July 16, 2020
Meet The Tarzan Who Can Paint by Chris Dorsey
For internationally acclaimed wildlife artist John Banovich, it’s about saving the planet one portrait at a time.
It’s a good bet that wherever you find wildlife painter John Banovich, there will be a captivating view nearby. The globe-trotting artist is a study of a man in motion, forever combining his love of all things wild with an obsession to preserve natural habitats and the creatures that inhabit them. Meet him and hear the passion in his voice as he talks about Siberian tigers or mountain gorillas and you quickly tweak that his art—brilliant though it may be—is a means to an end. Banovich is forever in a race to save species and habitats whose days on Earth are numbered without intervention. He uses a paintbrush the way Ansel Adams did a camera, empowering the visual to transform the spiritual—ultimately inspiring people to make a difference.
For the Montana-born artist, what started as a traditional track to produce stunning portraits of some of the planet’s most charismatic creatures has evolved into a redefinition of what it means to wear the label of wildlife artist. While he lives in Seattle with his wife and two daughters, he’d rather be with the family in a tent somewhere in Africa or on the side of a mountain in British Columbia…or perhaps following the track of a tiger in the wilds of Siberia.
The fifty-something former bodybuilder-turned artist with shoulder length hair looks as if he’s out of central casting for the next Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan film. The first time I met him at an art show in Las Vegas, I was drawn by the enormous crowd around his booth, people absorbing a mix of his new works and the tales of his conservation adventures across the globe.
Then his wife, Amy, entered the booth. With her supermodel beauty, suddenly fewer eyes were studying the art. As a television producer, I tend to type-cast and if anyone is looking to remake Greystoke, I submit the new Tarzan and Jane. Their Christmas card photo looks like the image that comes with a frame when you purchase it. Clearly, Banovich likes to surround himself with all forms of natural beauty.
Despite moving from Montana to Washington, Banovich maintains a gallery south of Livingston, Montana, which is an easy detour for the 4.5 million people who visit Yellowstone National Park annually. Inside are many of his indelible portraits of lions, tigers and bears…and scores of other species as well as a litany of the most magical places our world offers. Hang one of his paintings and it’s as if you just installed a window into another continent…or perhaps another time. If his brand had a slogan, it might be every room needs a view.
Watching people’s intense reactions to a life-size portrait of an elephant or a lion on the final approach of a charge sparked an idea for Banovich to broaden the application of his artwork and create a lifestyle brand with scores of products featuring his paintings from luxury leather pillows to marble coasters to wine stoppers. “It’s about blending wild habitats,” says Banovich, “with interiors for people who cannot live without the natural world.”
These days, much of his work is commissioned and collected by people ranging from Presidents to captains of industry to Wall Street barons. Portions of the sale of his art and products fund his non-profit Wildscapes Foundation, a venture that has supported efforts across Africa to help both people and wildlife. Witnessing the increase in human and animal conflict throughout sub-Saharan Africa also led Banovich to produce documentaries about the struggle that has been devastating to African wildlife and to explore ways forward for both people and animals.
“Conservation won’t be achieved unless it works for the people who live with the animals,” he says. “A person who resides in a mud and dung boma and whose cattle are eaten by lions has a very different view of the big cats than someone in London or New York. If we don’t come to terms with that divide, the great predators will only continue to exist in remnant populations in parks.”
While Banovich hails from the West Coast, he is most alive in Africa, clearly his spiritual home and the continent from which he draws, well, the lion’s share of his artistic muse. His art reflects his love of the bush, a place where he has spent countless days studying his subjects and coming to learn of their struggles for survival. Through his own extensive travels, Banovich came to realize that tourism itself could be one of the most effective ways to light that proverbial candle. His desire to share his passion for Africa led to the creation of Banovich Wildscapes Travel, where by bringing people to the places he loves and sharing projects that protect these places, people and wildlife he cares about, he hopes to kindle the same flame in others – and generate support for the great work that is being done in these important conservation landscapes.
As Banovich puts it, “When one experiences Africa, its ancient rhythms and extreme beasts, it seizes your soul… and a part of you remains there forever. Within today’s modern safari, we have the privilege to experience the wild, cloaked in extreme luxury and be profoundly moved by it. And there’s a feeling of peace knowing that your presence helps preserve that way of life and the landscape as you depart.”
Between gallery showings, speaking engagements, creating new paintings and forever advocating for conservation, Banovich managed to publish a coffee-table book earlier this year that is a collection of his work on African lions. If his art is any indication, the lion might be his spirit animal. Through his lion initiative, Banovich has worked tirelessly to advance conservation efforts for the cat’s and his ability to paint them might be unmatched. Then again, the same could be said about mountain gorillas…and there is that whole Lord of the apes thing.
For a man who seemingly never sleeps, Banovich also decided to create the Academy Awards of the conservation world, a star-studded affair that brought together actors, captains of industry, musicians, sports stars, politicians, astronauts and other luminaries to recognize many of the world’s unsung conservation heroes. The event, dubbed the Award for Conservation Excellence (ACE) was held in Charleston, South Carolina, as part of the annual Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, an event that draws more than 40,000 visitors each year. Banovich managed to bring together major donors to award $100,000 to the efforts of the winning conservation cause.
One of those in attendance was long time Banovich friend and legendary television naturalist, Jack Hanna. “John’s artwork is incredible but he is so much more than his art,” says Hanna. “When you meet him you realize he is a force of nature.”