On Becoming Ken Carlson

Caribou Bull, 1992
Caribou Bull, 1992

by Brooke Chilvers

If any number of wildlife artists were born within driving distance of the great museums of New York or Pittsburg – think Guy Coheleach and Stanley Meltzoff or Joseph Sulkowski and Lou Pasqua – finding early inspiration in masterpieces, such as Rosa Bonheur’s monumental The Horse Fair, this was not the case of Minnesota-born artist Ken Carlson (b. 1937), who saw his first major works only after leaving home.  And yet, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t dream of being an artist. That’s all I ever wanted to be. And birds and animals were all I ever wanted to paint,” says Carlson.

Perhaps the inkling of his commitment to painting animals started with his fascination as a kid with the wildlife murals on the walls of the neighborhood bar, where his dad stopped in for an occasional beer after a day as a derrick driver in the now abandoned granite quarry that once earned Morton the moniker, “the granite capital of Minnesota.”  He later learned they were painted by a local Sioux artist named Ruben St. Clair, whose life is certainly worth Googling. In lieu of cultural institutions, Ken roamed the still wild spaces in his rural river town with a population of three hundred, duck hunting and fishing for walleye and northern pike with his Swedish-blooded father.  His mother, of Belgian ancestry, had her hands full with three kids, and working part-time at the local bakery.

Sketch by the 12-year-old future artist
Sketch by the 12-year-old future artist

Ken worked there, too, after school and on weekends to satisfy his precocious hunger for art supplies. For in those blissful years before TV, he was filling his insatiable curiosity about the natural world unfolding before him. And transforming what he saw into art. 

It all started at age eleven, when he spent a year in bed recovering from rheumatic fever.  Most of the day he simply drew, copying Dick Tracey comics and illustrations out of magazines and newspapers, with a baseball game or country music on the radio in the background. Excused forever from Phys. Ed., Ken Carlson simply drew and drew and drew.  Then illustrations by Bob Kuhn in a sporting magazine struck him in the head like lightning, convincing him on the spot to follow in Kuhn’s footsteps and become a wildlife artist.

Ken didn’t need museums to develop his talent.  Instead, he had great mentors.  First, the high school shop teacher who noticed the fifteen-year-old’s drawing skills in his designs of his projects.  He was the one who encouraged Ken to enter the Art Instruction School in Minneapolis’s “Draw Me” contest, where Ken would win the two-year scholarship to their correspondence course.  It was his great luck that the program was directed by the remarkable sporting artist, Walter Wilwerding (1891–1966), a big-game hunter and freelance illustrator for Sports Afield and other outdoor magazines.  He’d authored and illustrated several animal storybooks for children, and then an instructional series for artists on How to Draw and Paint Hoofed Animals, Animal Expressions, Animal Textures, and Cats in Action.

An instruction book by Walter Wilwerding
An instruction book by Walter Wilwerding

Ken had found the perfect second mentor. Wilwerding modeled hard work, strict attention to anatomy and the canons of classical art, and an appreciation of a vast range of art. More important, he had faith in the teen’s commitment to improvement through his mentor’s well-meant, constructive criticism.  Carlson often took the late-night mail train to Minneapolis for private tutoring from Wilwerding.

After high school, Ken moved to Minneapolis and attended the School of Art for a year.  But he only wanted to paint animals, and this path wasn’t going to lead him there.  To pay the bills while he attended figure drawing classes at night, he worked first as a freelance illustrator and commercial artist for a local TV station, then staff artist for the Minneapolis Star & Tribune.

Red-shafted Flicker, 1974
Red-shafted Flicker, 1974

Like Wilhelm Kuhnert, Delacroix, and Bugatti, who turned to zoos for live models, Ken spent so much time at St. Paul’s Como Park Zoo with his camera, sketchpad and conté crayon, or easel and oils, that he became an “insider” with his own set of keys – until he got tossed by an ornery bull elk.  Like Stubbs and Bonheur’s visits to slaughterhouses, Carlson frequented game-meat processing plants, collecting legs to flex, worn hooves to inspect, and even the occasional deer head with a still wet nose and eyelashes.

When it came time to see big game on its own terms, at age eighteen Carlson made his first trip west to national parks in Wyoming and Colorado, and later to South Dakota’s Black Hills. At Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton, he lifted the winter coverings to see his first original Carl Rungius (1869–1959) oils, painted for the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s, and replaced today by reproductions.

Sand Flats – Pintails, 1977 gouache for Wild Wings
Sand Flats – Pintails, 1977 gouache for Wild Wings

Around 1970, as magazine illustrations were massively replaced by photographs – and despite failing to sell a single oil painting of North American big game at the prestigious 1970 Mzuri Safari Club – with his wife’s encouragement, Carlson turned full time to wildlife art.  His still “tight” and detailed style of realism then led to timely commissions from members of the Bay Area Chapter of Ducks Unlimited.  Which led to two years painting fifty illustrations for Birds of Western Northern America, published by McMillan in 1974.  Despite having nailed down bird anatomy, Carlson declined their offer to illustrate a Volume II.  As an artist, he was quickly moving beyond the confines of a meticulous gouache to his oil painting roots and very personal interpretation of his animal subject. 

Support for Carlson’s new voice came from Trailside Gallery in Jackson, Wyoming, Crossroads of Sport and Fred King’s Sportsman’s Edge Gallery in New York, the Russell Fink Gallery, and others. He did conservation stamps, and limited edition prints for Wild Wings and Mill Pond Press, until his looser, more painterly touch became less suitable for their market. 

On the Edge, 1983
On the Edge, 1983

Carlson was now seriously making it.  But success served only to make him work ever harder at getting his pigments and brushes to express his vision of nature.

Ken Carlsons latest exhibition, Ken Carlson Presents: Wyoming’s Big 10, will be at Astoria Fine Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, from September 11 to September 21, 2024.