© 2024 Marfa Public Radio
A 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Lobby Hours: Monday - Friday 10 AM to Noon & 1 PM to 4 PM
For general inquiries: (432) 729-4578
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Alpine artist Chris Ruggia celebrates Black Bears, “New Neighbors” in the Big Bend

The cover of Ruggia's new book, "American Black Bears: New Neighbors in the Big Bend"
Chris Ruggia
The cover of Ruggia's new book, "American Black Bears: New Neighbors in the Big Bend"

It’s the West Texas wildlife headline of the decade: Black bears are back in the Big Bend. The return of these charismatic beasts is inspiring research, and public outreach. It’s also inspiring art.

Chris Ruggia is a West Texas renaissance man. He’s the City of Alpine’s longtime tourism director. He and his wife Ellen own Vast Graphics, a graphic-design studio, and they make music as part of a local band, the Swifts. Ruggia is also a visual storyteller. For two decades, his paintings and comics have captured the region’s wildlife, with whimsy and empathy.

His newest work is a book on West Texas bears. It’s an invitation to the young, and the curious of all ages, to connect with these “new neighbors.”

“I feel, very impractically perhaps, that all species are inherently equal,” Ruggia said, “that we all have an equal chance, let's say, at life and liberty and the pursuit of nourishment. So when I try to tell those stories, my goal is to make my best guess at what their priorities and interests are, and then to translate them in a way that makes sense to people.”

Ruggia studied painting at UT-Austin. But in the early 2000s, he turned his attention to West Texas wildlife, with a series of comics featuring Jack, the black-tailed jackrabbit. His cast of characters soon included grasshopper mice and kangaroo rats, coyotes and badgers, earless lizards and kit foxes. For Ruggia, the comics are of a piece with his tourism work – a creative way to interpret the Big Bend for visitors.

He imbues his desert creatures with personality, to engage the reader’s sympathy and imagination. But Ruggia also does his research.

He reads the academic literature. But the best inspiration are local scientists. That includes Alpine’s Raymond Skiles, who retired as Big Bend National Park biologist in 2018. Skiles began his career in 1987, just as bears were returning to Big Bend after their decades-long absence. Moved by Skiles’s account, Ruggia created a haunting painting of a black bear family.

In February, the painting was sold to support bear science at Alpine’s Borderlands Research Institute. And Ruggia decided to expand the project with the new bear book. He quizzed BRI scientists about their findings.

“Having that information tells me what the scene is going to be,” Ruggia said, “whether it's a single drawing or a whole narrative. It tells me what's in and out of character for this animal. Where will they be? What will the setting be like? What will they be doing?”

The book shares details on bear behavior. It also includes portraits of the scientists themselves. And it’s interactive. Ruggia provides step-by-step instructions for drawing a bear, and a coloring page based on his painting.

Wild creatures don’t sit for portraits, and Ruggia begins his process by studying photographs.

“I'm just getting a feeling for the proportions and the poses, how they move,” he said. “I'll do pages and pages of the sketchbook just sketching from Google Images, and then I start cartooning them and giving them personalities and different expressions and things like that, because that’s a big part of the fun for me.”

While the book is accessible for children, Ruggia said he never “talks down” to young readers. He’s partnering with Mary Beth Garrett, Alpine children’s librarian, on bear talks in schools.

In August, Ruggia will be Big Bend National Park’s artist-in-residence. This distinctive artist isn’t done exploring the Big Bend’s distinctive creatures.

The bear book is available for free at chrisruggia.com, and at Front Street Books in Alpine.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.
Latest Episodes: