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Sacred Bears

A conversation with artist Colleen Campbell about her show, Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bears: Each One is Sacred, on now at the Whyte Museum

By: Nicky Pacas

When you think of the Canadian Rockies’ wilderness, what do you think of?

For many, the black and grizzly bear populations are the most iconographic representations of wilderness, and their majesty (not to mention the potential to snap a picture of one) is what draws visitors from around the world into Banff National Park each year.

While our desire to see a bear in the wild is strong, is our understanding of bears in the wilderness equally as strong? Are bears honey-hungry like Winnie-the-Pooh? Or are they terrifyingly territorial like the grizzly bear in The Revenant? What is our relationship to bears?

In 1994, an independent research group based at the University of Calgary began a ten year study called the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project (ESGBP), where the “fundamental aim…was to contribute science-based understanding regarding the influences that people were having on the grizzly bear population” in an area known as the Canadian Rockies Ecosystem of Alberta and British Columbia. It was a comprehensive study, and at the time, was likely the most comprehensive study ever done on grizzly bears.

Fifteen years after the completion of the project, artist Colleen Campbell, who worked as a volunteer wildlife field researcher on the ESGBP, has put together a show titled “Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bears: Each One is Sacred,” which is on display at the Whyte Museum in Banff until January 28th, 2018. Completed with graphite, ink, and watercolour, the artwork visually and textually presents some of the findings from the ESGBP. I sat down with Colleen to ask her about exhibit:

NP/ Tell me about how your project began.

CC/ It initially began as writing—where do bears come from? Really and truly. I was in Victoria four or five years ago with just a sketchbook. I was stripped down with no distractions and could just be inside my own head. I was thinking about how I could show all the lives of the bears that we handled during the Eastern Slopes project and how individual each life is. How none of them [the bears’ lives] played out the same way.

30 pages later, I’d mapped out each life and a way of showing them visually [this is what evolved to become the show at the Whyte Museum]

NP/ What did you learn during the ESGBP?

CC/ That female bears have zones in which they aggregate with a higher density than predicted. The habitat of steep valleys and short seasons creates an overlap between females using the same region, and sometimes, bears unrelated to each other will become socially involved with each other. They trust each other with their young—two females can better protect five young than one female protecting two or three cubs.

NP/ What do you hope your exhibit shows?

CC/ The research from the ESGBP is now in the public domain, and even though the study yielded tons of information, the information in the final report is not expressed in a way that people can really absorb the impact of it. The final report doesn’t show how individual bears are.

If you read a piece of writing that says, ‘30 of 86 bears died from some form of human impact,’ that means one thing. But if you can see it on a wall and you see that a third of bears monitored during the study died because of humans, the visual becomes, in some way, more impactful.

For me, to draw the lives of the bears and to display them on a wall helps to demonstrate their individuality. We denigrate other species by generalizing their natural history. We’ve reduced them all to a little formula and we quantify them. We’ve done it to every other species but ourselves. I wanted people to realize that every bear is as individual as every human being we know.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.
To learn more about the individuality of bears and to see Colleen Campbells stunning artwork in person, visit the Whyte Museum where the show is on display until January 28th.

“Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bears: Each One is Sacred.” Credit DL Cameron for the Whyte Museum

Credit: DL Cameron for the Whyte Museum










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