Naturalist-Artist John Lokke – In Pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and In the Footsteps of Karl Bodmer
This is the kind of long-form journalism that’s become increasingly rare in city newspapers and magazines. My profile of naturalist-artist John Lokke is one of my personal favorites among my own body of work. The nuances and connections made throughout the article represent the kind of context and texture that is just not possible in a short piece. I wish I had the opportunity to do this kind of writing, for pay that is, more often, but the realities of 21st century journalism preclude it. I found Lokke an utterly fascinating figure and after reading the profile for the first time in a dozen years I must say I still find him as compelling a subject as I’ve ever encountered in a quarter century of journalism, over which time I’ve interviewed and profiled hundreds of people from literally all walks of life. It helps when you come across, as I did with Lokke, a subject who expresses himself so well and who has an appreciation for not only his passion but for how it fits into the big picture. And that very quality, of honing in on the specific while keeping in mind the big picture, is one of the things that distinguished my work. The story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and this is the first time it’s been republished since then. I eventually lost track of Lokke, but I’d like to think he’s still out searching for the Timber and painting his heart out.
Naturalist-Artist John Lokke – In Pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and In the Footsteps of Karl Bodmer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Snakes have served as potent cultural symbols since, well, Eve was led astray by one in the Garden of Eden. Whether it’s the Hydra of Greek mythology or the serpent (read: Satan) in the Book of Genesis, snakes have long been equated with treachery if not outright evil.
The tendency throughout history has been to regard all members of the Serpentes family — even non-poisonous ones — as deadly threats to be eradicated at all costs. That bad rap, combined with their demonized place in myth and holy scripture, gave rise to the notion the only good snake is a dead one. Indeed, snake hunting has made some species scarce and others extinct. Then too there’s the creature’s cold calculating eyes, sinister scaly body and slithering, secretive ways.
Still, not everyone has bought into the snake-as-devil doctrine. Native American rituals, including Hopi Indian dances and Lakota Indian vision quests, celebrate the snake as a symbol of power and regeneration. Sierra Club types contend snakes are wildlife treasures unfairly maligned for instinctive traits borne of evolution not evil.
Then there’s John Lokke, a local herpetologist, naturalist and watercolorist who combines his interest in the Timber Rattlesnake (“the largest and most imperiled venomous snake in Nebraska”) with his love for the Missouri River Valley, his interest in this region’s history and his rigorous artistic vision. Lokke, a 43-year-old Omaha native, creates paintings capturing the ever-changing face of the river bluffs where the Timber once roamed in great abundance across southeast Nebraska but, due in part to extensive rock quarrying operations begun in the 1930s, has been nearly wiped out. Until then, the snake went largely undetected, but once discovered became a target for residents who killed them in great numbers.
Today, the snake, whose range in Nebraska was always limited to the extreme southeastern corner, is rarely reported within the state’s borders. In 20 years of searching for them Lokke estimates he’s seen dozens, with the vast majority in Kansas. “They’re not easy to find. They blend in beautifully with their surroundings. It’s a big beautiful snake. A really large one is just a little over four feet long. Probably what accounts for it being rarer or absent today throughout its range in Nebraska and in other parts of the country is that its habitat has been degraded to the point where it can’t carry on its life cycle,” he explained.
He blames rampant tree succession, which unchecked prairie fires once controlled, for spoiling the high rock outcroppings favored by the Timber. “As the trees fill in the rocks no longer get the warm sun in the spring, when the snakes emerge from their dens, or in the fall, when they retreat back into them. Bluffs are slowly but surely being consumed by the trees, including dogwoods, cedars and cottonwoods.” Further eroding the snake’s habitat, he added, is a widespread phenomenon called slumping in which tons of dirt slide down from atop a bluff to cover or bury a rock outcrop, effectively making it uninhabitable.
It is tempting to compare the tall, tapered Lokke, who began studying and collecting snakes as a child, with the Crotalus Horridus he often seeks and paints on field trips in far southeast Nebraska. Much like the Timber, he has a quiet, still presence and patiently bides his time before acting in precise, definitive ways.
