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Making an imprint on Africa: Flagstaffian casts wildlife tracks to help endangered species
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Making an imprint on Africa: Flagstaffian casts wildlife tracks to help endangered species

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Dead-of-night thoughts, whether fleeting or fully formed, usually are well forgotten in the clarifying dawn.

But when Cannon Winkler, then a student at the University of Arizona, awoke at 2 a.m. — “in a cold sweat,” he recalled — with an idea that came to him in that netherworld between dreaming and wakefulness, he roused himself from bed and scribbled his notion on a whiteboard before falling back to sleep.

The brainstorm: “If I could somehow capture the movement of wild animals on canvas, I could make art out of that.”

This nocturnal epiphany happened a couple of years ago, back when Winkler, the former senior class president at the Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, was wrapping up his undergraduate business degree and mulling multiple offers from large tech corporations in New York City. His future seem pretty assured, a career path laid out all neat and tidy.

But that note on the whiteboard near his bed in Tucson got him thinking. Did he really want to go straight from college into the corporate grind? Is that how he wanted to spend his 20s and, presumably, every decade thereafter? Would it be a life of quiet desperation?

Call it something of a quarter-life crisis, but Winkler’s thoughts turned to Africa. And safaris. And wildlife. And, yes, maybe even that half-formed idea of a wild-animal art project. So, he said no to Manhattan, chucked the job offers and set out on a grand adventure to the South African Bushveld.

“I could just sort of see the 10-year road for myself with the job, and I knew exactly how that was going to go,” Winkler, 24, recalled. “And then I thought, ‘Well, let’s have something exciting instead.’ There was a lot of pushback from my professors.

“I’ve always been super passionate about wildlife and known I’d do something with conservation, eventually, but rather than put it off until I was older, I thought that’d try to figure it out now.”

Off he went, then, early in the spring of 2020, encamping in a tent in the bush, far away from any city, while starting training as a safari guide, learning the skill of tracking animals, leading tourists in safe close-up viewing of these stately mammals, many endangered. He was one of a handful of prospective safari guides seeking certification, a lengthy and involved process.

Then COVID-19 hit and everything stopped.

The way Winkler tells it, the entire country of South Africa shut down — or, at least, that’s the way it seemed to him and his fellow aspirants stranded in the outback. No cell service. No Wi-Fi. No clue as to what was going on in the rest of the country. Every two weeks, someone would make a food drop for the camp, but all instruction was suspended.

“That first day, after they told us we had to stop training, all you could hear throughout the entire camp was the sound of sweaty, angry dudes sharpening sticks,” he said, laughing. “Everybody was so frustrated. At first, I felt like it was going to be ‘Lord of the Flies.’ Middle of nowhere. No supervision. No direction. But it ended up being an incredible experience because you’re forced to fully immerse with what’s going on around you.”

Making artistic impressions with tracks

And it was during this lull when Winkler remembered that whiteboard back in Tucson, that notion about making art from wild-animal movement. When not killing time by participating in the made-up “Bush Olympics” — Winkler was edged out for third place in spear throwing by a burly Dutch dude — he hit upon the idea of capturing wildlife tracks in silicone and then, eventually, transferring prints to canvas in painterly designs.

He spent the better part of the year, even after the pandemic restrictions eased and safari training resumed, collecting footprints from a menagerie of wildlife.

Now, temporarily back in Flagstaff to visit family before heading back to the wilds, Winkler is hard at work creating artistic expressions of these fascinating creatures he encountered — everything from hippos to leopards, lions to rhinos, cape buffalo to giraffes — all with the purpose of raising funds to protect wildlife and nature preserves under threat on the continent.

Winkler is calling it the Walks of Life project (the website, walksoflifeart.com, soon will go live) with up to 40% of each sale of canvasses going to a South African preservation nonprofit, the African Parks Network, which works in anti-poaching and animal rehabilitation efforts. He said he’s already made sales in South Africa this past year and, since returning to Flagstaff in April, is working on a website the expand the scope of the fundraising effort before he takes off again next year for either Botswana or the Congo.

The specter of a corporate life must seem so remote to Winkler now, given all he’s experienced in the past year. He expresses no regret whatsoever in choosing the baboons of the Bushveld over the Wolves of Wall Street. Africa, he said, has been a revelation.

