An Eye for Wild Places and Underappreciated Biota
Soon after returning from her latest wilderness adventure — two weeks of travel by fat-tire bike and pack raft along and on the Chukchi Sea from Kotzebue to Point Hope — Kim McNett was back in her home studio. She was creating art informed by close encounters with the natural world. Her journal from that trip is a treasure of notes and drawings detailing campsites and surrounding hills and beaches, tundra mushrooms and seabird mortality.
McNett lives one of those remarkable Alaska lives. Hers is composed of complementary portions of wilderness travel, naturalist study, visual art making, teaching and short-term jobs that pay bills, participating in the “gig economy.” For McNett, it’s all of one piece. Even her fisheries observer work in the Bering Sea crab fishery feeds her inquiry into the natural world, with its intricate details, connections, and changes. As an artist in the schools or teacher of nature journaling workshops, she continues her own learning even as she leads others into a greater awareness of their surroundings and confidence in their artistic abilities.
What infuses all McNett does is a shared joy — the pleasures of experiencing the world around us and playing in it. That play may involve paddling amongst sea otters, kneeling in moss to examine a tiny flowering plant or capturing on paper the impressions of a landscape or the barbs of a feather.
As a self-described minimalist, McNett always carries a field journal and a pencil. “The essence of what I do is in my field journal,” she says. “The journal is my tool to explore nature more deeply, to notice things more carefully. The process of drawing is an effective way to recognize details that might otherwise elude you.”
For McNett, whose formal education was in the biological sciences, science and art are, as Einstein once observed, “two branches of the same tree.” Her college classes encouraged drawing as part of science study, and her first post-college jobs were in marine education. She came to Alaska ten years ago to teach for the Center for Alaska Coastal Studies in Homer, met her partner, Bjorn Olson, and gave up plans for graduate study in tropical ecology to stay in the North.
In her early Alaska years, McNett kept a naturalist journal on a casual basis. She and Olson built a double kayak and circumnavigated Prince William Sound. That experience along with working as a kayak guide gave her a greater intimacy with the marine environment and all its connections to the terrestrial one. She became known for her pen and ink drawings on note cards of sea urchins, fungi, berry plants and the smallest forest birds.
“I’m attracted to species that are underrepresented,” she says. “I like the small and hidden.” Her drawings carry both common and scientific names and include information a person might not already know. “My philosophy has been to help people learn something new, something that’s integral to a species’ s existence.”
Gradually, in her self-taught study and practice, McNett transitioned from illustrator to full-fledged artist. Her work has shown in coffee shops and galleries and as placed-based signage around the Kachemak Bay area. In a yearlong project with local scientists, historians and a digital expert, she created interpretive sign-art for understanding the environment in and around the town of Seldovia. Previously, she says, she only illustrated “things I could hold.” With the Seldovia Sign Project, she had to draw upon all she knew and the expertise of others, to illustrate an entire spruce tree, layers of beach geology, and the histories of early inhabitants of the bay.
Also key to her artistic training and growth has been “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling,” by John Muir Laws. Instead of particular teachers or mentors, that text has been her go-to source, both for advancing her own practice and for building curricula as she teaches nature journaling to others.
Most recently, with the help of a Rasmuson Foundation Project Grant, McNett has taken giant artistic steps into the world of color. Backed with a self-study of color theory, she has been working with watercolors, colored pencils and brush markers. “Color theory is a complex subject, an intimidating area of study,” she says. “I wanted to do it with a lot of intention, a sophisticated approach.” The inclusion of color now makes her work not only more visually complicated and attractive but significantly more accurate in its representation.
Although she works in collaboration with digital designers, McNett, true to her nature-loving roots and self-propelled life, says she appreciates the non-digital aesthetic, taking her simple tools into the field. “There is something,” she says with a sure nod of her head, “about traditional hand-drawn artwork that is appealing and will always have a place in the art world.”