Here in Boise, Idaho at the end of February, spring is in the air. The red-winged blackbirds that make a living in the brambles and saplings alongside the beaver and its pond behind my home swirl and sing and beg me to leave the confines of walls and windows and divert my eyes from screen to sky. The sound alone soothes the soul and reminds me of my place in the natural world, pulling me away from myself and to something else, something other, something mysterious, profound, and wonderful.
On days like this, it’s hard to do anything other than slip out and into the underbrush to sit in silent contemplation. Thankfully, today I have the great pleasure of conversing with author and acclaimed artist JoAnne Helfert Sullam about a subject we’re both passionate about: nature and wildlife (and for fun and growth, a bit of shop talk for working artists).
But first, an introduction.
JoAnne is a wildlife and landscape artist whose award-winning work has been featured in the New York Times, who’s who in America, Art business news, “The Best of Sporting Art” in Polo Players magazine and on the on the cover of Chronicle of the Horse. JoAnne has received a Special Congressional Recognition for Work in the Arts.
She is the author of two books and has interviewed personalities such as Richard Gere, Bobby Kennedy Jr., and concert pianist and animal activist Helene Grimaud. JoAnne is the owner of Daydreams Studio and is currently working on a memoir about the human-animal connection.
Born in Brooklyn New York JoAnne Helfert Sullam is a professional artist who specializes in animal and landscape art. She is an advocate for conservation, author, and producer who writes, lectures, and films wild and domestic animals. As a child growing up in the city, JoAnne loved and understood the importance of connecting with nature but could only learn about wildlife and nature through books and television. As an adult JoAnne combines this love of nature with her love of art by using her work as an instrument for conservation. She has donated her artwork and time to land and wildlife protection and has fostered and placed feral cats and unwanted dogs.
While exhibiting her fine art that focuses on nature, JoAnne became a license wildlife rehabilitator and worked as an animal handler/consultant, working with Academy Award winning actress Melissa Leo, Jim Fowler of "Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom," and on the TODAY Show. She has also worked on the Martha Stewart Living show alongside animal expert and longtime friend Marc Morrone, author, TV personality and host of "Pet Keeping with Marc Morrone."
Now that you’re acquainted with my author interviewee, let’s jump into the interview.
It was the night before Christmas, and my dad was decorating our Christmas tree in the very old house he’d grown up in. I was about four years old and sitting on the floor with a book. In the book there was an illustration of a festive room with a colorful Christmas tree, and in the room, there was also a small grey mouse.
I looked at the book and our tree whose lights were on and had created a soft glow of bright colors of red, green, and blue. I began playing with the train set that went around the tree while my father was putting on the finishing touches and started to think about how much the scene matched the one in the book.
Then as if on cue a small grey mouse dashed out of the hole from the corner next to the tree. Just before the train came around to me, he crossed under the tree, across the train tracks, and right across my lap, disappearing on the other side of the room and I imagined right back into the book.
I hadn't been taught yet that wild mice in the house was something to loathe, and I’m sure that if my mother had been in the room she would have screamed. But for me, it was like I became part of a happy magical story in the book.
That little mouse was part of our home and had come from some unknow place that must be wild. And I thought he came here from some strange place just because he wanted to share Christmas with us. He had made a fairy-tale moment for me that made me think that anything in life was possible and Santa Claus was real.
I fell in love with books, and to this day I’ve always had a soft spot for field mice.
Animals are found in the stories of most children books, and I developed a strong connection to them as I did with the mouse that night, a connection that led me to explore the natural world outside.
No, I don’t really have an all-time favorite animal. It is more like a favorite of the moment.
However, there are some animals that I feel a kinships with, especially Peregrine Falcon, wolves, deer, and raccoons. My relationships with them have had a profound effect on me, and I talk about them in detail in my forthcoming memoir Evolution of a Wild Heart.
When I was growing up, we subscribed to the TV Guide. There was an ad in one issue that had a drawing of a bull dog. "Can you draw this?" it asked. I did and was surprised that it looked like the picture, but I never sent it in. I realized that I could draw but didn't pursue it until a few years later after I'd been walking on the beach where I saw the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. I wished to be able to capture it and somehow share it.
It wasn’t just the sunset I wanted to share. I also wanted to share how I felt about seeing it.
I started taking art lessons soon after. I worked in pastels and got my first commission to paint an egret in a grassy marsh. My teacher pushed me to apply to art school, and I couldn't believe it when I got in!
You have to really love it to do it because it can be hard. And if you do really love it, then give it your heart and soul.
I would tell someone who is just starting out to paint or draw what you see and connect to how you feel about what you see. And always push yourself to edge of what you think you are capable of doing.
