Woodsy weirdness at the Watrous Gallery

Valerie Mangion's paintings show trail-cam images in living color.

Valerie Mangion's painting "Giraffe Deer."

Valerie Mangion's painting "Giraffe Deer."

A semi-retired animal rights activist, Muscoda, Wisconsin-based artist Valerie Mangion often features animals in her paintings as a way to raise awareness of animal welfare issues. One of her paintings, "Madonna And Rat," drew national attention in 1996 when it was removed from an exhibit at Madison East High School—it depicts "a large rat suckling at the breast of the Virgin Mary," as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described it at the time. Mangion has Midwest roots, having studied painting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned her BFA and MFA, respectively. She has shown her work nationwide since the 1970s.

For her current show, Night Vision, on display through August 28 at the James Watrous Gallery (Overture Center for the Arts, third floor), Mangion set up an infrared trail camera on her land in the Driftless region of Wisconsin. Activated by a motion detector, the camera captured the nighttime movements of otherwise reclusive wild animals in a series of still-frame images—providing inspiration for her ghostly, mostly monochromatic, oil paintings. Mangion discussed the exhibit with me after it opened up in July.

Tone Madison: How did you come up with the idea to paint images from your trail camera?

Valerie Mangion: I always have been a painter of animals; they are my subject matter… But when I installed the trail cam, about five years ago, I wasn’t even thinking about painting; I just wanted to find out, “Who lives here?”

When I uploaded the first images and saw how cool they were, visually, I started thinking they could make some pretty interesting paintings… I decided to explore that. I thought it would be fun to try something completely different. If you look at my older paintings, there are bright colors, daytime, not a limited palette.

Tone Madison: What about these images appealed to you?

Valerie Mangion: The eyes. It's so much about the night-vision eyes. We learn to judge someone based on their eyes, and you're always trying to get a clue to someone's character from their eyes and their expression. So I knew this was going to be challenging because the eyes, the windows to the soul, aren't there—they're just these blanks.

When I do a painting, I want the individual to be what's important—that animal, that moment. It wasn't always possible to capture that from the trail cam images. Sometimes they just ended up looking cartoony, though in some cases I liked that. I love comics and the visual language of comics.

Tone Madison: What is your motivation in painting animals—is it to raise awareness, to foster kinship with them, to explore other ideas?

Valerie Mangion: It is a goal of mine to increase empathy for animals… I want to draw attention to the way animals live. I think it would be hard to paint something you're not interested in, and it so happens that I love animals. I am totally intrigued by them. A life on Earth without animals is probably the worst thing I can imagine. I spend many minutes a day just observing animals—whether it's my inside pets, my horses, or looking out the window at deer or a family of crows—and I hope that careful observation is reflected in my paintings.

Tone Madison: As someone who is already around animals a lot in your day-to-day life, do you feel like the trail camera allowed you to connect with these animals in a different way than you're used to?

Valerie Mangion: I do… Normally you don't get to see wild animals, or get close enough to see them. Generally your experience with wildlife during the day is going to be that you've come upon them and scared them—so they usually freeze up in fear or flee. So this is a way you can just look at them and see how they behave when no humans are around.

For a while, I would leave the camera on for 24 hours a day, so I could see what they do during the day, but then the sunlight would trigger it and I'd get thousands of images. So I started keeping it on night vision only. It mostly confirmed things that I suspected. Raccoons travel in groups. Does travel in pretty big groups, maybe six or eight, but bucks do not… I think I found a coywolf on our property. It's kind of solitary, big and bushy. Starting on the East Coast, some wolves have begun mating with coyotes and dogs. There are all these hybrids happening because of limited numbers.

A few things have surprised me… During all the years I've been putting the camera out I've only seen a possum on the camera twice, and they used to be plentiful… We don't have any of the big predators: no bobcats, mountain lions, or bears.

Tone Madison: When you're going through the footage, how do you decide what will make a good image for a painting?

Valerie Mangion: I set up the camera so that, when it's triggered, it takes three images: one per second. I want to avoid blur, get the best pose… No one image corresponds to each painting; I will often take visual information from several photos to compose a painting.

I look for something unusual, something people don't often see during the day, some characteristic of the animal that I find noteworthy. For example, in my painting “Giraffe Deer,” the thing that attracted me to this image was that he's looking right at you.

Tone Madison: Something I like is that, even though they are black and white images, you don't actually use black paint—so you can see subtly warmer and cooler tones within the black. Can you describe your process of mixing and applying the paint?

Valerie Mangion: I don't do much preliminary sketching at all. I put tracing paper over my reference photo and draw a tiny grid, then I draw a larger grid on my panel and draw in some basic markers—the top of the deer's head, the skunk's tail, and so on—to hold proportions. Then I'll do a really quick underpainting, maybe a raw umber, to cover the whole panel in one or two sessions. And then I'll develop it. I tend to work all over, building up the image as I go. I apply many, many thin layers of paint until I get a color and texture I'm happy with.

The most challenging part was the atmospheric darks. It was a learning curve, and I expect to keep getting better and more efficient at darks. In a few cases, I started with optical black and worked my up from there, but usually I worked from white to black.

I keep track of all my color usage in a big journal because I work on these paintings over the course of six or seven months… When you mix complementary colors—red and green, violet and yellow, blue and orange—you get a gray, which is the basis of all my paintings. In a way, it's a very relaxing way to paint because you're not dealing with too many colors. You can make an infinite number of colors with those four choices, and you can make very subtle differences.

These paintings are all about color—it's just subtle. They are just as colorful as any painting I've ever done. It's kind of perverse. You're using bright colors to come up with something that looks like no color. But you would notice a difference if I were to use a tube black, tube gray, and tube white; the images would be far less visually pleasing. They would be much more stark, flatter, and I think less nice to look at.

Tone Madison: You mentioned at the opening that you paint on wood panels because rabbit-skin glue is often used as a canvas sealant. Are there other conflicts you face as both an artist and someone who is concerned about animal welfare?

Valerie Mangion: Yes, everything I do is filled with conflict. All you can do is the best you can do. For example, half the brushes I use are bristle brushes. One day I said to myself, "Bristle brushes? I bet they didn't just pluck a few hairs off an animal's tail and say, 'Off you go!'"

Everything's a compromise… I think life is about gradually becoming more attuned to things that you had never thought of before. It can be hard way to live, but I think we should always be evolving so that our actions match our philosophies more… Anything we do affects animals adversely, just by virtue of existing, so I try to minimize my footprint as much as possible.

Tone Madison: I didn’t realize until the opening that the Chicago Imagists had a big influence on you as a young artist—I can definitely see that now in your earlier work, and to some extent in these paintings. What other artists influence you?

Valerie Mangion: Of course, Frida Kahlo. I was introduced to her work in the '70s… Her interest in animals and self portraits, I felt a kinship with her. With this Night Vision series, the surreal aspects are a little more subtle, but in earlier paintings I was very influenced by her surrealism.

And, certainly, Alice Neel—she was still alive then. Her style was completely different than mine, but she lived her life and did her work, followed her vision, and didn’t worry about the rest.

Georgia O'Keeffe… In general, women as outsider artists are inspiring to me. Women who did their thing without much concern for the art world... I've always thought, if you don't paint what you want to paint, why bother?

Tone Madison: Is there anything else you'd like people to take away from the show?

Valerie Mangion: Putting up a trail cam, and looking at the images it produces, is an activity anyone can enjoy. Even if you’re in an urban environment there's probably a ton of wildlife. It's really fun to just watch animals being animals.