Since the mid-1990s this rather sober artist has been on a self-appointed mission to document a stretch of the Missouri along the Kansas-Nebraska border where the Timber once flourished but is now mostly vanished and where noted 19th century Swiss artist Karl Bodmer traveled with German Prince Maximilian of Wied, a noted naturalist, to explore the then pristine American West. He not only makes drawings, paintings and photographs of riverscapes but collects data on the area’s history through interviews with long-time residents, including old quarry workers whose labors inadvertently revealed the snake’s existence and sealed its fate. Why does Lokke do it? To leave a record of how the river, the land and the snake’s habitat has been altered by man’s presence in the ensuing years since Maximilian-Bodmer journeyed there during their 1832-1834 trek. It is Lokke’s way of providing a link to the past and a gauge for the future.
When, in 1996, Lokke discovered he had been drawn in his search for the snake to visit and paint some of the very sites Bodmer had before him, it revealed fresh connections and sparked renewed dedication to his mission.
“I had made three initial watercolor landscapes in Cass County of King Hill and of Indian or Ace Hill. When I discovered Bodmer had painted these hills it absolutely bowled me over,” he said. “It was through repeated searches for this snake I really became enamored with the beauty and mystery of those hills. I always knew there was something very powerful, very special about those hills, something a little more deep and more rugged than the others, and obviously a scientist from Germany and an artist from Switzerland 160 years earlier thought so too, and I thought that was pretty amazing. To see that Bodmer had chosen these hills was very validating for what I was trying to do because, you know, I went into this basically cold.
“I believed in what I was doing — I knew it was important — but I wasn’t sure of an historical context. But when I saw Bodmer’s work, that all changed. I now had a link with my natural history interests and a tie to the past through art history. I made up my mind then I was going to make a lot more of these paintings and make them ever better. That I was going to work at this very hard and push this as far as I can…and maybe I could leave behind some paintings that will be as useful to people in 200 years as Karl Bodmer’s are today. I got very invigorated by that possibility, and I went to work.”
The bridge between Lokke and Bodmer takes on added interest in that Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, where Lokke worked as an art education intern, is the repository of the internationally renowned Maximilian-Bodmer collection. The collection, under the auspices of the museum’s Center for Western Studies, includes hundreds of Bodmer watercolors and sketches as well as three journals kept by Maximilian that detail the expedition’s day-by-day progress. Joslyn has featured the Bodmer collection in major exhibitions and catalogs.
By 2001-2002, work should be completed on a new book detailing all 81 of the hand-colored engravings Bodmer made from his on-site watercolors, and during 2003-2004 a first-ever European tour of the Bodmer watercolors is scheduled. The long-anticipated publication of Maximilian’s German-language diaries is still two or three years off, according to museum officials.
Lokke, who discovered his link to Bodmer in the book “Karl Bodmer’s America,” envisions an illustrated book of his own someday that, in his words, “will tell the story of this amazing snake and its habitat and all the changes that have happened along this habitat in the 20th century.” The book will also document his own personal journey of discovery in the places he’s visited, the people he’s met, the stories he’s heard and the paintings, drawings and photographs he’s produced.
Beth Irwin, a former teaching specialist at Joslyn who supervised Lokke at the museum, is familiar with his work and its reverberations with Bodmer. “The feeling you get from John’s work is similar to the feeling you get from Bodmer’s. The Bodmer watercolors have a strong feeling of immediacy because they were painted more quickly — done maybe over a day’s time — where John’s are probably done over a month’s time. But they both have that freshness and immediacy in common.”
After working as a commercial artist during the 1970s and ‘80s, Lokke decided to embark on a fine arts degree about 10 years ago. Now a year-and-a-half away from earning his degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Lokke brings a non-traditional maturity and vision to the classroom. One of John’s teachers at UNO, associate professor of art Bonnie O’Connell, said Lokke distinguishes himself by “his extensive experience out in the field” as well as by “the research he’s done. He’s quite delightful because he’s literate and articulate.”
Frances Thurber, an associate professor in art and art history at UNO, has taught Lokke and seen his watercolor work develop. “John really took to watercolor and became quite facile with the medium. He has a natural affinity for it. John really looks at the subtleties of that paint. He has a fine eye and a fine hand,” she said. “And I think he’s found a real niche for himself by incorporating his interests as a naturalist with his historical recording and his gifts as an artist. He has very much a scholarly approach to things. His work is precise and deep. He’s very gifted.”
