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  • Bella Butler

Brushstrokes of Hope

Updated: Jul 10

When wildlife painter Georgia Baker begins a new piece, she always starts with the eyes. She tells me this one day in her studio, a cozy room on the lower level of her home in Big Sky, Montana. Snow flurries outside make for muted lighting, but a bright canvas against the wall gives vibrance to studio. She spends much of her time down here, mostly alone, but she makes sure she always has company.

“Once I put the eyes in, they become like little friends,” Georgia says, looking adoringly at the sow grizzly and four playful cubs her paintbrush has brought to the canvas. Recovering from complete but temporary paralysis from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, Georgia says she can’t be like the photographers who’s work she models her own after, chasing the animals around and capturing them through a lens. “This is the way I get to still be with them, and live with them, in my own way,” she says. In part, this practice plays to Georgia’s artistic demeanor, but more so it touches on the core of Georgia’s work: compassion, a sense of wonder, and above all, a deep reverence for wild.

Such tenets were woven into Georgia from her earliest days. Though she was born in Germany, Georgia’s family soon after emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, where she was raised among the province’s idyllic old growth forests, mountain ranges and beaches. But for every bit of nurture contributing to Georgia’s being, so too was her nature revealed.

In one of her earliest memories, Georgia recalls encountering a man and a black bear he had just shot while she was on a trip with her family in interior BC. The thought of someone making sport of killing such a magnificent creature horrified her, and her instinct to protect wild beings planted a seed that would eventually bloom into a life’s purpose.

Armed with a degree in graphic design and years of artistic exploration prior, she was able to use visual expression to honor the insistent pull that has always magnetized her toward acting as a voice for the nature she so adored. An oversized manila folder she keeps for storage contains pages from her early chapters as an artist. She pulls out a few from a series of interpretative signs she made for Alaska State Parks and proudly places them atop other notable works such as packaging for Starbucks products.

Georgia recalls her work on those Alaska interpretive signs as a pivotal point in her professional trajectory, where she learned to apply biological and ecological research to her art. She holds up a scan of one of them as she notes that many of the signs are still there, standing the test of time. This one in particular, with the title “Free Ride” written across the top in indigo letters, explains how birds of prey use wind deflection and thermal updrafts to gain lift. The text is paired with Georgia’s meticulous and detailed illustrations of raptors like golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and northern harriers, all drawn in stunning likeness to their live inspirations.

“This just totally set the stage for what I’m doing now,” she says, gently placing the scan back in her myriad archives.

Like her work on the interpretative signs decades ago, Georgia applies an intent study of the subjects of her paintings—which primarily include large mammals of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Through partnerships with photographers who share her appreciation for these beings, Georgia commits herself to an anatomical investigation of the animals to render them in a likeness that both honors the animals themselves as well as inspires a comparable awe to that which we experience in their actual presence. But her study is interdisciplinary, embracing the full context necessary to telling a story with her paintings rather than simply a static moment. Georgia’s collection reveals her affinity for grizzlies, as does any brief conversation with her. These iconic Greater Yellowstone predators are also listed as a threatened species in the Lower 48, and the species’ habitat fragmentation throughout the crucial Yellowstone to Yukon migratory corridor is a poster problem for human-wildlife interface conflict in the West. While Georgia is constantly studying these animals, noting how their fur looks in water or the way their ears mold to the wind when in a sprint, she is also a devout student of news articles and scientific documentaries that place the majestic bruins in a broader story—one of ecological peril, resilient biology and indigenous significance. When Georgia paints a grizzly, like the sow mother in the piece she’s currently working on, the subject is layered with story in the same way layers of paint reveal a true color no individual brushstroke could communicate on its own.


