AN INTERVIEW WITH VIRGINIE BAUDE
Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Virginie Baude
Because she was born and raised near the vineyards in the South of France, one might assume that Virginie Baude developed her passion for art through exposure to the rich history and refined culture of the land of Van Gogh and Chagall. But this French artist followed her heart and her strong sense of purpose to the rugged wilderness of the American West. Virginie says that, though she had always been good at art and felt natural with a pencil or paintbrush in her
hand, she had not considered a career in art in her youth. In fact, her aptitude for science and unrelenting passion for wolves led her to pursue an early career in wildlife biology.
“I could have been interested in art, but it didn’t even cross my mind, even though France is so famous for painters … but it’s the inspiration for my subject that made me want to become a
painter, not the other way around,” Virginie said. “I feel that I have a gift for painting because I am meant to honor those creatures in the wilderness.”
Virginie’s love of wolves and wilderness was first kindled when the children’s book bus pulled up to her primary school, bringing her a copy of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.
“It was the first time I would read something without images, but I wanted to read it because on the cover, there was a howling wolf,” she said. “And I loved this book. It was amazing. Even though I had never seen the wilderness of the [American] North, I already had images in my mind of what it would be like.”
From that point on, Virginie watched movies, read books, collected pictures and posters, and gathered anything she could about the American West, Alaska, and of course, wolves. After graduation, she stayed in France and earned a master’s degree in wildlife biology. She then applied for a US work visa and took the huge step of moving to Yellowstone National Park, where her new adventure had humble beginnings.
“I couldn’t get a job because I wasn’t a citizen. I was just a temporary worker, and my English was terrible,” she said. “I had just received a master’s degree, and then here I am in America, busing tables. But for me, I didn’t care. I wanted to be in the wilderness. And for a couple of years, I did that, and then I heard about Alaska. There was even more wilderness, so I ended up getting another work permit and got a temporary job in Denali.”
It was in Denali that the connection between wildlife and art began to take tentative hold in Virginie’s mind.
“I started to see books or little prints from other artists in the gift shop, and I was always buying a card or buying little prints. It really was my joy, that and being in the wilderness” she said. “I wasn’t really concerned about using my degree. I was enjoying just being immersed in so much wilderness.”
During the winter, Virginie got a job assisting a sled dog musher, which took her to even more remote places in the Alaskan wilderness.
“In the middle of nowhere, we would go with the dogs for days, and I was so overwhelmed. In awe. Like, ‘Oh my gosh! How can there be so much beauty?’ And all I was thinking when I was on the sled with the dog is that I wished the whole world could see this wilderness,” she said. Virginie began to sketch in her spare time and, having received an acrylic paint set as a gift, started to paint as well. She knew that she couldn’t continue doing the jobs that she had been doing for so little pay. Yet, the career in art was not on her radar.
“I started to look more for jobs in my field, in the biology. I got some jobs in Canada, in Alberta. In New Zealand I worked as a ranger and all of that, but I was not fulfilled. The science part was not doing it for me,” Virginie said. “It felt so repetitive. I didn’t feel the passion for it, and I didn’t see myself ever doing that with my life.”
In her free time from these various jobs, she continued to paint, and while she was living in New Zealand, an artist friend offered to put one of her paintings in an art show. Those paintings, a landscape and a sheep, sold for more money than she had made in the last 6 months of work.
“Then it started to click. I thought ‘Maybe there’s something there. Maybe I could make money with my art.’ So, I started to keep that on the back burner, in the back of my mind,” she said.
The idea jumped to the front burner when she reached out to a professor at Fairbanks University in Alaska. She asked him about careers working with wolves, and he gave her some life-changing insight. He told her she could try to get into the competitive field of hands-on wolf biology or conservation, or she could make an even bigger impact with her art. He said that her art would speak more loudly and broadly than working for the government in a national park.
“This gave me the hope that [art] is something that I could do. So, it’s like I had all of these pieces falling into place. Like, ‘Okay, this is where I could be involved a little more in conservation with my images, because images raise awareness. I can show this is a beautiful creature that needs to be protected,’” she said.
But Virginie discovered that when she spoke to some friends, partners and even some family members, about a career in art, the reaction was one of skepticism rather than confidence or
support. Despite, this, though, Virginie found that her desire to become a professional artist grew even stronger, and she grew more determined to live in a place and in a way that brought her joy.
“I believed in me and I knew I could make it as a painter. I moved out west, and I jumped into my career as an artist,” she said. “And, actually, immediately, my art started selling and it’s been like that for the last 10 or 11 years now. The moment I decided, ‘That’s it. I’m jumping in,’ things flowed for me, and I never had or take a side job or anything.”
Virginie said she also knew that, without a partner or someone to fall back on, she did not have an out. She had to be “totally all in” with her art.