To date, the artist has completed some 23 paintings and drawings relating to the Timber’s historical range and/or updating Bodmer’s views of the region. His watercolor landscapes, which have shown in a few area exhibitions, will be on display at the Omaha History Center through the end of October.
Finding the subjects for his watercolors requires Lokke venture to some off-the-beaten-path spots. He backpacks into remote wooded areas along the river, accessing long-abandoned quarry sites and mining towns. His favorite haunts include the Barada Hills, Jones Point, Morgan’s Island and the site where the Big Nemaha River meets the Missouri. Since much of the territory he covers is private land, he asks residents permission to traverse their property. Through such contacts with locals he’s heard many tales about the Timber Rattlesnake and about life along the once free and wild river.
“I’ve had some great experiences talking to these guys. They provide a glimpse into pre-World War II life on the Missouri River, before it was managed. Life then was simpler. Much less mechanized. Farms were smaller. A lot of southeastern Nebraska was devoted to fruit production. More families fished the river commercially. There were a number of small ferrying operations. The Schmid brothers, a pair of bachelor farmers who came to the United States from Switzerland in 1930 and settled on some land at the base of Indian or Ace Hill, remember being able to walk out their door, cross a flood plain and find an oxbow or slough full of fish in clear water. They feel the river is less for the better through channelizing. A lot of the wildlife and natural beauty is gone. Their opinion is it probably should have been left alone.”
Pete Everett, a 95-year-old ex-quarry worker, has told Lokke of the time at King’s Hill Quarry when a mound of loose dirt was removed from a bluff to reveal a depression in the ground. Digging turned up a den of 40 hibernating Timber Rattlesnakes. Lokke practically drools at the thought. His works include a series of “illustrated narrative” paintings depicting some of the snake tales the men have told him. He relies on the memories of men like Everett to inform him what those hills looked like and what habitat they sustained. He says his work is “increasingly becoming a tribute to the old men who have provided me with such wonderful stories. The greatest satisfaction I get is when I show them the paintings and watch 40 years fall off their faces.”
While far from a raving John the Baptist in the wild, Lokke concedes his quest is all-consuming, leaving him somewhat out-of-step with the times. “I’m much too slow for the 20th century,” he said. “I barely know computers. To tell you the truth I miss probably about 90 percent of popular culture. I don’t know what’s going on. I kind of live in my own oblivion. You kind of have to, you know?”
He prefers old-fashioned American music and often plays it on one of his National resophonic fingerstyle guitars. He also composes original tunes based on sounds that come to him on his river sojourns. “If I do something quite rigorous, like hiking or struggling with a drawing or searching for snakes, I’ll start hearing a recurring sound in my head — a riff — and once I get it in my head I try mentally playing with it and expanding on it and then I try to find it on the guitar. Some, I discard. Others survive to become what I like to think of as soundtracks to the places I go and the things I see.”
He looks to the past for much of his inspiration and, a la Thoreau, to nature for his sustenance. During one of his many Missouri River haunts, when he variously searches for the Timber and for just the right vantage point from which to paint its river bluff environs, he is a man in tune with himself and with his universe. At one with the rushing wind, the streaming river, the warbling Thrush. “It is essential,” he said of communing with the Great Outdoors, “because when I’m out there, even if I’m having a really bad day and just can’t get it together, I still think I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It can certainly become a spiritual experience.”
In his work Lokke calls on both his training as an artist and his knowledge as a natural history buff. “I do go out there with the overt intention of striking a balance between what I know from my artistic training is aesthetically and
compositionally engaging and what is of historical interest or importance. My basic technique is to make as detailed a drawing as possible in the field. Then I take a few color snapshots just to help my memory with the colors I was seeing out there at the time. The drawing is really the skeleton and essence of what’s going to become a painting. In the drawing I bring out details lost or distorted in the photograph. I transfer the drawing directly onto good watercolor paper.” He often returns several times to the same site before finishing a painting.
For someone as passionate about nature as Lokke, working with a sketch pad outdoors can prove distracting. “It’s absolutely overwhelming to draw outdoors because I have a naturalist’s eye and I’m trained to see as much as possible, so I have to be selective. You cannot take it all home. After awhile a sense of what needs to be there will come through. But it’s very hard. I’m usually pretty tired by the time I’m done with one.”
