Conservation on Canvas

New Orleans wildlife artist Alex Beard champions conservation beyond the canvas

Photo: bryan tarnowski

Nature meant little more than a park with broken glass to Alex Beard when he was growing up in 1970s Manhattan. But in the apartment he shared with his philanthropist father and magazine editor mother, the walls were covered with flora and fauna of a different sort—giant photographs of elephants in the wild. The photographer was his uncle Peter Beard, a legendary wildlife lensman who crashed on the family’s couch for months at a time and introduced the young Beard to Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Jackie O.—and the art of turning his thumbprints and doodles into creatures of the jungle. With each of Alex’s creative efforts, his uncle would say, “Yeah, great, that looks nice, but why’d you do it?”

Beard circled that question during a youth spent traveling. After a few months painting on Mustique, he had that twenty-something “existential realization that I was not as good at what I wanted to do as I thought I was,” he says. But at a bar on the island, Beard ran into a pair of old acquaintances who, after trading stories about his uncle Peter, revealed that their family ran the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. They asked if he’d like to attend. So he packed up and moved to the Crescent City, where he honed an approach to painting he calls “abstract naturalism”—a vivid style influenced by both the natural world and abstract expressionism that eventually landed his work in collections the world over.

Beard and his family now live in a sprawling old house in the Garden District, with a gallery on Magazine Street. But one of the strongest appeals of the city for him is its environmental peculiarity. “I like places where if you stand still long enough, the vines grow through your toes,” he muses. Beard notes that so many issues intersect there, from rising sea levels to eroding wetlands to petrochemical production. “New Orleans is the most interesting place in the country,” he says, “full stop.”

Photo: Bryan Tarnowski

Alex Beard begins a new piece in his New Orleans studio.

In his gallery or in the home studio he shares with two Abyssinian lovebirds, Beard begins most of his ink or oil wildlife works with a single gestural sweep of the brush. He steps back, assesses. Slowly, layers accrue, as he muddies and enriches the original brush mark until the work’s complexity echoes the first stroke’s simplicity. This process means that watching Beard at work involves any number of surprises, as shapes become animals, which transform into different animals, which coalesce into vibrant cacophonies—a flock of pelicans preening on the bayou, or a school of fish surging in the Gulf, or a bright tangle of leopards. The distinctive technique has not gone unnoticed: Beard has been tapped for solo exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong.

Beard’s paintings reflect his other chief concern: conservation
of the world’s most jeopardized wilds. The bulk of his work has been with the Watering Hole Foundation, which supports antipoaching measures in northern Kenya and other conservation efforts. Having traveled to East Africa since he was sixteen, he has seen firsthand the effects of overpopulation and a volatile climate. “If the subject I’m thinking about is the all-encompassing, interconnected wide lens, how do I as an individual, and as an artist, and as a citizen, effect change?” he says of his efforts, which have also included a trilogy of children’s books and a documentary film.

By painting the world and championing its species, Beard says he’s doing what little he can with the tools he’s been given. And from his uncle’s initial question back when he was a budding artist have come all the answers he has layered into his life since: to search for truth and order, to fight against threats to wilderness, and to translate the visible world so it has meaning for the widest possible audience. Sitting in a half-broken chair, surrounded by drawings and skulls and wooden elephant marionettes and a large blank canvas, Beard says with conviction, “If it’s not universal, it’s not useful.” 

At top: Louisiana wildlife looms large in the art of Alex Beard, seen here with his original oil The Pelicans of Pearl Bayou.