Finding Beauty In Death: Art For Wyoming’s Wildlife

Cristy Anspach slaps a mound of wet heavy clay unto her throwing wheel, with her foot on the pedal she starts to form a jar. But this is not just your average ceramic clay jar, it is in honor of a female mule deer that was hit and killed on a Wyoming roadway near Cristy’s studio. 

For the last 8 months, she has been making jars to honor each animal killed on her 10-mile commute between Boulder and Pinedale about 80 miles from the southeast entrance of Teton National Park. “My work looks at the relationship between humans and wildlife as it pertains to moving over the earth’s surface – in particular, movements of animals, highway systems of people and the intersections of the two,” she explains to me over the hum of her throwing wheel. I watch her lightly dip her fingers into a container of water, the once lumpy mound of clay starts taking form as Cristy applies pressure on the edges where the circular walls emerge upward.

Artist Cristy Anspach on the 10-mile stretch of road near her home in Wyoming. For every animal hit on the road, she crafts a remembrance jar. (Photo GYC/Emily Reed.)

Cristy’s jar project which she has titled, ‘Unintended Consequences’ manifested through a conversation she had with her daughter after they witnessed a wildlife vehicle collision while driving home. Cristy had pulled over to help the driver involved and unintentionally parked the car in such a way where the headlights were illuminating the injured deer. Her daughter, who was in the car, watched the deer struggle and eventually die. “She is a hunter and raises livestock for 4-H, so it was not her first time being exposed to a dying animal, but it still impacted her in a very profound way,” Cristy tells me. 

On the drive home and throughout the next several days Cristy and her daughter talked a lot about that incident. “What bothered her the most was that these animals were not honored, they were just drug off to the side of the road and left there until they were able to be picked up and disposed of,” Cristy says. While her daughter wanted to make a mini blanket for every deer killed, Cristy decided on a more suitable project, creating clay jars. While some might infer the jars are representative of ‘urns’, Cristy thinks otherwise. “My intent is for them to be used as storage vessels for items like coffee beans or cookies, the idea is that you are honoring the animals in everyday life, the jar is not sitting on a shelf collecting dust,” she says.

Cristy in her home studio, starting a new jar. (Photo GYC/Emily Reed.)

At first, Cristy thought she would just keep watch of the stretch of highway on her commute for the project but then she discovered that the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) keeps a data base of all the carcasses they pick up on the side of the road. “They record the date it was collected from the highway, the species of ungulate, the age, whether it’s female or male, and the mile marker the animals are closest too,” she tells me. With this detailed information, Cristy was able to design the pots in a more meaningful way. “I detail the information of each mortality into the jar… and think about how best to emulate this animal with drawings, decorative marks, and color.” she says. 

Cristy uses a variety of processes to create the imagery of the animals on her vessels.  Fine lines of Japanese Mishima carving, direct application of colored underglazes, raised textures of wet clay slip-trailing and the carving-through-color surface of Italian sgrafitto combine to illustrate not only the representational image of the creature, but also an abstract pattern of lines and textures that invoke a feeling of motion.  A viewer might imagine the movement of wind, or perhaps the animal traveling over the landscape, or possibly even the passage of time.

Another wildlife fatality on the busy roadways in Wyoming. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is working hard to ensure safe roadways for drivers and wildlife in Wyoming. (Photo GYC/Emily Reed.)

 I notice that there are some jars larger than the others on her work bench, but they are blank, absent of any drawings or color. Cristy tells me that the smaller jars are representative of the unborn fawns that are also killed. “But that’s not at all,” she says, walking back into her storage room. She reappears carrying a large carboard box and produces a few more jars. They have the same neutral colors as the fawn jars, adorned with simplistic design elements. A single hoof print is stamped into one and on another jar, a faded outline of a mule deer has been painted. Cristy explains that, “For every dead deer seen by the road, Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist, extrapolate that dead animal to three others that are killed but have died out of sight.” These jars are representative of those animals, the unseen. “It became really clear why I needed to do this work once I got the data from WYDOT, initially I never imagined there would be over 100 mortalities in one winter season for just 10 miles of roadway,” she says.

The beginnings of a clay jar. (Photo GYC/Emily Reed.)

Cristy’s work was never meant to be an awareness project per se, “It started off as a very personal project of mine” she says but now it has turned into a story of awareness. Her work has been on display in Pinedale and at the capitol building in Cheyenne. She was also featured on Wyoming Public Radio and other Wyoming news platforms for her work. As I pull out of her studio driveway to make the journey home to Cody, Cristy’s final words to me are heavy on my mind, “I hope that by performing this gesture of respect, a different way of seeing the issue might emerge. If nothing else, for me, the act of creating a clay offering to honor the death of each individual over the course of a winter serves as a personal homage to the creatures with which we share this cherished landscape.”

A herd of pronghorn hurry across a Wyoming road. Check out some of GYC’s big wins in 2019 for wildlife crossings. (Photo GYC/Emily Reed.)

A few miles down the road I see a giant bloodstain in the middle of my lane and a deceased pronghorn slumped on the edge of the road. I ponder if this once breathing ungulate was moving across the landscape alone or if it was in a group, if it was dead on impact or if it struggled for a while until it took its last breath. I wonder if the driver or the passengers were injured, incurring medical expenses or if they totaled their vehicle and are now left without transportation or a costly repair bill. I wonder how I should honor this animal. While I wish I could throw beautiful clay jars like Cristy does, I don’t hold the skill set or own the supplies to even begin to try so instead, I pull the car over, walk toward its lifeless body, crouch down and snap a few photos before continuing on my way. 

The next day, I print the photo out and tape it into my weathered notebook titled ‘GYC WORK’, as a somber reminder to myself. While my honoring of this animal is not in creating, it is in uniting; bringing the artist, the scientist, the citizens who drive on Wyoming roadways, the medical personnel who respond to wildlife-vehicle collisions, the local legislators, the sportsmen groups, the conservation organizations and the state agencies all together to honor these animals through on-the-ground projects. My honoring of this single pronghorn lives within the work of all these entities and now it lies within you too. The question that remains is, how will you honor these animals that die from wildlife-vehicle collisions along these roadways? Will you create? Will you share this story with others?

Cristy among her completed jars, each one honoring a wildlife-vehicle animal fatality on a nearby 10-mile stretch of road. Most of the victims are mule deer and pronghorn. (Photo GYC/Emily Reed.)

Read the original story here.