Milton artist depicts endangered species

Milton artist Claudette Eaton paints detail on her depiction of a mule deer. (Photo by Abby Ledoux)

Just down the road from Milton Veterinary Hospital, no fewer than four lion statuettes greet visitors to Claudette Eaton’s home. Rendered in stone, the miniature beasts flank the drive and gaze out ceaselessly from the garden.

The theme continues inside, where cats of all varieties – house and jungle included – can be spotted in every corner.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Eaton counts animals as the chief inspiration for her art, now exhibited at Milton Public Library through the end of the month.

“There’s just a nobility about them,” Eaton opined from her kitchen table last week. “They’re beautiful to see.”

Eaton specializes in endangered wildlife, and she’s spent the last five years on a series depicting them. The passion project is her first big undertaking since she started painting as a hobby two decades ago.

Before that, she worked out of Waterbury as a professional photographer, capturing scenes for Vermont Fish and Wildlife.

Fascinated by the myriad species of birds that visited the feeders around her Moretown home, Eaton began drawing them – then painting them. She added flowers to the mix and tried to sustain a greeting card business but couldn’t keep up with the volume.

After moving to Milton, Eaton started “getting a little more serious” with her art, painting scenes she first captured by photograph. But watching wildcats stalk their prey on nature television shows made her long for the fauna of foreign lands, lustful for access to subjects Vermont – with all its endlessly replicated autumnal scenes – simply couldn’t provide.

Beyond yearning, she got angry – especially when she realized poaching and trophy hunting were eradicating entire species from the planet.

Take, for instance, the Barbary lion: Characterized by dark, long manes and replete with storied ancestry – including battling Roman gladiators and as status symbols for royal families of Morocco and Ethiopia – the subspecies is now extinct.

“They’re gone,” Eaton said. “They’re totally gone.”

Characterized by dark, long manes and replete with storied ancestry, the Barbary lion is now extinct. (Painting by Claudette Eaton)

So, she painted one, a majestic beast in repose beneath a Saharan tree. Through brushstrokes, she also realized a long-legged timber wolf atop a rock, the languid leisure of a clouded leopard settled in a bough, and the unwavering gaze of a Philippine eagle, its distinct plumage a spiky headdress above a hooked beak.

Eaton chose each species for its story and got to work in her small home studio. Over the course of several months, a large, Masonite board would fill up with pencil marks and, eventually, layer upon layer of acrylic paint.

The artist worked from reference photos she purchased royalty-free. She toiled over jawlines and pelt patterns from various angles to create an accurate, composite sketch of her subject the way it might appear in nature before layering on color and depth.

A self-described “wildlife illustrator” as opposed to a traditional painter, Eaton prefers to forego a detailed landscape and instead focus on the animal, taking pains to portray the emotion that informs every step of her process.

“You want that to transcend,” she said. “Especially the eyes … I really wanted to show there’s something behind that. There’s a real glow; there’s a real understanding of things.”

That intellect, almost eerily human, is most recognizable in Eaton’s depiction of an African elephant. In “Matriarch,” the eponymous mammal leads her brood to water, but Eaton consciously chose to hone in on the animal’s face.

The distinct sadness in her eyes is intentional, Eaton said, as African elephants are hunted for their tusks, and many females are pregnant when killed.

At six tons, the African elephant is the largest animal walking the Earth, but its wild population is vulnerable, estimated at around 415,000, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The ivory trade claims about 35,000 elephants annually, and poachers kill 96 in Africa every day.

Eaton’s passion is undeniable. She becomes distraught discussing poaching, both illicit and lawful – “It’s just unbelievable; why would you do that?” – and visibly brightens at the thought of taking her own reference photos in the wild – “to me, that would be like a pilgrimage.”

“Matriarch,” Eaton’s portrait of an African elephant, is her favorite of the endangered species series she spent the last five years completing. (Painting by Claudette Eaton)

Her primary goal is to educate, hoping her vibrant art – a distinct departure from ubiquitous foliage depictions – will entice a viewer to learn more about the threat to her subjects’ very existence, be it deforestation or poaching for trade in bones and body parts.

“I hope it does make a difference. I don’t know if a tiny person in Milton, Vt. can ever do that, but I hope to some degree [I can],” Eaton said. “I guess you need a reason for what you do, and that’s the reason I paint.”

She accepts most gallery patrons want to buy familiar scenes, but if these paintings sell, Eaton – already an active member of WWF – hopes to donate a portion of her proceeds there.

“If in some small way that helps, then I did a good thing,” she said. “Maybe they were hunters and have decided they don’t want to hunt anymore because they’d rather see it in a painting than see it dead in the back of a truck.”

Eaton’s endangered wildlife series is on display through October 31 at Milton Public Library, and more of her work can be seen at the Milton Artists’ Guild Art Center & Gallery.