Painting the Prairie

I am excited to announce my latest endeavor, a project that unites my interest in wilderness conservation and my love of adventure in a landscape that provides remarkable inspiration. In less than a week, I’ll be heading to Montana for a month of painting on the American Prairie Reserve (APR), a conservation area in the Great Plains that has caught my attention.  This organization is a unique voice in the field of conservation because of its creative method of merging previously-owned land into one encompassing open space. To do this, APR purchases land when it comes on the market and leases adjacent government parcels, then merges them to create a new wilderness. When it is complete, the reserve is expected to be three million acres, the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states.

As an artist who has spent the past six years studying the Hudson River School painters and the world they lived in, I am interested in how my work can investigate the subject of wilderness in the context of our time. We no longer have vast expanses of undeveloped land to claim for conservation, which makes the innovative vision of the American Prairie Reserve an inspiring model for our generation. Nature’s power to reclaim the land calls to attention the impermanence of our human-built world and highlights our own vulnerability as a species. It is important to preserve these wild areas not only for biodiversity and the health of our planet, but for our own consciousness as a civilized people, a sentiment beautifully summed up in this quote:

“Wilderness is an anchor to windward. Knowing it is there, we can also know that we are still a rich nation, tending our resources as we should — not a people in despair searching every last nook and cranny of our land for a board of lumber, a barrel of oil, a blade of grass, or a tank of water.”

– Clinton P. Anderson

Former Senator, New Mexico


I will spend my time on the prairie making drawings, notes, and plein air paintings while working with the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation Landmark wildlife research crew to gain a deeper understanding of this unique place. In September 2015 and again in the upcoming winter, I will revisit the prairie to paint the landscape in the different seasons. Over the course of the year I will be working in my studio to compose a series of five paintings, each approximately six feet in width, informed by my studies from the field. I will share the resulting body of work in a show planned for spring 2016 that will lead the viewer through an intimate investigation of the prairie with delicate botanical illustrations, sketches, handwritten notes, and large-scale oil paintings that depict the wide vistas and Montana skies. My work will depict the prairie grasslands and the effort to conserve them in the time-honored tradition of painting, forever preserving this moment in culture for posterity.

Joining me on the prairie will also be musician and native Montanan Jessica Kilroy (Roki Rej, Flitcraft, Pterodactyl Plains) who plans to record elemental sounds (wind in the grass, bird calls, thunder) to use in a musical composition that will accompany my gallery exhibit. Kilroy’s work will bring attention to the value of an unpolluted natural soundscape and add a high level sensory experience for the viewer.

During the final week of my trip, photographer Eugenie Frerichs be with us to document Jessica and I at work in the field. I’m excited to have her perspective on the project because much of her personal work as an artist and photographer explores the concept of wilderness.

Valley of the Chugwater, Sanford Robinson Gifford, 1870.

Historically, artists have played an influential part in shaping American perceptions of wilderness and its role in our national identity. I see my work as an extension of this tradition, exploring a contemporary example of wilderness conservation using a medium and a process that is identical to those of an earlier generation of artists. Among the first European explorers discovering the west were landscape painters like Thomas Moran and Sanford Robinson Gifford who recorded their findings in sketches, small paintings and journals while traversing the unknown territory beyond the Mississippi. Back in their studios, these artists created monumental paintings that glorified the pristine beauty of the American wilderness. Their work had mass cultural appeal and presented a sentimental vision of wilderness to the American people. This moment in art history became known as “The Hudson River School” and is now recognized as the first art movement to originate on American soil. Their paintings sparked the first conservation movement in this country when Moran’s depictions of Yellowstone directly influenced the creation of our first National Park.

As a senior fellow at the Hudson River Fellowship, I have spent the past six years studying this moment in art history and painting in the same Catskills and White Mountains locations where these early artists made their work. In the American Prairie Reserve, I see an opportunity to celebrate an exciting new chapter in conservation history, recognizing nature’s ability to restore itself when the right conditions are created by a group of well organized individuals. This work will inspire not only our generation but those who come after us with a message of hope from the front lines of American conservation.


This project is made possible with support from

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

American Prairie Reserve

Jentel Foundation

Gamblin Artist Colors


*please take a moment to visit the new calendar on my website to see my upcoming schedule of artist’s talks, workshops, and exhibitions. I’m in a group show in NYC that opens next week and this summer I will be sharing my work in public presentations as an artist in residence at Telluride Mountainfilm (Telluride, CO, May 22), Jentel Foundation (Banner, WY, August) and Glen Arbor Arts Association (Glen Arbor, MI, September). I will also be teaching landscape painting workshops in Central Park, NYC in June and July.

5 thoughts on “Painting the Prairie

  1. Emmie, all best hopes go with you from me. You have no idea how much I love reading about your dreams and plans. Go with excitement and paint your heart out. My love is in your pocket. Grammie

    Joan Ellis 732-291-0588 Movie Website: Blog:

  2. Nice! Best of luck with this. If you can make it down to Cody, WY the Whitney Western Art Museum in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West has a pretty incredible collection of western landscapes by a large range of painters.

  3. Congratulations Emilie! You are THE one artist perfectly gifted to follow the path of the great earlier american plein air painters! I am eager to see the result of your vision of your country’s wilderness and how you’ll influence its perception by american people today. Enjoy these special moments in the mythical prairie. Béatrice de Garidel       > Message du 06/04/15 18:12 > De : “EMILIE LEE” > A : > Copie à : > Objet : [New post] Painting the Prairie > >

    Emilie Lee posted: “I am excited to announce my latest endeavor, a project that unites my interest in wilderness conservation and my love of adventure in a landscape that provides remarkable inspiration. In just one week, I’ll be heading to Montana for a month of painting on”

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