“Oh, definitely,” he said. “This is something people who spend an extended time in Africa say: the fossil records tell us we evolved there; that’s actually the environment you’re designed for. On some deep subconscious level, some part of you feels like you belong there. Those are the colors your eyes are meant to see. That’s the grass your body’s meant to walk through. It kind of fits in that way.”

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Finding his purpose abroad

Initially scary as the pandemic isolation may have been, Winkler said it gave him the downtime to delve into the culture and very topography and habitat he called home.

“It’s an incredible experience, because you’re forced to fully immerse with what’s going on around you,” Winkler said. “Little things, you start picking up. You notice the termites are starting to do something a little different, and that means in 24 hours it’s going to rain. You start smelling animals before you see them. That kind of thing.”

Add to that visually and olfactory sensory experiences in the bush the tactile pleasures of finding animal tracks and casting them in silicone, both as keepsakes and objets d’ art. It was a trial-and-error process, and Winkler was self-taught in the art. It took a while to master but, well, he had plenty of time during the lockdown to experiment.

“Almost everyone else, when casting tracks, (uses) plaster of paris, but I needed (tracks) to be flexible,” he said. “A few times a week, I’d go out and get tracks. Goal at first was to get what they call The Big 5: elephants, black rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo. Elephant is tough. This takes a lot of silicon.”

His process in using silicone to preserve track impressions changed over time, too.

“In the beginning I was trying to thin the silicone down and pour it into the tracks,” he explained. “You do get better definition but the process of thinning the silicone was not very environmentally friendly. It didn’t make sense for me to be making prints to protect the wildlife while at the same time putting something bad into the environment.

“So, now, I take a cooking spray and, when I find a good track, spray the track and then (with) 100% silicone caulk, inject it into the track, smooth it out, wait 24 hours, covering it with rocks and stones — a lot of tracks ruined by wildebeest — and then come back and get it.”

Casting about for prints

Winkler has brought back quite a haul of squishy, but finely wrought, silicone prints. Using paint, he’s been transferring them, collage-like, onto canvases in unique patterns.

But it’s the silicone tracks themselves that are most fascination. While working on a canvas, Winkler has a box full of prints from which to choose. He rummaged through the box to pull out the first successful print he got: a spotted hyena. It is small but distinct, the digits clearly visible. To show how a wildebeest can mess with clear prints, Winkler unearthed a large, deep print of a white rhino — a rare find, he said — somewhat marred on the edge by a wildebeest hoof.

Hardest to find, though, are good elephant prints.

“The tricky part with elephants is not finding the tracks; you can find them easily,” he said. “It’s that they have all of these wrinkles in their feet, but you have to get a track with enough definition to get the wrinkles. Otherwise, you just have a big silicone pancake.”

He held up an elephant print the size of a hubcap and ran his fingers across the fine lines and wrinkles that gave the print its distinctiveness.

Winkler downplayed the danger involved in tracking prints and casting them. Elephants can be a little uncooperative, but nothing like cape buffalo, which apparently have anger management issues.

Sometimes, such as when tracking the prints of a leopard, he himself will be tracked by the object of his attention. That can be a little unnerving.

“I used to go out in the mornings to look for leopard tracks because they’re most active during the night and you can sometimes get fresh tracks in the morning,” he said. “I’d pick up a trail usually on the road where you have really fine sandy soil, but you can’t cast it. So I’d track the leopard for an hour or two (in the bush) to where it went near the water or in clay-based soil. Better prints.

“A few times, I’d be doing that, suddenly, everything would go silent. Like, the bugs aren’t moving. The birds aren’t moving. That means they’re freezing and watching something. You can kind of feel it, too, the hair rising on the back of your neck. But I never saw (the leopard). I was a big male that I was tracking. When I was coming out, though, I could see in my tracks where he’d been crossing and following my tracks. I tracked this guy many times before I actually got a good print out of it.”

The leopard print Winkler held up for inspection was big, fist-sized and deep. He broke into a big grin, relishing recounting the story behind it. He also talked excitedly about the different animals tracks he might capture on his return trip, such as gorillas, chimps and forest elephants in the Congo.

His exuberance is such that you wonder whether he could ever change and go back to the corporate habitat in Manhattan.

“Yeah, well, it would be really tough,” he said, scratching his beard. “I even have a hard time sitting in front of the computer for a full day now.”

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Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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