Utah-based artist Chad Poppleton grew up with a loving appreciation for animals and Western settings. As he developed his drawing and painting skills in his teen and college years, his dedication to creating a dramatic and majestic style of Western art deepened and expanded. As a student at Utah State University, he honed his craft and allied himself with some of the greats and up-and-comers in the wildlife art world. Now, based in Cache Valley, Utah, he's a busy, enthusiastic working artist who specializes in expressively portraying various wildlife in their environment.

The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition announced Poppleton as the featured artist for its 2014 series. Poppleton's painting "High Ground" was selected as the subject of the official SEWE 2014 poster.

"High Ground" will be available to view and bid on during the Preview Gala and Auction event tonight.

How did you first start working as an artist, and what initially drew you into it?

My dad was into art, working as a freelance illustrator and a fine art painter. He was pretty successful at it. He was one of those few guys who was just an artist in every aspect. I was naturally drawn to it.

Were you an animal lover all of your life, or was it a passion that developed over the years?

I was always crazy about animals. As a little kid, there was something that was so captivating about them. I was always paying attention and watching them.

Why were animals and wildlife scenes usually your preferred subject?

Well, I grew up on a farm and ranch. My family had a herd of dairy cows and there was always a lot of farm work to do. But in the winter, there wasn't as much time to spend tending and harvesting, so I spent a lot of time in the studio. I think I had a natural aptitude to draw. Every scrap of paper and homework assignment seemed to end up with a drawing of an elk or a deer on it. My parents must have noticed it, too. They encouraged me and kind of pushed me toward it. It almost feels like more of a calling in life than a job to me.

When did you realize that pursuing a career as a professional painter was a serious goal?

I majored in fine arts and illustration in college, and that was really the turning point for me. At Utah State University, there were a lot of terrific Western artists who came through and taught. A lot of younger artists came right out of it and into the scene, like Jason Rich, Luke Frazier and Bob Kuhn. They inspired me to try to make it out there, too. I sent a few pieces to a few galleries and started selling stuff. From that point on, I haven't looked back.

What other experiences at Utah State University left the biggest impact on you as an artist?

I'll say this: I learned what I didn't want to do and what I didn't want to be in college. College was a place to experiment with your art. Our professors always encouraged us to have fun and mess around with different things. I figured out what I liked and what I was good at. I enjoyed all of the classes, but the hardest for me were the art history classes. They were intense on knowing the names and dates and styles.

Did you enjoy the formal, academic side of studying art at college, or did you find the field and studio work more appealing?

I enjoyed studying the masters, but I like the general idea that art is art as visual stimulation, no matter if it's contemporary or traditional or realism or abstract - it all has a visual impact on you. All you can really do is figure out what works best through you, what connects best with other people, and what creates an emotional response.

Does the landscape, scenery and wildlife of Utah and the West influence your art more than other regions of the country?

With wildlife, there's such a variety to paint. There are animals along the East Coast that we don't have out here in Utah. When you travel, you appreciate that there's an endless supply of subjects. A lot of people can get pigeonholed within art, where they paint the same thing over and over, but I don't feel that way about wildlife. You can paint a complex scene or simplify it to focus on one animal, or you can emphasize the landscape. There's plenty of give-and-take.

Who are some of the modern American wildlife artists who've influenced and encouraged your work the most?

Some now are really good friends - guys who spur you on to be a good artist. Jim Morgan is a neighbor and good friend. Jason Rich was so good to me as I was coming up. There are three artists in particular that I admire: Carl Rungius, Ken Carlson and Bob Kuhn. They're the titans in the contemporary world, all working artists in the 21st century. They each have styles of portrayals of animals that were unique to them and successful in term of aesthetics. They took wildlife art from mere renditions to the fine art level. They're work is strong in any art sense.

Have you ever felt that creating wildlife art involved limitation or parameters?

I never looked at wildlife art as having limitations at all. I think it's crazy that more artists aren't more drawn to the natural world, especially in these times when there's so much emphasis on conservation. With that, the first art that came during prehistoric times were images of animals and the successes and triumphs of the hunts.

How do you tend to develop and start to shape an idea for a painting?

Each painting of mine is a personal experience, something that I've seen and felt. I'm trying to return that to the viewer. It's not just a portrait. It starts with living in it. That's why I live and paint in the outdoors out here. I'm not just a painter, I'm an outdoors nutcase. I spend a lot of time every fall gathering references. I love to hunt and explore. I like to saddle up and see the high country around here. I travel all over the West and all over the United States to study and experience different animals in different settings.

It seems like there has to be some geographic accuracy involved in a strong wildlife painting.

Portraying an animal in the wrong setting is the saddest thing an artist can do. The painting needs to tell the story of an animal's habitat, how he lives and even what he might be thinking. Conveying the personality of the animal in the right setting in the right way is key. That's critical, and you have to really have to live it and understand the setting. The artist is the stage director. The artist can interpret the scene and create a good piece of art that's not simply a photographic-like reference.

How long did it take to paint "High Ground"?

It took me a couple of months to work the design and finish it. The idea was there, and the process went smoothly. I worked out the arrangement and worked a solid month on painting it, but most of the labor involved is in the designing stages, working the idea out.

What drew you into featuring the elk in "High Ground"?

I really love Rocky Mountain elk. They're such vocal and social animals. I follow elk year-round from my home in the Rocky Mountains of Utah. "High Ground" was a lot of fun to make. It was a big scene. The elk bull had gathered a harem of cows. They were feeding, and they kind of came out to see what was going on. They're mostly active in the mornings and evenings, and during the night, when they're rutting. The scene in "High Ground" was on the top of a hill in the Wyoming High Country. The elk bull is always on the move, constantly on the go, putting on weight and losing weight. The bull in the painting almost looks like he's out front, greeting the day.

When did you first get involved with the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition?

I'm honored to be this year's Featured Artist. What a unique and refreshing show centered around animals and our love of the outdoors. This will be my third consecutive year at SEWE. I love the show. It's a lot of fun, nothing but excitement. The people down in Charleston are just so nice and fun. I love working with the staff and meeting the locals.

Will you continue to create wildlife art through the years?

Combining my love of wildlife with an artistic passion has allowed me a way to creatively express and, hopefully, create an awareness of the natural world. I can't express my gratitude to the animal kingdom, and words are hard to find for what they've given me. I can't consider what I would be without them.