A Small Piece of the Wild World

Melissa Helene Mason | May 5, 2022 | Leave a Comment

The Society of Animal Artists held its 2021 Exhibition at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, which marketed the exhibition under the mantra, “Art That Matters to The Planet.” The exhibition is currently on tour at The Sternberg Museum of Natural History at Fort Hays State University in Kansas through May 5, 2022. One noteworthy  work in the exhibit is “Barbary Behind Bars” by  Melissa Helene Mason.  The following is her essay for MAHB, which she titles, “A Small Piece of the Wild World.”

For those of us who seek the solace of quiet wilderness, to be at one with Mother Nature is both a spiritual experience and a reminder of all that is at stake or already lost. We go into the woods to recenter, to connect with something stronger than ourselves, to feel a little deeper. We also go to mourn, to find new inspiration, and to light a fire in our souls. We are reminded of how very small we are, but at the same time how important and significant our lives can be. Each commune with the great outdoors reminds us of our individual impact and we travel home with a mission to use our unique talents to protect what can’t protect itself. A mission to stand up for the creatures, lands, and people whose voices are silenced, unheard, or unspoken.

Barbary Behind Bars – Barbary Macaque – 2021 – Scratchboard – 10”x8”

My work is deeply inspired by the plight of endangered species and the conservation of wild places. Especially now, all species need our help, protection, and attention. The celebrated and notorious endangered species are an excellent catalyst for empathy, where lesser known or ‘unattractive’ species fall short. Wild animals and wild places are both threatened by humans – by what we do and what we don’t do. We claim for our own what was never ours to take. We commandeer lands, we take resources, we even capture the animals themselves. We do not think of ourselves as visitors in the natural world, but as beings meant to conquer it. In many cases, we are then left to deal with the fact that we cannot fix what we have broken…but that doesn’t mean we won’t try!

Mighty Melancholy – African Lion – 2016 – Scratchboard – 7”x5”

As an avid hiker and backpacker, natural world enthusiast, and lover of wildlife, I gain inspiration from spending time outdoors. I seek opportunities to exist in the presence of wild creatures because there is only so much you can learn from the pages of a book or nature documentary. The only way to feel them, metaphorically and metaphysically, is to sit in the silence and watch them be. To breath the same air and feel the same breeze. I am on a constant search for moments of connection with non-human beings – near and far. I can spend hours watching the birds of my backyard, days searching for wolves, bears, and moose in National Parks, and a lifetime trying to understand the furry pups that share my home. Each has a unique lesson to teach us all. Every one has a place to fill in this world and is worthy of that place.

Worth More Than Gold – Rhinoceros – 2015 – Scratchboard – 11”x14” 

My goal as an artist is to honor wildlife by highlighting their unique characteristics in intricate detail. Each scratchboard portrait is a celebration of their existence in our world. My work is black and white, which acts as an equalizer in a world overflowing with colorful distractions and focuses your attention on each texture, spot or stripe, hint of light, curve of muscle, and every intimate detail. My mission as an artist is to bring my audience closer to creatures they may never see in person. To give them a small piece of the wild world to hold close and hold dear. I hope each person who sees my work understands more deeply the connection we all have with the living creatures in this world. Sir David Attenborough says it beautifully,

“People are not going to care about animal conservation unless they think that animals are worthwhile.”

Lonely – Chimpanzee – 2022 – Scratchboard – 12”x9”

We love our pets and have deemed them worthy. We are fascinated by big cats, elephants, giraffes, and other large, majestic creatures. They represent life as it was before us and signify what life is becoming because of us. They have our attention, but do we love and cherish the small and obscure? Do we condemn acts of violence that harm the unseen and go out of our way to protect all the world’s creatures despite our own interests? That is where the disconnect lies and where I hope to bridge the gap with my work. Wildlife should be cherished and honored simply because they are one of the strands that make up the fabric of life. That is their contribution. That is enough.

Scratchboard is uncomplicated in that I use just a handful of tools and one board to create my portraits, but it is infinitely complex in its ability to translate individual strokes into living, breathing souls. I hope you connect with them, understand them, and move forward in adoration of them.

Pride of the Herd – African Elephants – 2020 – Scratchboard – 11”x14” 


Barbary Behind Bars  (Barbary Macaque) 2021 – Scratchboard – 10”x8”
‘Barbary Behind Bars’ specifically highlights the issue of wild animals in captivity. Many species, especially primates, are plucked from the wild as babies, destined for bushmeat or a life in a cage. They are kept as pets or exploited as entertainment. No wild animal, no matter how well they’re treated, belongs behind bars. Most animals held in captivity or bred in zoos or other facilities do not have the necessary skills to be returned to the wild or become habituated to humans and would not survive if set free.

Mighty Melancholy (African Lion) 2016 – Scratchboard – 7”x5”
This piece is about the mental state of captive animals. Even when given enrichment, proper nutrition, space to roam, and other appropriate habitat features, these animals do not thrive. They may survive, but they don’t flourish. They lose a little bit of their magic and their magnificence.

Worth More Than Gold (Rhinoceros) 2015 – Scratchboard – 11”x14”
‘Worth More Than Gold’ shines a light on wildlife poaching. Rhinos are killed for their horns and those horns are sold at prices that surpass gold. These creatures, now nearly extinct – some subspecies of rhino are extinct – are worth more to this world than the price of their horns. Animals suffer for human greed.

Lonely (Chimpanzee) 2022 – Scratchboard – 12”x9”
Humans share 96% of our DNA with chimpanzees. We can literally see ourselves in them. They are our closest biological connection with the animal world and yet we still can’t see them as our equals. They still live in captivity, away from their natural habitats. The eyes of chimpanzees are our route to bridging the gap between humans and our wild brothers.

Pride of the Herd (African Elephants) 2020 – Scratchboard – 11”x14”
Elephants are innately emotional creatures and live in tight family groups. They band together to protect their young. They mourn the loss of their members. They depend on their matriarch. Elephants are also beloved by people and are a symbol of so many of our most important values. They represent the part of the animal world that is cherished…even though they are continually killed for their ivory. They symbolize hope and represent exactly how humans impact the wild world. 

Melissa Helene Mason is a scratchboard artist living and working in the Silver Cliff, Wisconsin.  She is an uncredentialed artist who has been learning and growing as an artist for over 15 years in a variety of mediums.  She is currently an active member of the International Society for Scratchboard Artists (ISSA), an Associate Member of the association of American Women Artists, and an Associate Member of the Society of Animal Artists.  The bulk of her work consists of highly detailed, photo-realistic, wildlife scratchboard portraits.  Melissa Helene Fine Arts is dedicated to using art and creative expression to raise awareness of wildlife, wild places, and conservation issues to help protect the very places and creatures that inspire her work.

The Society of Animal Artists 2021-2022 Exhibition Tour, produced by David J. Wagner, L.L.C., includes the following venues:

The Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum
November 20, 2021 – January 16, 2022
Oradell, NJ

The Sternberg Museum of Natural History
Fort Hays State University
February 5 – May 5, 2022
Hays, KS

Exhibition updates are available here.

Melissa Helene Mason’s website here.

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.