To prepare for her afternoon of work, Georgia mixes paint on a surface to her left until she’s satisfied with a burnt green. She lifts the color with a rigid brush and fearlessly begins swiping it onto the canvas, where her five bears (Grizzly 399 and her four cubs) stare at her while she brings to life a thick forest in the image’s midground. Once satisfied with her trees, she grabs blue and white tubes and twists the caps with shaky hands. “This is my physical therapy,” she says as one cap comes loose after some labored maneuvering. In 2017, Georgia was struck suddenly by Guillain Barre Syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune disorder that attacks the nerves. Georgia’s GBS resulted in a rapid paralysis from which she’s been fortunate to recover, but not without a unwavering dedication to physical therapy and a healthy lifestyle. Painting was a big part of her recovery, especially during long stays in a Chicago rehab facility where she inspired a therapeutic art program for patients. So yes, her painting certainly provides some physical therapy, but it’s more than that for her, too.

She squeezes the paint out of the tubes and mixes a soft periwinkle, frequently checked against the shading scale and color references she’s prepared for this piece in consultation with the buyer. While she didn’t study painting in school, Georgia’s been trained by a number of esteemed mentors, renowned nature painter Robert Bateman among them. Her process is her own, but its informed by classes, books, and other forms of independent study that have refined her ability to translate oils and acrylics with brushes and palette knives to skill that ranks among the best of her genre.

She dips a smaller brush into the blueish purple paint. “Where would a creek want to flow?” she asks aloud as she hovers the brush around golden foothills, seemingly waiting for some invisible force to guide her brush to the exact right spot.

The painting, a commission purchased through a benefit auction, is called “Spectacular Mother,” and Georgia is embracing the theme. Beneath her apron, she dons a casual t-shirt that says “Mama Bear.” She prefers to paint with music, often opting for Half Moon Run, a band she has personal connections to that also hails from Canada. The song “Warmest Regard” plays in the background as Georgia excitedly homes in on a ravine fitting for her creek.

I wait, and I wait, to make a new start

A new beginning, but it feels like the end

And it takes one to know one

And I'm really not sure

If I can put things back together like before

The despondent nature of the song feels eerily fitting to the undertone of Georgia’s work. Though she often lights up like a sunrise when she talks about her beloved subjects, she espouses a sobering realism when it comes to the current state of these animals. Like in “Warmest Regards,” her optimistic disposition keeps her looking for the bright side, but reality has a way of casting an imposing shadow. She’s pained by the planet’s rapidly waning biodiversity—the World Wildlife Fund reports an average 69% drop in species populations since 1970—but even more so she’s disheartened by the lack of urgency with which the threat is being addressed.

She says her experience with GBS has given her a clarifying perspective on the topic. Our own destruction of the natural world is the disease paralyzing our world, the fractured migration routes the damaged nerves of the earth. As with the parallel she draws between her GBS and the world’s greater ecological peril, we may also have something to learn from her healing, Georgia posits. By reconnecting these fragmented ecosystems, we can heal the whole system.

“I think we're kind of starting to be at the 11th hour,” she says. “We’re running out of options if we don't start our physical therapy—our conservation physical therapy.”

Georgia’s work has a direct funnel to such work. She pledges 20 percent of each commission to a conservation fund of the buyer’s choosing. In April of 2024, Georgia was also accepted as an associate member of Artists for Conservation, an international organization which “supports conservation and environmental education through art that celebrates nature.”

But there’s also a larger impact at play. With its whimsical streams, peaks and rivers holding the iconic animals of this region, Georgia’s art compels a sense of place and reminds us of the innate belonging we share with our wild neighbors. In a time when our relationship to wildlife is fractured by misunderstanding, her paintings are as much a demand for mutual coexistence as they are a portal to empathy for all living things.

After the creek finds its home, Georgia’s brush moves up to the sky, she dollops in some of the periwinkle she hopes will look reflected in the trickling water. The bears’ eyes stare at her almost pleadingly as the Half Moon Run song wraps up.

So I look at what surrounds me,

In the places I go

And the seeds sown in this garden start to grow.

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