By Karen Fredrickson
Art with a Purpose
For JoAnne Helfert Sullam, art and animals go together. They reflect each other, and that reflection has inspired her career as both an artist and a wildlife rehabilitator. Sullam can pinpoint the moment when she knew she was going to be an artist. She was in Long Beach, New York, having moved there from New York City, where she attended a school that didn’t have an art program. “I was just walking along the beach watching the sunset one day, and I thought, ‘If I can just capture that,’ because it was more than a photograph to me,” Sullam described. That experience pushed Sullam to learn how to paint, something that has had a lasting impact on her life, by giving her a means to express her emotions through the creative process and an outlet to express the emotions of animals. The reaction people have to meeting animals, particularly wildlife, can affect someone deeply, and she not only echoes this in her art, but uses it in her work in the field of conservation.
“I saw what it was like to have a lack of nature around and how it affected people,” Sullam said, explaining her love of animals and her tireless work in conservation. “There was this empty lot they had turned into a garden, and I saw what that did to the community. They both go hand in hand, and art has always been a vehicle for conservation….I made it my mission at a very young age.” Sullam cited Ansel Adams, who photographed nature to bring attention to conservation efforts, as an example and inspiration.
However, as an art student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, there were no classes on painting animals and wildlife. Undeterred, Sullam solved this problem by going to the zoo and the Museum of Natural History. “I was more interested in capturing the animals’ individual personality, so to speak—a portrait of them. The only way to do that was to have contact with them.” Sullam has continued painting wildlife; her latest work is a large portrait of two fawns.
Sullam’s conservation work is extensive and doesn’t end with art alone. She is also an activist bringing attention to the dangers to animal habitats and doing fieldwork research with multiple organizations. She volunteered with the Audubon Society for a number of years, where she did bird banding—catching birds, marking them with an identifying band and then releasing them back into the wild—to study their migratory habits.
This work inspired a documentary and a series of paintings, once again bringing the world of art and conservation together for Sullam, who followed up with a successful show on Long Island that brought attention to the loss of bird habitat. “It connected people that might normally not be interested in their plight,” Sullam said. “They came in for the art and through that, they became interested in the critter itself.”
During the many years Sullam spent volunteering at an animal sanctuary and participating in fieldwork, Sullam gained the necessary skills to become a certified wildlife rehabilitator, and turned her property into a certified wildlife sanctuary.
“People bring them [animals] to me and then I raise them here. I have a good property to do that,” Sullam said. Her property has a pond and a great range for wildlife to wander. The animals become used to her presence, and during the hunting season, many of them use the sanctuary to escape potential danger. As Sullam describes her property as a refuge from hunters, it is easy to imagine a scene from a Disney cartoon with all the animals gathered around her. With Sullam’s enthusiasm for knowing individual animals, it seems like a scene she would love.
There is a process to raising wild animals, and Sullam keeps the animals’ welfare in the forefront of her mind. The fawns she is painting currently live in her studio. While this may sound unusual to most people, it’s just another day for Sullam, who is used to being surrounded by nature and wildlife. “I found these fawns when they were under a week old,” Sullam said. She has a studio large enough to section off, so the fawns are being housed there for a short period of time. The animals will slowly be weaned until they can spend the entire day outside. Sullam will take them for walks in the woods, where she follows some of the paths she sees the other deer taking.
She raised her first fawn about five years ago. It had a badly injured leg after getting caught on a fence. When Sullam rescued the fawn, its mother was there, watching. “The third or fourth day we put [up] a pen so she could get some fresh air,” Sullam recalled. “The mother showed up, and we kind of co-raised her. She knew I was helping the fawn. They’re very intelligent animals.”
The relationship doesn’t end when she releases the animals back into the wild, however. When the fawn had grown to adulthood, she returned to Sullam’s sanctuary and gave birth right near the pen she had been raised in. “I don’t feed them once they’re adults, but they still come back and say hello,” Sullam said. “They recognize you as an individual. If a stranger was to walk on the property, they’d hightail it just like in the wild.”
