Born to Be Wild: Painter Ashli Sisk Captures the Complexities of Man Versus (Endangered) Beast

Man versus nature — it is one of the world’s oldest battles and one of its longest-running love stories. As the dominant species, we hunt, domesticate, trap, study and determine the fates of organisms around us, torn between our fascination and adoration of animals and our need to compete with them for natural resources — sometimes even driving them to extinction.

Armed with a paintbrush, artist Ashli Sisk sets out to explore every aspect of this complicated relationship like an interspecies therapist looking to open one species’ eyes to others’ plight.

She says man has long been preoccupied with drawing wildlife.

“The first subject of paintings, as far back as Chauvet Caves and Lascaux, was animals… I feel like humans still do this,” she says. “We make stuffed animals, artwork, posters, bumper stickers, T-shirts and, yes, paintings.”

The former Verona resident leaves making plushies up to F.A.O. Schwartz and cute animal videos to YouTubers across the Net, focusing instead on animals in captivity or those that are endangered. Besides painting portraits of actual rare animals in captivity, she also creates “imaginings of what these incidentally domesticated and aestheticized animals will be like in the future when none are bred or left in wild space.”

She says that although humans don’t like to think about it often, extinction is a real possibility for these species.

“Less than 200 years ago, people thought that if someone found giant dinosaur bones, then somewhere in the world, there were some giant dinosaurs. After we finished exploring every part of our planet, we were forced to consider that some things stopped existing forever,” she says. “Extinction strikes us at our core, because we have to consider the absence of an amazing animal on the planet and what might happen to us as a species.”

Sisk says that the fight to save certain species seems to be driven by aesthetics, with animals being collected and stored in zoos as if they were rare works of art. While some endangered species are largely ignored, others end up only existing in captivity, where the cutest or most beautiful animals get the most attention (Sisk says some zoos rely on baby animals and other aesthetically appealing animals to fund the conservation of “unpopular” animals that “take a back seat”). With captivity often being the go-to plan for saving species, she says that while the animals’ existence may no longer be endangered, their freedom and wildness certainly are.

Sisk’s work mixes classical painting techniques and naturalist devotion to detail with touches of caricature but speaks with a modern loudness. Her pieces will be the first to grace the walls of Hudson County Art Supply’s new digs at Mana Contemporary with her JC Fridays exhibit “Territory Takeover.” Her work is also on display at the store’s older location Downtown, where Sisk was one of several to recently give the shop a fresh new coat of paint. Her section of the mural features a rhino, which is also the subject of one of her paintings, “Mister Baby,” seen below.

“‘Mister Baby’ is my imagining of a future rhino after generations of zoo breeding. He is social like a pet and his coloring more ‘interesting’ to maintain his marquee animal status,” she explains. “He embodies my conflicted feelings about our current methods of conservation. Are we saving something if it’s forever changed by the new conditions of its existence? Is it still what it was in the wild? Aren’t captive breeding programs the only thing we can do to save these amazing creatures? And isn’t the natural world, however far removed, still a huge part of us?”

Another one of her favorite works from the show is “Botticelli Bear,” seen at top.

“‘Botticelli Bear’ is similar to ‘Mister Baby’ in that he is somewhat domesticated, though his dandification is superficial. He is coiffed and shimmering with pearls, but still very much an angry bear… a bear will be a bear regardless of how much we tinker with his wildness and appearance.”

Both of the pieces are housed in unconventional frames with symbolic meaning for Sisk. “The frame is the boundary between our world and the painted world, a boundary between what exists and what does not, and creates a point of access. These are ‘quotations of frames’ because they do not do the work of preserving the painting, but create an enclosure for the animal.”

As a passionate animal lover, Sisk donates a portion of the proceeds of her work to relevant groups (for example, “Mister Baby” could fetch a nice sum for the International Rhino Foundation). She is also talking with conservation groups, zoos and zookeepers to work more directly with organizations and their animals.

“I hope that people enjoy the paint, but ultimately that they will consider wild animals more and consider their feelings about extinction beyond feeling guiltly that the polar bears are drowning,” she says. “I want to inspire and fill people with love for the endangered, as those are the feelings that can change how we deal with the world.”

“Territory Takeover” will have an opening reception on Thursday, Sept. 6, at 7 pm at Hudson County Art Supply at Mana Contemporary, located at 888 Newark Ave. The show, which is curated by Michelle Mumoli (who is best known as one of the brains behind Not Yo Mama’s Affairs), is also on display at the Art Supply’s location in Downtown Jersey City at 303 First St. Both locations are hosting the exhibit for JC Fridays on Sept. 7 from 11 am to 7 pm. For more information, visit the HCAS website.

Summer Dawn Hortillosa

is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal, the International and other publications. She is also a creative writer and theatrical director.