“That’s why I want to do it, and I felt so empowered because finally, nobody can tell me I can’t be an artist. This is who I am. I am an artist. And this is why I think it happened, because I had such a powerful energy behind everything,” she said.
Because she received no formal art training in her science education, Virginie went to numerous workshops, studied masters’ paintings and sought mentors to help her refine and develop her skill. And while she learned a great deal and was inspired by their technique, Virginie’s unique passion for both the work and the subject matter shows in her art.
“[My work is] definitely impressionistic, because I like building textures by doing layers on my wolves or on my animals. But I like to keep my background loose. It leaves most room for imagination for the viewer,” Virginie said. “I really want to capture the spirit of the animal. I want it to come alive. I feel like I am bringing an animal to life when I paint a painting. It’s something that wasn’t there but then [the viewer] can connect to the wilderness with my painting. They can feel they are connected to this animal because it feels so alive, because of the spirit that’s captured.”
Montana Trails Gallery played a role in Virginie’s success as a painter, she said. And she knows it was because she believed in herself and they believed in her.
“I had seen (MTG) online a lot. Every time I would click on their web site, I would see the amazing paintings of the other artists. I think there was a Tom Gilleon painting there, and I said to myself, ’Gosh, I would love to show my work there,’” she said. “I reached out to them, and I said that I really like the vibe of the gallery with the artists, and I could see myself showing my work among those artists.”
She and MTG owner Steve Zabel connected at the March in Montana show that year. He liked what he saw, and MTG began selling her work. In the first two years at MTG, Virginie became one of the top sellers, and she now sells more work at MTG than at some other galleries that carry her paintings.
Virginie splits her time between Montana and Alaska. She paints and lives on her own terms and timeline. Over the years she has learned and developed a love for plein air work. The more remote the location, the better she likes it. She even earned her pilot’s license so she could reach more remote Alaskan wilderness to paint, which gave her a whole new perspective on her art.
“I’m learning to better capture all the colors of nature. So now I can put that in my painting, but it will stay very impressionistic. I don’t ever see myself doing something really, really detailed,” she said. “Flying, you see from above. You see the trees, but you see the moose in the trees, or you can see a bear in the river. It’s amazing. So you have access to the heart of the wilderness, things that I could never imagine. But because I am able to access that now with the flying, I
think it would definitely expand my art.”
Flying has also changed her perspective in terms of subject matter. While she will always love painting bears, foxes and, of course, wolves, she has developed a desire to paint bald eagles, as well.
“The reason I want to paint the eagle is because I know what it feels like to fly and when I am up there flying in a [Piper] Super Cub in the trees and mountain tops, I get a sense of what it might be like to be an eagle. It feels so free,” she said. “Before, I could not really imagine the feeling, and so I was more into just the land animals because I could relate more to walking versus flying. But the big three, wolf, bear and eagle, are my top three animals of choice to honor through my life as a painter.”
However, it isn’t just her own views of sky and land that inspires this work. Virginie received a request from the Blackfeet Nation in Northern Montana to help them preserve their sacred animals through her art.
“I went to the reservation, and they had a ceremony for me. … They believe that I was sent to them, and they have asked their spirits to speak through me in creating artwork that would help save their three biggest size sacred animals: the wolf, the bear, and the eagle,” she said. “I am working on improving my skills, getting familiar with eagles, and living like natives surrounded by wilderness. I just believe I don’t have to try to make those things happen. If it’s spiritually
guided, the guidance and messages will come through me as an inspired idea, or an event will pop up in my life, and it will come through me through the paintings that I create. And this is where I could most help the natives in their effort to protect their totem animals.”
Though she has been painting successfully for more than a decade, Virginie is always striving for more, feeling the pull of her own spirit and her powerful connection to animals, especially her beloved wolf. She believes unquestioningly in herself and her purpose and is unafraid to take on greater challenges. Her latest vision involves starting a nonprofit wolf sanctuary in Alaska, which she is currently investigating and has found some land. Her sanctuary would take in rescued wolves, offer tours, raise awareness, and she would have a studio in which she would paint and teach others about wolves and how to draw and paint them.
“I see how my life has evolved in the last 10 years. So much happened where it feels like all I have to do is to think it’s possible and then eventually it’s going to happen,” she said. “But gosh, this could save some wolves lives and also educate people. I’m sure I can make it happen and I’ve been trying to make it happen with my own money, but it’s just so hard.”
Virginie is certainly aware of the obstacles that would make such a project overwhelming for most, but she is able to see beyond that and work through the uncomfortable details, because her passion and vision carry her through, as they have for her whole life.
“All of my life I follow that tug, I trust that my desire is here for a reason. This is a higher part of me pointing in that direction,” she said. “I left my country, too, because this desire was just so strong. But the return is that I am so fulfilled. I’m living the dream even better because I don’t
think I could have dreamt that before.”
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