2001 Field painting with Kathy Hocker at Asx‘ée, twisted tree (Eagle River). Former DSE director Cinda Stanek on left.

Art as a portal into nature.

I didn’t own a camera until age 38. I watched how cameras changed my friends’ relationship to nature—always ‘framing her’—and resisted. Partly, I felt that having a camera would eat into my desire to draw.

It did. It’s no coincidence that my stipple-style illustrations peaked in both frequency and elaboration in the early 1990s, then declined, as photography consumed an ever-growing portion of my documentary activities. The drawing below was the last multi-day composition. These days, I even take pictures in my sleep (motion cams)

But once, I was a pen & pencil guy. And I still think that children should be given the opportunity for proficiency in this ancient human skill. The painters of Altamira would agree.

In 1994, about 40 Alaskan artists and their families gathered in K’uxeet Aa, salt lake lagoon (Seclusion Harbor), on Kooyú X’áat’, cave-like entrance island (Kuiu) to camp together, and create artwork that joined a traveling show, our testament to the beauty and vulnerability of lands slated for logging. Some worked on-site, others merely collected sketches, notes and impressions for later efforts in the studio. I was among the latter. Far from a field sketch, this stippling style takes days. I call it Old Friends. (Cathy Pohl’s suggestion) These trees are not actually from Kuiu, but Asx‘ée, twisted tree (Eagle River, in Áak’w Aaní). I lived with them for 12 years as caretaker of that place, which we thought long enough to claim friendship.

Kathy Hocker—former Discovery naturalist now living in Gustavus—uses annotated field sketchbooks as primary observational tools. Her webpage is Southeast Alaska Sketchbook. Drawing on-site is a very different process than my rather shrewlike, device-laden, SWAT style of nature documentation. Every naturalist eventually settles on a style best suited to our goals and metabolism. None is superior to the others, but all are worthy of consideration. Check out the delicious array in Field notes on science and nature.

It’s interesting to contemplate how a relationship to nature evolves within our methodology. Do you sit on a log (hopefully a dry one) and just watch for 10 minutes before starting to sketch, asking the scene, or leaf, to guide your creation? Or do you snap a quick smartphone reminder, hardly breaking stride, in an effort not to slow down your bushwacking companions, hoping it’ll trigger evening reflections in camp or office?

I recognize that my squirming, ADHD grey matter fails to register the slow beauty that Kathy Hocker’s style celebrates. My excuse? That it would probably take drugs to mellow me out sufficiently, and my pillbox is already overloaded.

Notes from Hobbit Hole, June, 2016. Upper sketch indicates we hit pith exactly with our increment borer, on an old-growth (OG) hemlock (TSuga HEterophyla), 50 inches in diameter, with ‘candelabra’ crown. As for that lower sketch, I can’t remember! A map, maybe?!

But a pencil is always with me, and I never leave the apartment without a scrap of paper to scribble on. Sometimes these scraps languish for days or even months before I take the time to sift through and process/preserve them. Hopefully I can read the words, but the sketches, if too much time elapses, can be mysteries. What, for example, are these hieroglyphics from Hobbit Hole? Quite a come-down from Old Friends, eh?

In the back-eddies of today’s fast-lane, ever-more-specialized nature study, it’s refreshing to encounter resisters. Like Kathy Hocker, Hannah Hinchman is a meditative artist/writer. Her style is called the “illuminated journal.” Perhaps it’s fitting she has minimal web presence. But you can get a lovely introduction to her work on this page from Morning Earth, a celebration of artist/naturalists. Most interesting from our perspective here at JuneauNature is Hannah’s 4-level classification of nature journals:

Informational  Fairly impersonal, objective observation.

Reflective  The other extreme, inward, self-as-subject.

Investigative  Intermediate. Observation with personality. eg Leonardo da Vinci.

Resonant  Naturalist on the trail of one’s own life. eg Thoreau.

But don’t stop with my distillation; read it in Hannah’s words at the link above.

A younger artist in the Hinchman/Hocker school, closer to home, is Kristin Link. Juneauites may remember her show at the State Museum. Even younger is botanical illustrator Mara Menahan, whom I bushwacked with at Suk Dáa, dry around (Calder Bay, northern POW). In the salt marsh, I happened to mention that I consider Lyngbye sedge the most important plant in Lingít Aaní for grazers: bear, deer, goose. So Mara picked one and drew it, on the spot.

Stephanie Harold helps my wife Cathy Pohl each summer in her olive-sided flycatcher research on Hoonah’s logging roads. She’s an avid field-sketcher. Her website is discoverybysketch

Whenever I pause to absorb the works of Kathy, Hannah, Kristin, Mara, Stephanie, and Juneau’s Jim Fowler, I relax a bit, knowing the world hasn’t gone entirely crazy, that calm attention is not a prerogative of age (or gender; thanks, Jim!). And that Nature will wait for us, until we’re ready.

In this section

Sydney Laurence in Áak’w Aaní

Part of a 2012 slide show for Juneau-Douglas City Museum on Alaskan landscape painter Sydney Laurence. I co-presented with Mike…

2012 | Richard Carstensen | 17 minutes

2001 summer newsletter, Gold Creek solstice: field notes from the crest of the year

On the solstice, I walked the Flume Trail above Dzantik’i Héeni, flounders creek (Gold Creek). Enamored of my newest tool—a…

Summer 2001 | Richard Carstensen | 4 pages

2011 fall newsletter. Recording nature

Field journaling as Raven goes global Journaling is my work and play. It’s how I taught myself to be a…

2011 | Richard Carstensen, Kathy Hocker, Kevin O'Malley | 16 pages

1998 fall newsletter: The art of noticing

Kathy Hocker is Southeast Alaska‚’s premier artist-naturalist, teaching classes on field techniques for all ages. In 1998, she wrote a…

1998 | Kathy Hocker | 5 pages