‘Elk and Butterflies’ by Eric S. Carlson


painting by Eric S. Carlson

elk and butterflies eric carlson

Elk and Butterflies, Eric S. Carlson, Acrylic

ERIC S. CARLSON is a painter, illustrator, and archaeologist whose unconventional art ranges from scientific to mythic, covering on-site archaeological excavations to children’s book illustrations. His painting Elk and Butterflies was featured in his “WILDERNESS” art show at the Montgomery Distillery in Missoula, MT.

Prior to his “WILDERNESS” show, Eric S. Carlson showcased a body of work called “Transformations,” featuring painted scenes of humans morphing into animals, of wolves becoming elk, and so on. These transformations typify mythological change across normal, sequential, linear time. A herd of caribou transition to antlered humans across an arctic landscape, a pair of loons transport humans towards a dark, stormy lakeside, the humans depicted in various stages of becoming birds themselves.

Because we observe nature’s grand scheme in slow motion, we experience time’s transformative forces in demarcated stages: in winter, the apple tree rests dead and dormant for months, until spring’s warmer weather ignites the apple blossoms for summer to ripen into fruit dense enough to literally fall from the tree’s branches come fall. Time partitions the apple’s development into distinct, temporal stages, and so do we by ordering cyclical change into Spring, Summer, Fall, etc. Yet, when you condense time into an image — that is to say, when you see all interrelated time-events occurring all at once, like Vonnegut’s 4-dimensional Tralfamadorians — you see what Eric S. Carlson sees: the eternal interconnectivity of the universe; our mystical oneness with all things, living and dead, past and present.

The “oneness” of Eric’s artwork is not uniformly singular but a complex entanglement of multiple ecosystems. This entanglement is stylistically layered with animal symbolism, folklore, psychology, anthropology, biology, and Native American ontologies. As such, his depiction of “oneness” is also not entirely mystical: as an archaeologist, Eric’s artistry illumines with a scientific understanding of the natural world. This scientific lens lends Eric’s paintings an anatomy-textbook frankness: Eric does not evade the bare, vulgar facts of sex and decay, which appear in Elk and Butterflies most explicitly in the elk’s exposed genitalia and rib-bones.

This frank juxtaposition of rot and reproduction is unavoidably provocative. If we take the view that positions society as a defense against the barbarisms of nature, we see Elk and Butterflies as an affront to our socialized sensibilities, our psychological haven of indoor order and cleanliness. But the outdoors operate on a dehumanizing flux and flow, ultimately crushing the individual into a mineral-rich fertilizer for other life-forms to sprout.

In nature, a rotting elk nourishes butterflies. Life begets death, death begets life — and even in our more comfortable, civilized spheres we still can’t spell “erotic” without “rot.”


The Elk and Butterflies painting is a scene Eric encountered in Woods Gulch of Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, a wilderness spot four miles north of Missoula, MT. An elk carcass was liquefying in a spring-glazed snowbank when Eric ran past and disturbed the hundreds of butterflies consuming the elk into a fluttery swarm of color.

Alongside the carcass fresh glacier lillies had begun to blossom, and the nearby creek was running strong with snow-melt.

The painting shows the stripped carcass alive, essentially reborn as its flesh and salts nourish and become butterflies.

In turn, the elk-fed butterflies transport nourishment to the forest, demonstrating the malevolent flesh-rending benevolence of our nature mother. The carcass fuels the colorful insects to pollinate the glacier lillies, to reproduce, to feed the birds that consume the butterflies. Taken all at once, the inspirational scene — as well as its inspired painting — renders the dead, decrepit, male elk into a pregnant life-giver bursting with virile pollinators.

There’s a liquidity to the scene, typified by the painted elk’s tromping through the stream. What was once intact — flesh, snow, etc. — disintegrates into elemental fluids, delivered by way of butterfly and creek. Ironically, only through the crystallizing effects of Eric’s timeless painting may we visualize and appreciate the totality of the elk’s transformation into wilderness.


From inspiration to abstract idea to a tangible work of art, Eric S. Carlson’s creative journey involves a rigorously detailed process of dreaming, sketching, and painting.

For most of Eric’s work, inspiration occurs in real-life experiences, typically in the wilderness while interacting with animals and birds. The intensity of the experience locks the scene into Eric’s memory, which accumulates symbolic associations over the following weeks. In his mind, the event forms a composition, in which he places new elements to form a visual narrative for him to explore in both day- and night-dreams.

The sketch brings the image to life, as the drawing process spontaneously reveals key components and hidden meanings.

elk and butterflies sketch eric carlson

Pre-painting sketch of Elk and Butterflies.

Cubism plays a significant part in representing the wholeness of the images in Eric’s mind. While structuring the composition in such a way to direct the viewer through the scene’s most important elements, Eric takes a multi-angled Cubist approach to represent multiple views of figures shown simultaneously.

Time cubists can render separate moments into a single, timeless image, as depicted by the living dead elk carcass in Elk and Butterflies. This makes the co-existence of living and non-living visually possible, paralleling Eric’s archaeological excavations into our primitive past.

For the viewer, Eric’s paintings are a journey into the wilderness, stripping us for a moment of our social sensibilities and isolated self-regard. As the human faces on the elk’s neck suggest, we remain vulnerable to the flux and flow of wild nature, because wilderness still resides within us, down to the genetic level.

All things considered, on the timeline of our species’ evolution, only recently have we departed from the wild. Yet, despite our domestication, our DNA remains programmed for the wild, and rot and reproduction remain our universal, bare, vulgar fact.

Eric’s Elk and Butterflies redeems this fact as something beautiful.



To see more of Eric S. Carlson’s work, head to


AMERICAN VULGARIA is an art + culture magazine based in Missoula, MT.

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