Mike Tyson. Work as a wildlife artist. Turkey hunting. Those three things don’t have much in common, except if you ask renowned wildlife artist Ryan Kirby to talk about one of the credos by which he lives.
Tyson, the legendary boxing champion trained in the Catskill Mountains of New York, once said, “Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.” Iron Mike probably wasn’t much of a turkey hunter, but that idea resonates with Kirby’s resolve — both on canvas and in the turkey woods.
“Just about every single day as an artist and business owner goes something like this,” he said. “It’s also how most of my turkey hunts pan out.”
A CALL THAT STARTED IT ALL
Straight out of college at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Kirby joined the NWTF team after replying to an ad in the back of Turkey Call magazine for a graphic designer position at NWTF headquarters. He was young, hungry and maybe a little naïve. In the job interview, he told the interviewee that he could see himself as an NWTF regional director when asked a question about his future. Banquets and a bi-monthly magazine were all Kirby knew about the NWTF at the time. His world was about to open up exponentially.
Kirby stayed on as a graphic designer at the NWTF for about seven years, showcasing his work through magazine layout, illustrations, license plate designs and more.
“I had no idea the amount and variety of staff it took behind the scenes to run an organization that large,” he said.
The NWTF provided the jumping-off point in Kirby’s career. His first painting selected for a fundraising banquet was named “Turkey Country,” which later became the 2010 NWTF Stamp print. He sold his first print at retail in Turkey Shoppe in downtown Edgefield, South Carolina, and his first exhibition was held at the NWTF National Convention and Sport Show in Nashville.
More than anything, though, he found his calling.
“It was the first time working for a cause larger than myself,” Kirby said. “I had no idea how fragile our future of hunting heritage and habitat conservation can be and how important it is to have the NWTF and other groups working on our behalf.”
Kirby grew up in a small farm town in west Illinois where, like most people in his community, he hunted and took care of the land. That way of life was instilled at an early age, but it didn’t take long for him to discover many others never get edified in the great outdoors. Unknown to many, there’s a dire need for strong support of conservation and our outdoors lifestyle, where members band together to accomplish incredible results for our wild animals and wild places.
“From lobbying in Washington D.C. to planting loblolly pines in south Georgia, we need groups like the NWTF and other NGOs to work on our behalf,” Kirby said.
A PUNCHER’S CHANCE
Kirby took his big swing in 2012, leaving the NWTF to pursue life as a self-employed artist, assisting companies in the outdoor industry with advertising and what he calls “bringing wild things to life” in his studio. He was gone from the NWTF, but it never left him.
His work began to grow within the industry and was selected for multiple banquet packages and cover artwork, including this May/June issue of Turkey Country that spotlights wildlife art. All of Kirby’s work can be found at www.ryankirby.com.
Kirby’s detail and creativity seem to work and appeal to outdoorsmen and women because he is, after all, a hunter. His inspiration for his creations comes from the experience of viewing a spring gobbler strut from his nestled perch at the base of a tree or seeing the steadfast stance of a leery whitetail from the vantage point of a treestand.
“Nature itself is always the best inspiration for my art,” he said. “I also rely heavily on knowledge of the game itself — how they move, interact with each other, the sounds they make and the terrain they prefer. All these things go into creating authentic, believable art.”
Kirby believes these nuances require real-life experience that can take decades to accumulate. Hunting is an art form for him, and hunters can make for great wildlife artists because they are constantly cultivating their knowledge in the field.
“I’m set on learning and improving for the rest of my life,” he said.
CREATING FOR CONSERVATION
Kirby now resides in Boone, North Carolina, home of the Appalachian State Mountaineers, with his wife, Kim, and two children, 4-year-old Rhett and 1-year-old Brooklyn. He plans to renovate a building in the Appalachian Mountains to create a new studio, gallery and warehouse for his art. Plus, the proximity to the wild is an added bonus.
“I can have a new turkey piece on the easel and can actually hear turkeys gobbling from my studio,” he said. “It’s always a good day when turkeys are gobbling.”
At 38, his work has raised close to a million dollars for conservation organizations nationally. All of this has transpired because of his desire to bring the sound, feelings and experience of the outdoors, indoors.
“I’ve always felt that is my highest calling as a wildlife artist,” he said. “People want to take the emotions that wildlife inspires in us and experience that every day. Wildlife art is also a statement about who we are, and an opportunity to share that with friends, family and visitors. It’s a conversation piece that often brings up life’s most important conversations.”
Funding for conservation, working to build healthier wildlife habitat, declining wild turkey populations in certain regions, projects that enhance our wild places while also improving air and water quality, forest resiliency to wildfire and more — these are examples of the conversations Kirby’s art stokes.
If there’s anything he’s learned from the NWTF, Kirby knows it’s how we respond to the adversity of these looming issues that matters — a strategic reaction to getting socked in the kisser, if you will. In the end, we’re all painting a picture that could last for generations.