I have a few but one that comes to mind that was both dramatic and funny happened on the set of the TODAY Show. It was Groundhog Day, and I was working with Jim Fowler. I brought a prairie dog name Bubbles to the set. We set up a flexible clear maze of tubes for Bubbles to show off his talents. When it was time, I put Bubbles in the tunnel. The tube was like the underground burrows black tail prairie dogs in the wild live in. We wanted to bring awareness to their decline in the wild by showing how they tunnel.
We had done this several times before, and Bubble had looked like he was enjoying himself. But that day when I put Bubbles in the tunnel, he got about a foot in and stopped. He was stuck. It was the last thing I was expecting to happen.
Bubbles had put on just enough weight between practice and show time that he could not move in the tunnel gracefully, and it had to be on live TV!
They quickly cut to commercial but kept interrupting my efforts for news breaks about Bubbles. I was mortified. I was trying to keep my cool because animals are very sensitive to our emotional states. It was a moment of stress and surprise for me and Bubbles. He looked me in the eyes, and I made like it was no big deal.
Bubbles then back out of where he came in. It was a few minutes of drama, which is a lifetime on live TV. The show went on and we came back on at the end to show that Bubbles was free and fine.
The funny part came after I took him back to his home. When Bubbles go there, he started working out on his wheel. He had never been as active as some of his friends. Before that day he seemed to enjoy too much sunning and didn't like to exercise. But after his on-camera tunnel time, he became one very fit prairie dog. He continued to make TV appearances without any further incidents.
Creating art in a solitary experience. That's also true of working with wild animals you're helping to put back in the wild. I spent hours working with them.
I was also an outcaste when I was a child and painfully shy. But the work I did with animals made me want to educate people. I wanted helped bridge a gap I could see--how a lifetime of pre-judgment made for a lot of misunderstandings between animals and people. I wanted to change that. I wanted to share what I learned with other people, especially children because they are our future.
Because I felt like I was doing something important for both the animals and the humans, so I had to overcome my shyness.
I went from feeling isolated from my own species to becoming my own person filled with purpose and joy for life.
Writing was my first love. I kept a journal and wrote short stories. But I'm dyslexic and thought that because I couldn't spell I could never write professionally. It took me years of hard work and practice to believe in myself and take the leap. Now I write everyday.
I wanted to reach people who may like animals and are curious about what they feel and how it relates to there own life. I want readers to walk away with a fresh view of life and nature.
If I can help them to see themselves and life around them with new eyes and a renewed hope for the future that will be something.
I think you should just be true to yourself.
Find three things to be grateful for every day.
Think of others and how you could help them with your work. It can motivate you to help others and give you clarity about what you want to say to the world. That mental connection to other can keep you grounded and help you when you feel alone in your struggles.
YouTube! It is my favorite place to go when I can’t go outside. There are so many beautiful meditation videos with incredible landscapes and wildlife. Videos can give you the feeling of being there when you can’t be.
I also love defused oils and having lots of green house plants.
Pick a cause and get involved in any way you can. However small your contribution may be, it makes a difference. Hang a bird feeder, plant native plants, and educate yourself about the products you buy and the companies you buy them from.
World Wildlife Day is a great day to find a new passion for helping our wildlife and planet heal and to take action.
And remember, we are always evolving and we can all take part in making this world a balanced beautiful place to share with are wild friends.
JoAnne, thank you so much for your time and for using your talent and energy to bring the natural world into people’s homes and offices and encouraging them to carefully step into both tame and wild outdoor spaces. I’m looking forward to holding a copy of your book in my hands.
Readers, thank you for joining us today and being part of an artistic community that goes beyond books to embrace every art form that speaks to the heart and mind and that connects us to ourselves and the people, plants, and animals around us. Stay tuned for announcements about JoAnne’s forthcoming book.
Little about JoAnne’s childhood suggested her future as an accomplished artist and naturalist. Growing up in an impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood, she didn’t have easy access to nature. She struggled with a learning disability in school and was unfairly stigmatized—a “misfit” status she eagerly embraced for a time.
But encounter after encounter with unforgettable animals gradually led her to discover her life’s purpose and the peace she’d found so elusive. JoAnne introduces readers to some of her most important animal guides: the lowly caterpillar on a tomato leaf who gave her a glimpse of her inner beauty, the laughing squirrel who taught her about letting go, the wild loon whose unexpected nap on her at the beach helped her experience new levels of calm, trust, and more.
Evolution of a Wild Heart is coming summer 2021.
For more about JoAnne, including her online gallery and book page, visit JoAnneSullam.com. While you’re there, you can pre-order a signed copy of the book.
CI Communication Strategies