31stannual Southeastern Wildlife Exposition will be Feb. 15-17 in Charleston, S.C.
Lying on the ground in the northernmost part of the Rocky Mountains, Jay Kemp found what he was looking for.
In September 2010, the Gainesville native and acclaimed wildlife artist went to Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, to study elk.
For several days, he followed a temperamental bull elk and several females through the Canadian wilderness.
"He chased me and got real close one time," Kemp said. "They’ll come running at you and lower their horns. They don’t like you getting near them or their cows so it’s kind of nerve-wracking. I called him Mr. Nasty."
One clear day, Kemp followed his elk through the woods to find him bedding down for a rest while the other elks continued on through the forest.
Kemp dropped to the ground and started crawling toward the beast.
"You’re not supposed to get closer than 30 meters, but being a redneck from Georgia, I don’t really know what a meter is," Kemp said, laughing. "I crawled within 15 feet of this thing and I’m on the ground and he’s looking at me but he’s pretty much exhausted."
The elk let Kemp stay near him for more than an hour. Kemp snapped photos to use as reference material with his camera and tried to remember the moment as best he could.
The elk noticed the approach of a white-tailed doe before Kemp did. The animal’s ears twitched and he raised his nose to catch the scent.
"When he laid his horns back and turned his ears away, I knew that was something different and it caught my eye," Kemp said. "It was what I was looking for."
It wasn’t immediately clear to Kemp how he would translate the awe he felt in that moment into a painting.
Kemp explained that though his paintings are very detailed and realistic, he approaches his art with an abstract mindset.
He looks at his work in terms of shapes and lines. An elk isn’t an animal; it’s a specific, abstract shape. Trees become cylinders and branches become lines.
The photos he takes for reference never look like the finished product. They serve only as reminders. One painting could have as many as 500 different reference materials.
He often adds elements that weren’t present in real life or changes the scene entirely. He said he makes up a lot of it and just paints what he wanted to see.
"People are misunderstanding if they think (the images) just happened like that," Kemp said. "They’re coming from the heart and they’re a vision."
Kemp recently completed a 4-foot by 3-foot vertical painting of the elk bedding down. He calls it "Woodland Forest Repose."
"I think it’s interesting," Kemp said. "The thing I like about it is it’s probably a good example of my philosophy."
He’ll bring the painting Feb. 15-17 to the annual Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston, S.C., where he’s being honored as the featured painter.
The three-day event is the largest of its kind in the nation and attracts a crowd of more than 40,000 people.
"It’s a tremendous honor," Kemp said. "I went to this show when I was in my 20s when I was starting out as an artist. I was trying to figure out how I could ever get into the show. I never dreamed it years ago."
In his 31-year career, Kemp has been awarded several best of show and excellence awards. He was also chosen as an "artist to watch" in U.S. Art Magazine, won the Nature Works art show’s "Award of Excellence" and was featured in the hunting magazine Sporting Classics.
He’ll be featured locally as the guest of honor on March 1 at the Quinlan Visual Arts Center’s annual gala in Gainesville.
Amanda McClure, executive director of the Quinlan said she’s thrilled to have Kemp as their guest of honor. He’ll he featured in a solo exhibition in the spring of 2014 at the center.
"Jay is a Gainesville celebrity," McClure wrote in an email to The Times. "We’re proud of his accomplishments and look forward to showcasing his work."
Kemp’s mentor, master wildlife painter Carl Brenders, praised Kemp as being one of the greatest artists of today. Brenders faxed a handwritten letter to the SEWE praising Kemp’s work.
"Of all the wildlife art that I have seen in my 35-year career, his big painting of a bugling elk is the only one that brought tears to my eyes," Brenders wrote. "What an emotion when one stands in front of such a painting. It was not a painting ... it was the elk itself."
Kemp said he credits his success following his heart. His passion is nature and wildlife. He said he could paint other subjects, but he doesn’t want to.
"When you’re passionate about what you’re doing, I think people can see that in your work," Kemp said.
Instead of painting what others might want him to, he paints with a "good, bad attitude."
Of course he wants people to like his paintings, but that isn’t his purpose. He said he has to paint like he doesn’t care what other people think.
"It’s hard to face a painting for two or three months straight if you’re not jacked up about it, "Kemp said. "It just has to be special to me."