Idaho Arts Quarterly » Central Idaho

Where the Wild Things Are

Sun Valley artist's wild kingdom


Most artists paint animals and birds as we see them-in all their fur and feathers. Sun Valley artist Lisa Holley prefers to focus on what's inside.

Like bugs and bamboo shoots and mice and caddis flies.

That's the kind of stuff that is the gist of her "You Are What You Eat" series.

An osprey, for instance, takes on a whole new look comprised of 60 different fish from striped mullet to tiger muskie.

Barn owls look pretty plump when filled with star-nosed moles, lady bugs and black tail prairie dogs.

And eagles? Well, eagle eatables include opossums, snakes and-eeeew-skunks.

"She puts an enormous amount of research into what animals eat and even into what those things look like. She does an enormously wonderful job," said Dr. Luke Whalen, who hangs some of Holley's artwork on the walls of his Hailey dental office where his patients can study them while they wait to have their teeth cleaned.

Holley wasn't always the "Wild Kingdom" Van Gogh that she is today. She started out as a business major who transferred to art. When she graduated, she realized she didn't know how to draw because all she had done in college was advertising logos.

Classes in nature art and watercolor changed that. Soon she was crafting beautiful watercolors of daylilies and other botanicals she spotted on trips around the world.

As she gained proficiency, she sought ways to give her work an edge. She painted a dozen roses folded in a box-for those who are disappointed when their live roses die. She etched her picture frames and the glass over her pictures with cattails and other designs before other artists were doing it.

Her foray into animal art began as a lark in 1982. Ketchum's Wood River Gallery, now the Kneeland Gallery, decided to hold a competition during slack season.

'Draw a picture of your pet and we'll throw a cocktail party and give out prizes for the favorite,' gallery owners challenged those who fancied themselves artists.

Holley remembered paintings she'd seen by Guiseppe Arcimboldo, a 16th century court artist to the Hapsburg Dynasty who had painted human heads composed of fruits and vegetables. She paired his tactic with a spoof on Eastern Idaho farmers who were clubbing bunnies to death at Mud Lake and called her painting "Idaho Club Sandwich."

It was voted the most popular painting at the gallery, winning Holley a box of crayons. And it inspired a new line of work for Holley.

Since, she has painted dozens of different animals, including turtles, penguins and cats, with what they eat camouflaged in their bodies.

She's done four sold-out trout editions, filling each with such things as mayflies, caddis flies and damsels.

She's done a series of gorilla pictures, detailing what gorillas eat in the wilds, what they eat in captivity and what people think they eat.

She produced a poster of 28 things that pheasants eat for Pheasants Forever.

She painted a mural of a sabertooth tiger filled with a dromedary camel, ancient horse, sloth, bison and bear, for the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. And she created a birds of prey exhibit for the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts in Harrisburg, Pa., to go with its IMAX film about birds of prey.

Her work has been reproduced on T-shirts, postcards and notecards and even Macy's shopping bags.

"They're fun to give to someone and say, 'Can you find all the animals in this owl or gorilla?' " Holley said. "I'm careful not to put a cat or rabbit or something people are particularly sensitive about in, though. I don't like drawing animals within animals that are going to be upsetting to people.

Holley works on site and out of an art studio in her seven-room Elkhorn home, which looks out onto a creek shaded by willow trees.

She takes detailed photos at botanical gardens throughout the world and spends countless hours at libraries searching through microfiche, children's books, botanical books and on the Internet researching things like Gillium vines, swamp ash and other foodstuffs that aren't readily accessible at Atkinson's Markets so that she can faithfully reproduce them in her paintings.

Holley estimates it took her 60 hours to research the 11 foodstuffs she included in one of her owl drawings and 60 hours to do the drawing.

"I spend as much time researching as I do painting," she said. "But I love doing the research because I enjoy learning so much about the animals."

Holley has done a few non-animate objects. Among them, Bald Mountain composed of wildflowers and ski trails.

And she's currently working on a Morgan car at the request of the Morgan Car Club. The painting will include tires made of rubber tree plants, a galloping horse engine, cow seats, a dinosaur gas tank and a frame made out of a white ash.

Holley's paintings, which evoke the complexity of a "Where's Waldo?" print, have proven to be a captivating learning tool, said Deborah Peters, exhibits curator for the Whitaker Center.

"I've seen fathers and older males engaging their charges over the artwork and the different things they found that they recognized or didn't recognize," she said. "The sheer number of different species, objects, fauna and foliage that she has introduced to us and put a face to is astounding."

The detail and the faithfulness with which Holley tries to reproduce subjects means that each picture takes one to two months to do.

"Sometimes I wish I had come up with a series that would have been a little less time consuming," she said. "But it seems that no one else is doing anything of this sort. And, let's face it, this series has done very well for me."

For more information on Lisa Holley's work go to