a dozen hunting organizations, including SCI, had paintings chosen to hang as props in the movies A Guy Thing and Electra, been interviewed in People magazine and had his artwork sold nationwide in Dillard’s department stores to help promote its Hemingway furniture collection. His photography has also been showcased at events sponsored by the National Geographic Society.
After Spies triumphed in the Federal Duck Stamp competition nearly a decade ago as one of the youngest to claim the prize, and then subsequently, as commission requests from prominent collectors began to pour in, he had every reason to become cocky, Carter says. But he didn’t. Instead, he set out to build his portfolio of big game scenes inspired by his own encounters.
Born in Breckenridge, Minnesota in 1973, Spies says his roots in nature started a little north from Sioux Falls in Watertown, South Dakota where his family moved. Watertown is a ville on the prairie known for producing a string of noteworthy sporting artists who set a high bar for excellence, including John C. Green, John Wilson (also a Federal Duck Stamp Winner) and the late painter Terry Redlin, whose limited edition prints were sold by the tens of thousands. Redlin’s wife, Helene, was the babysitter of Spies’ mother.
“Those guys encouraged me to pursue my dream of being an artist,” Spies says. “They showed that you could make a living painting ducks.”
A lifetime member of SCI, Spies credits his presence at the convention with being a major catalyst in his career. What he tries to translate using the magical alchemy of brushwork is the thrill that comes with each new “research trip.” The arc of his hunting stories is drawn from experiences he’s had around the world.
“I’ve always gone to places perceived to be unreachable and it makes the paintings more exotic,” he says. “It kind of follows the mantra of SCI. There are no borders. You can go anywhere in search of adventure.” The farthest Spies has ever traveled to get fodder for paintings has been to Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in search of mountain sheep and goats. He's ridden on horseback through blizzards, become knowledgeable about animal anatomy through the direct contact he's had with his subjects, and been in numerous settings where predator could become prey.
Spies doesn’t know if he craves hunting or painting more. “The two go together for me; they’re inseparable—one leads to the other,” he said, surrounded by commission work bound for the dens of prominent collectors.
One notable fan is 86-year-old retired American businessman John LoMonaco, fellow SCI lifetime member, who’s been hunting for three quarters of a century. From his home in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, LoMonaco, a transplanted Texan, has ventured, just as Spies has, to remote outposts and is renowned for his extensive collection of mountain sheep from the Middle East and Asia.
Spies’ work came to his attention at an SCI convention several years ago. “I saw two paintings that were of immediate interest to me as I passed by them in Josh’s booth. I loved them, but when I came back later for a second look, unfortunately they were both sold,” he explains. “Josh’s works aren’t available for very long. He is that rare combination of being a very ardent hunter and outdoorsman and, at the same time, being supremely talented as an artist.”
Having hunted big game in 30 counties—his exploits are chronicled in two books written by Robert M. Anderson— LoMonaco has a trophy room that speaks to his success in finding record-book caliber animals and complementing them is impactful wildlife art.
“I watched Josh start out very quietly from the days when he was first painting upland game and waterfowl to paying his dues and steadily growing his body of work over time. In my assessment, he’s become one of the best wildlife artists out there,” LoMonaco says.
Asked to explain what makes Spies’ painting great, apart from its artisanship, he notes: “I’ve been blessed to observe an awful lot of animals and I know what I’m looking at in terms of anatomical accuracy and artists who have actually spent time in the terrain. The work that Josh does rings true. You know he’s been there.”
The artist has had plenty of harrowing encounters with bears, lions, leopards, elephants and Cape buffalo. He shares the story of a recent bongo hunt in Cameroon. He was trekking behind a group of pygmy scouts carving a path through dense jungle with machetes. “You could barely see more than three inches in front of your face,” he said. “Bongo are like giant bushbucks but they can be temperamental. They like to fight or flee.”
Cutting a fresh set of tracks early one morning following a tropical rainstorm, they put a sneak on a big bull that had been eluding them. “I was finally in a position for a shot, very close, maybe too close,” he said.
After Spies fired, the wounded bongo bolted straight in his direction, knocking him to the ground. “I was in the path of his only escape route. The impact tossed me backward to the ground and the next thing I knew he was standing over me. All I could see were the stripes on his side and his eyeballs starring into mine.”
Were it not for his PH putting the animal down, Spies says the outcome would’ve been uncertain at best. When we spoke, he was pondering designs for a new bongo painting.
Carter says that he and Spies have had many long talks about conservation challenges facing the survival of many species and they’ve shared personal tales. “We’ll look at a photograph of a hunt I’ve led and he’ll say, ‘Man, I’ve seen that moment. I want to paint it,’” Carter says. “He doesn’t go on a Marco Polo hunt just to shoot a Marco Polo. He wants to live the experience, push his limits, drink in the setting and then translate it. For being so successful, I’m surprised at what a modest guy he is.”
Spies admits that added humility has come with the birth of two sons, age 10 and 6, which only caused him to deepen his concern about what kind of wild world awaits hunters later in the century. From South Dakota to Africa and the high steppe of Mongolia, he has witnessed, in only a few decades, wildlife populations decline from loss of habitat, poaching, the expanding footprint of humanity and war.
Not long ago, Spies began purchasing land in South Dakota to create a nature reserve for deer, pheasants and waterfowl, knowing it will bring dividends for a larger suite of species that thrive in the protected habitat, too.
Can art save nature? Spies shows it’s possible. “Josh shows his ethics by example,” Carter says. “As a hunter, conservationist and artist, he’s the real deal.”--Todd Wilkinson
Originally Printed in Safari Magazine Mar/Apr 2017