Sullam describes her relationship with wildlife as an inside view. Most people only see wild animals from a distance, in fields or crossing the road. “That’s how it should be,” Sullam said. “But you’re not seeing the personality. I think that’s interesting to share because I get that inside view of it. [Deer are] kind of like dogs in that way. They wag their tail when they’re happy and throw their head around.”
Her newest project gives the wildlife around her a chance to shine, as they are the stars of her new series. She is combining wildlife paintings with the style of a previous series she did called Mood-Scapes, but with a bit of a twist. “I had a loss in my family, my sister, and I kind of needed to express those feelings, that idea,” Sullam said of the original idea for Mood-Scapes. “These little minis [miniature portraits] were sitting in the back of my mind and then this loss, and then this other idea of reaching deep into the subconscious. It’s just pure creativity. I took this idea of just using an emotion or a word or a song and letting that lead the way to what the painting might be. It was also my grief working through in an abstract way.” Sullam’s latest Mood-Scapes involve that same depth of emotion, but with the addition of wildlife.
Sullam was recently approached by Vida, who is harnessing the power of the Internet and digital printing to democratize art through fashion. Vida taps a network of artists spanning nearly 20 countries, from Brazil to Bulgaria, for unique designs that it puts on dresses, tops and scarves (the artists receive 10 percent of net sales). Vida not only supports the artists but the factory workers who turn their artwork into apparel. The company established a program in Pakistan, the birthplace of founder and chief executive officer Umaimah Mendhro, in partnership with organizations the Citizens Foundation and Liberate Pakistan to offer three-month literacy courses to factory workers.
You can shop for Sullam’s designs on scarfs, totes and tops at www.shopvida.com/collections/voices/joanne-helfert-sullam.
If being an artist and wildlife rehabilitator doesn’t keep Sullam busy enough, she is also an author. She has written a children’s book and is about to publish a book about her experiences with wildlife, The Evolution of a Wild Heart. “As an artist, you’re affected by everything around you,” Sullam said. When she wrote her children’s book, she had grandchildren and a new puppy and found it was a fun side project. The Evolution of a Wild Heart is a book Sullam has been working on, on and off, for about 15 years.
Sullam’s description of her new book shows how important her relationship with animals is to her. “The basis of the book is my evolution through the animals that I’ve known over the last 20 or 30 years,” she said. “It’s just another way of communicating with people the importance of conservation because I do live a bit of an unusual life from the average person with the wild animals I have contact with. I did a couple of talks about some of the personalities and the connections you make interacting with wildlife.”
Sullam also created a conservation blog (www.wildmother.org) to educate people about what they can do to help the environment. Instead of the negative aspects of environmentalism that much of the media spotlights, the blog focuses on the positive actions that people can take, such as using certain household cleaners, growing organic, and learning about and living with wildlife as neighbors. Her goal is to raise awareness, not fear. “I think too much negativity turns people off because they feel overwhelmed,” Sullam said. “[E]ach individual can make a difference in a small way.”
Sullam shared some tips for people to lessen their impact on the environment: use organic cleaners when possible; deal with pest problems in a more organic way rather than using pesticides; be aware of what you’re purchasing; and recycle. Her goal isn’t for people to make huge changes that disrupt their lives, but to do small things that can easily be incorporated into a daily routine. For example, using white vinegar and baking soda to clean your drains or oven. “I test out my ideas before I post them, which is kind of fun for me,” she adds. “Then people save money, too, besides saving the environment.”
Sullam uses her art to pose the question: How can humans and animals coexist? “It’s really wonderful to be able to do that,” she said. “I’m enjoying this beautiful place and this beautiful environment. How can I share it?” During our conversation, Sullam spotted about 25 turkeys with their babies walking past. “It was wonderful to see.”