The striking fauna portraits of Natalie Wright
The Stoughton-based painter’s work is on display at Johnson Public House and several other Madison-area spots.
Natalie Wright has a restless craving for the open spaces of the Midwest, and it shows in her current work—larger-than-life woodland creatures, beasts out of Aesop’s fables, and even domestic pets, documented in living color like modern-day royal portraiture.
Her paintings hang perennially in several locations around Dane County: Johnson Public House and One Barrel Brewing Company in Madison, and Wendigo restaurant in Stoughton. Some new paintings will be up at Waypoint Public House in Monona, as well, at the end of April.
In Wright’s current body of work, broad brushstrokes of mostly natural, neutral tones create detailed textural patterns, while bold flecks of gold, silver, and coppery iridescent pigments bring out warm highlights in the fur and feathers. The eyes of her subjects—usually based on photographs taken by her or a friend—bore right through the viewer.
Wright’s path to her current home in Stoughton was a roundabout one. She grew up in a small, rural town in southern Illinois, and began her formal art education at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, enrolling in a six-week pre-college program. Her plan was to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) for a semester and then transfer to Parsons, which she did. But, after a semester there, she decided NYC wasn’t the right fit and transferred back to MIAD, completing an undergraduate degree in drawing. As an undergrad, she would often take the train from Milwaukee to visit her father and uncle — both Vietnam vets and bikers — in Malibu, California. After college, she and her boyfriend (whom she later married) worked on an organic apple orchard in Vermont.
“We met people there who became family,” she says. “My son’s middle name is their last name.”
They kept moving, never staying in one place for more than a year.
“I was an extra in commercials, I was a baker, an office worker, a gardener,” she says, “but no matter what I was doing I was always making art, writing, something.”
In the early 2000s, while living in Santa Monica, Wright started a handmade pillow business called Pancake Dinner. This was in the days before Etsy, before Renegade Craft Fairs. She hand-stitched pillows shaped like graphic cuts of meat. She continued the business while pursuing an MFA in textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and designing high-end wallpaper, selling her work internationally through boutiques and online.
Building off the success of Pancake Dinner, Wright and her then-husband moved to the Madison area in 2008 to launch a new, collaborative project featuring both of their handicrafts. They attended craft fairs around the country and were featured in a number of magazines. But economically speaking, it was “not a great time to graduate from a very expensive art school and start your own business,” she says.
Within a few years, Wright became a mom, and then a single mom. Going through a divorce brought on a new set of unforeseen challenges and a creative dry spell. “After years of always making something … I didn’t really make art [again] until a couple years ago,” she says.
So began Wright’s second art education, this time self-taught. It was a hard transition at first, she says. She started out making small-scale paintings of birds, rabbits, and other wild animals. As her pieces got larger, she realized the brushes she was using were much too fine.
“I bought a new paintbrush and it changed my life,” she recalls. Thicker brushes lend themselves to the bold, textured strokes that define her paintings today—the wooly fur of an American bison (an older commissioned piece) or, in one of her latest pieces at Johnson Public House, a hawk’s gold-dappled plumage.
Wright’s approach to colors has changed, too. The earliest of these pieces—a cat with a bright red background, a fox on electric blue—hearken back to the poppy stylings of the 90s/00s that excited her as a young artist, as well as the colorful grunge of L.A. graffiti (from the days when she had dreadlocks).
Wright’s favorite piece to date hangs in her home (and is also available as a print). It depicts a mother fox and kit. Their posture—the mother’s muzzle, forepaws, and tail encircling the kit—reflects the protective emotions Wright feels for her son, she explains. Rather than glorify the wild otherness of animals, her portraits dissolve the mental boundaries between human being and beast.