Just as the remote bluffs that once provided a perfect haven for the snake and its dens have changed since Karl Bodmer’s time, so has the muddy river below — owing to massive dike-building and channelizing efforts aimed at taming floods and aiding river navigation. Lokke, who has a river’s stillness and serenity accentuated by his deep gaze, long slow gait and deliberate manner of speaking, would have loved to glimpse the Missouri and its surrounding hills in their pure wild state.
Crafting his words as carefully as he renders the details in his fine paintings, he said: “Often times when I’m driving home I get this deeply satisfying sensation that I I’m somehow connecting with the history of the place. The recollections of the old men come back to me strongly when I’m painting. My imagination gets keen with how it must have looked when this was frontier. I see it in very idyllic terms: The hills are a savannah that are basically open, with a spangling of hardwood trees through them; the bottoms are extremely rich with grasses, trees, water, birds and fish. I try not to think about the mosquitoes or the mud or the other problems.”
He appreciates that while he sometimes contends with tough conditions out in the field, ranging from hordes of nagging insects to severe heat or cold, he can always retreat to the comfort of his car and to a warm soft bed at night whereas Bodmer was exposed to harsh elements for weeks at a time, with only the bare provisions and flimsy accommodations afforded by the Yellowstone Steamer he and the rest of Maximilian’s party used to ply the Missouri River.
“He dealt with things that were much worse than what I face,” Lokke said. “From what I’ve been able to glean from notations in the journals, Bodmer was not just an artist for hire but also a crew member who was expected to go ashore and cut wood and hunt animals and assist when the steamboat got caught in snags or mired on sandbars, which was a common problem. It was a very difficult journey.”
It is not an exaggeration to say Lokke feels a kinship with Bodmer that extends beyond simply retracing the earlier artist’s historic steps. For example, Lokke paints in the same medium (watercolor) as his predecessor did and shares with him an affinity for nature and a sensitivity for accurately portraying flora and fauna.
“The kinship I feel with him is that we both work in watercolor, which can be a difficult and unforgiving medium…an elusive way to do art. At the same time, the properties of watercolor — the transparency and the way the paint behaves — are very conducive to rendering nature. There’s something about the way the colors lay on the paper, especially a fine rag paper, and the way that beautiful white paper shines through this paint.
“Bodmer was an immensely talented man. I love the way he handles his colors. His paintings have great economy. He can depict a whole line of trees along the river with basically just two layers of color whereas I have to use half-a-dozen. The greatest thing about his paintings for me is how his use of colors evoke the last glimpse of an unspoiled continent. The colors have a softness and sophistication that I think, more than any frontier artist I’ve looked at, capture the innocence of the North America he saw.
“The real connection I feel with Karl Bodmer is he had a real love for details and it was important to him that the plants and animals and the people and their tools were all done accurately. Bodmer was one of hundreds of artists in the 1800s sent far away to bring back imagery of foreign lands for review at home. Topographical artists like him were the camera of the day. Pictorial accuracy was paramount.”
In 1998 Lokke’s own skills as a representational artist led the then director of the UNO-sponsored Bethsaida Excavation Project, Richard Freund, to commission him to visit the Holy Land and paint historic sites documented by 19th century
topographical artist David Roberts. It was his first trip abroad. “That was a chance for me to live out every topographer’s dream,” Lokke said. His resulting paintings are currently on display in Hartford, CT and will tour other cities across the U.S.
Lokke is not the first Nebraskan to feel a keen personal kinship with the Maximilian-Bodmer odyssey. The late Paul Schach, emeritus professor of modern languages at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, worked 12 years on the translation of Maximilian’s diaries. In a 1990 interview Schach, who grew up in Pennsylvania speaking and reading a dialect similar to Maximilian’s, said the painstaking translation put him on intimate terms with the man, with whom he shared more than a common heritage and language. Just as Maximilian spent a lifetime as a rugged outdoorsman and rigorous scholar, so too did Schach, who admitted to having “become perhaps too much interested in the man.”
Although Lokke regrets the fact he and Schach never met, Lokke feels they shared a bond no words could have expressed. Each felt the pull of the frontier West. Each identified with his own historical counterpart. Each in his own way delved far into the past in order to extract a better understanding of then and now. Schach is gone now, having left behind a vital store of knowledge. Lokke hopes to leave behind a legacy of his own whenever his time comes. A legacy staked out in the footprints of Bodmer.
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