'I am wild:' Greenwich artist creates his vision of a lion for a global conservation exhibition and fundraiser

GREENWICH — A serendipitous encounter at a Long Island bookstore inspired the latest project from artist Roberto Dutesco.

Dutesco, who moved from New York to Old Greenwich with his kids during the COVID-19 pandemic, had recently been named one of 12 American artists who would contribute to the Lion Tusk Trail, an art exhibition and fundraiser for two conservation nonprofits working to save endangered African animals.

In early July, each artist was delivered a life-size fiberglass sculpture of a lion, then instructed to adorn it in whatever way they saw fit. Dutesco, a book collector with tens of thousands of titles in his ownership, walked into Canio’s Books, a familiar haunt in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and greeted the staff.

“I told the people, ‘I’m looking for something, but I don’t know what I’m looking for,’” Dutesco said in an interview from his recently opened IAMWILD art gallery on Sound Beach Avenue.

What he found at the bookstore was a recent translation of the 10th-century Arabic lexicographer Ibn Khalawayh’s book, “Names of the Lion.” It’s a comprehensive catalog of how people across cultures and languages referred to the animal, which at that time roamed much of present-day Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

The book provided the inspiration Dutesco needed. He returned to his gallery with a plan.

Art in support of conservation on two continents

The Lion Tusk Trail is a joint effort of the Tusk Trust, a British conservation group whose supporters include Prince William, and the African Community & Conservation Foundation, an American nonprofit working to preserve African wilderness and animals.

Trails will be set up in the Hamptons on Long Island, in London and in other cities in the United Kingdom, as well as throughout the world, including in Australia, New Zealand and Kenya, beginning Aug. 10, which is also World Lion Day. Artists include Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, wildlife photographer David Yarrow, fashion designer Donna Karan (whose work will appear on the Hamptons trail) and actor Noel Fielding, known widely for his work as presenter on “The Great British Bake Off.”

On Long Island, 12 uniquely curated lions will be displayed for several weeks, until an Aug. 27 auction, with the proceeds supporting the conservation efforts of both organizations. A Nov. 9 London auction will follow for the lions shown internationally.

It’s the second exhibition of its kind organized by the Tusk Trust, which had a 2018 Rhino Trail that raised nearly $1 million.

According to Pete Mattson, vice president of the ACCF, the groups chose to make lions the face of this year’s campaign because of the animal’s dwindling population in recent years.

“Between the first ‘Lion King’ movie coming out in the mid-1990s and then to latest “Lion King” movie, the African lion population has decreased by 50 percent,” Mattson said.

It’s a bleak statistic, and lions continue to face threats from poachers and, especially, from human-wildlife conflict. But Mattson said that through education and philanthropic efforts, ACCF believes the lion population can make a comeback.

‘I am wild’

Book in hand, Dutesco came up with a concept for his lion based on cultivating a sense of kinship between man and beast.

“It's been said that you can only conserve that which you love,” he said last Wednesday, less than 24 hours before the sculpture was to be picked up and transported to Long Island. “So in order for something to happen, we have to create a kinship with what is in front of us to create the possibility of perhaps doing something about this.”

This is not a novel idea for Dutesco, who does not consider himself an environmentalist even though he has made a name for himself as the foremost chronicler of the Sable Island horses.

“It's this place that that horses exist totally unaware and unafraid of man,” he said.

Sable Island is a small sandbar 40 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia that’s home to 500 equines of unknown origin. Dutesco made his first trip to the remote island, which has no permanent residents, in the 1990s and has made more than 10 subsequent trips. He was also part of a group that prevailed upon the Canadian government to make Sable Island a national park, which happened in 2013.

In his Greenwich gallery, the results of his decade-spanning project cover the walls. Dutesco, a spry, energetic 60-year-old with a bald pate and muscular arms shaped by his daily morning swims at Tod’s Point, eagerly shows off his books of photography, scattered on cluttered tables, which include more pictures of the horses and information on Sable Island.

Until his move to Connecticut, Dutesco maintained two galleries in New York City featuring his work. It also informed his IAMWILD brand, which is both the name of his gallery and the name of an art and conservation organization. Using the IAMWILD name as his vehicle, he has already spoken to Old Greenwich School students about his work and conservation efforts, and hopes to one day create a mobile IAMWILD museum that would display his Sable Island photos in cities around the world.

Dutesco also incorporated the name into his design of the Lion Tusk Trail sculpture, applying the logo on the left side of the animal’s body, atop a coat of black paint. Around that logo and all over the body, he painted hundreds of names for the word lion in different languages.

Using different languages that span continents, cultures and centuries, Dutesco’s idea is that he can inspire viewers to look at the lion through a different lens. That perspective-changing process, he hopes, can promote a feeling of connectivity.

“I am wild,” said Dutesco. “So I am a lion and you are wild so you are a lion. If we put ourselves on the same ground as the wilderness, then we become part of it. ... Art inspires a different sort of conversation.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586