Bryan Savic for the Arizona Daily Star
Cannon Winkler was ready to climb the corporate ladder when he graduated from the University of Arizona with a dual major in business management and entrepreneurship in 2019.
He had no idea at the time that he would soon answer a different call halfway around the world, creating works of art from wild trails to support animal conservation efforts.
Winkler, who now lives in Sedona, creates large-scale abstract paintings using molds of wild animal footprints he collected during his training to become a field guide in South Africa in 2020.
He sells the works under the name “Walks of Life” and donates part of the proceeds to African Parks Network, a South African non-profit organization focused on fighting poaching and rehabilitating animals in the country.
“In terms of conservation, I think I was kind of born with that connection to wildlife,” Winkler said. “I just didn’t know how I was going to help until I found out ‘Walks of Life’. “
Winkler had only left the AU for a short time before realizing that business was a path, not a passion.
He wanted to do something more meaningful with his life, something that would feed his spirit and make his efforts worthwhile.
For Winkler, that meant working with animals.
“I think there are personal videos of me when I’m in kindergarten saying I’m going to be a zoologist,” Winkler said.
Winkler ignored more traditional forms of animal care, caring for dogs and cats, and instead found himself on a flight to Limpopo province in the Bushveld forests of South Africa, to work with creatures larger, such as lions and rhinos, buffaloes and giraffes.
Winkler participated in a program during his stay, which helped him receive formal training from the Southern African Field Guides Association (FGASA).
“It was a good way to put my feet on the ground and learn useful skills on the pitch,” he said.
It wasn’t there long before COVID-19 hit South Africa. The country has ordered residents to quarantine themselves in their homes, which means Winkler and his colleagues have been grounded in training camp for months.
The extended time allowed Winkler to work on his training as a guide, but also to perfect his artistic side.
Winkler began experimenting by making molds of wild animal tracks he found near his camp using silicone, then arranging those tracks on canvas in divergent patterns.
“The idea is that everything on the canvas is actually from a real animal,” Winkler said. “The lion print you see is from a lion that is still living in Africa today.”
Winkler likens his process to that of a taxidermist, but “it’s just a lot more environmentally friendly,” he said.
Before Winkler made molds for caterpillars, he had to find them first. At night, he listened from his bed in the camp to the sounds of nearby animals, which gave him insight into the patterns of the different animals and the paths they regularly walked.
In the morning, he looked for traces left by animals the day before or even days earlier.
Safety has always been a concern. He was walking, after all, among potential predators.
“Once you’ve learned what to listen to, what to avoid and how to act, you can move around with a certain level of safety,” he said.
Winkler said he sometimes follows in the footsteps to a point where the impression is more pronounced, such as in mud or clay. Once he was convinced he had found the best print, he injected silicone into the print and waited 24 hours for it to harden, covering the mold to prevent other animals from stepping on it.
“Wildebeests love to step on them,” Winkler said. “I don’t know why but I’ve had a lot of trails ruined by wildebeest.”
The prints would then be transferred to canvas using acrylic paint.
Winkler compares his art to “things like a cave, an Aboriginal dream, Bushmen cave paintings, Eastern mandalas,” he said.
“For me and my art, I try to express something very wild, but at the same time universally human,” Winkler explained. “I think with a lot of these ancient art forms you get that feeling of something very primitive, but we can relate to it.”
Winkler’s colleague Thomas Wilson, who oversees the management of the Kololo Game Reserve in South Africa where Winkler worked for six months after his initial training, said he had never heard of anyone doing art from wild tracks.
“I got goosebumps,” Wilson said. “I just didn’t know how it was going to play out or how he was going to implement it. The basic concept, I found it absolutely exhilarating because I had never seen it before.
Marine biologist Jennifer Palmer, who also worked with Winkler on the reserve, struggled to figure out what he was looking for when he first brought up the idea. But she said she knew it would be something special after going with him to collect leads.
“It took me a little while to fully understand what he was doing, so it was quite fun watching the whole experience unfold,” Palmer said. “Once I realized what he was creating and how unique this story became, I was really excited.”
As far as Winkler knows, no one has attempted to create art using traces of wild animals.
After South Africa lifted its lockdown restrictions last year, Wilson left the country and returned home to Arizona, where he held an exhibition of his “Walks of Life” paintings at Jarrod’s Coffee, Tea and Gallery in Mesa. He is currently seeking gallery space in Tucson, he said.
Winkler said he plans to return to Africa in 2022 to collect leads from a different ecosystem for the second round. After that, he targets the jungles of Central Africa to hunt down gorillas, okapis, forest elephants and other animals.
“The long-term plan is to do a series of paintings of a different ecosystem each year,” Winkler said.