Salsa – Has creating art always been part of your life?
Kim – Thankfully, it has. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my parents for nurturing creativity in our household. While all young children are artists, artistic pursuits sadly tend to fall by the wayside as kids grow into teens. Often this comes with a loss of confidence and a total mental block to creativity. I'm not sure what helped me through this stage but I definitely used art to help myself through my tumultuous teenage years. My artistic style has always incorporated nature, but when I went to study biology in college it became the primary focus of my practice.
Salsa – Was there a time when your skills took a big step forward, and what do you feel drove that improvement?
Kim - Building talent as an artist takes an incredible amount of practice, and sometimes progress occurs so slowly that it's almost imperceptible until you look back on your older works. I progressed extremely slowly for many years as a technical illustrator, probably because I wasn't studying art, I was studying science, and I didn't have much in the way of mentorship or instructions for art fundamentals. Many science courses encourage and even require students to draw in journals, but very few actually provide instructions for how to develop observational drawing skills. It wasn't until about seven years ago, when I began teaching art to kids, that I really took a step back and examined the fundamentals of visual art. I had to do this because I was at a loss to explain to a beginner how to start drawing. At that point my work really took off. I received a Rasmuson Individual Artist Award in 2018 to explore color media, which freed me up to risk a lot of experimentation. In hindsight, I wish that I had done this much earlier, but I'm ultimately very happy that I broke free from my highly-developed and admittedly rigid style.
Salsa – Much of your art has to do with the natural world. Did your upbringing influence that?
Kim – Absolutely. Again, I owe a huge debt of gratitude for my parents and the way that they chose to raise my siblings and me. We grew up in the rainforest of western Washington, with mossy hollow stumps, a small creek, and a pond. Catching fish and frogs and insects, constructing forts, and climbing trees were pretty much all that I did with my spare time. My parents let us run feral, they didn't micromanage us at all. We got wet and muddy, dragged home bird nests and snake skins, and sometimes we got injured. I am so grateful for that freedom that they allowed us. It truly staged me for the amazing life that I now live. I remember keeping a journal in which I described all of the water bugs that I caught in the pond. I guess you could say that nature art is my true calling. It is something that I will always do.
Salsa – Can you tell us about Alaska and the opportunities it presents you? It seems like it must be a magical place for someone who enjoys celebrating the outdoors.
Kim – To me, Alaska is a mecca of the natural world. I mean, in a single day trip from my cabin I can see moose, whales, bears, sea otters, a seabird rookery, glaciers, and snow-capped peaks; I can catch fish, forage for mushrooms and berries, and find myriad other fascinating activities both great and small. It is no random chance that I moved here—I came for the wilderness, and it is boundless. I will say that it comes with its challenges. The elements are particularly harsh here, which makes field journaling a real struggle most of the time. Still, the infinite content and inspiration is completely worth it. That said, I truly believe that no matter where you live, you can find as much healing, wonder, and curiosity in nature as you wish to pursue. Nature is universal, it's just a matter of learning to see and appreciate it.
Salsa – Do you have a favorite medium in which you like to work?
Kim – My favorite medium of all time is a simple black pen. I really love the look of black and white drawings, and there is something so pure about drawing with just one tool. You don't need to get distracted and confused by a huge array of colors or multiple steps and layers. Recently, though, I have really come to love the combination of a black pen and a grey brush marker. This allows for three tones (when you include the white of the paper) and I have found it a great way to quickly capture scenes and subjects with a sense of depth and three-dimensionality.
Salsa – We’re guessing that you always bring some art supplies with you on all your trips? Can you break down what your typical backcountry (traveling light) setup would be?
Kim – I am a minimalist at heart. This is true for bikepacking, my art kit, and my choice of lines in a drawing. Have you ever seen a drawing that uses hardly any lines, yet completely conveys the impression of the subject? That is always a goal that I strive for, especially with field sketching. Just like assembling a camping kit, you want just the right amount of stuff to achieve the goal, and excess becomes more of a burden than it is worth. I used to leave art supplies behind because I felt like I couldn't justify the weight and space, but my attitude has totally changed. Visual journaling has become a critical component of my experiences in nature.
Just like with bikepacking, everyone should choose an art kit that suits them best. I carry an 8 x 5.5" journal with a beautiful custom leather cover, a mechanical pencil, a set of Micron pens of various nib sizes, a gum eraser, and a pocket ruler. This is the bare minimum for me, but I will also usually bring a small selection of Prismacolor colored pencils, sharpener, and Tombow brush markers. If weight and space is not an issue, I will also have a watercolor journal and kit, and magnifiers, binoculars, and field guides.
Something to note for folks who want to give it a shot: it is tempting to choose a pocket-size journal for its minimalist appeal—and this can be just fine—but you also will be limiting your options for page layout and subject content. Bigger pages offer more freedom, so there is a balance to strike. I always wish that my pages were bigger, but a larger journal would just be impractical for my type of travel. That said, a small journal is infinitely better than no journal at all, and it may offer a less intimidating way to get started. I also prefer journals with fewer pages, as you will be more likely to fill it. To complete a journal is one of the greatest feelings of satisfaction.
Salsa – Can you speak to the power of visual journaling?
Kim – Visual journaling is an extremely effective tool that awakens your bond to nature; one that is both personal and meaningful. On the surface it may seem that travel and nature journaling are all about creating a book of lovely pictures to look back on, and while that is certainly an outcome, it is far from the primary reward. It is the process of detailed observation, interpretation, and prolonged attention that leads to a mindset of curiosity, wonder, and growth. Don't think of it as “learning to draw”, think of it as “drawing to learn.” You will begin to notice patterns, forms, behaviors, and anomalies that you would otherwise have skimmed right over. Soon your mind will be brimming with questions about the movement of the clouds, the changing colors on the water, and the forms of the trees. I can't describe in words how much drawing has taught me to truly see the world.
Salsa – You must have an amazing collection of visual memories you’ve created?
Kim - Yes, my collection of journals is very special to me, they are what I would grab first if my cabin caught fire! I try to make it a point to look back on them every now and then. We think that we will remember all of the remarkable things that we experience, but one glance at an older journal, and I am so grateful for all the details that I recorded. These memories come flooding back when I see the pages, where I expect that they would otherwise have been lost to me forever. This activity of looking back has also helped inform my current practice: that it is worth noting all the things that are going on with you personally at that time, and all the details like the date, location, weather, and why you were there. It seems obvious at the time, but these details become critical for reference down the road. I've also learned to draw things that help put subjects into context, like drawing the bike in the scene, or sketching the nearby village or the boat that I am on. These aren't natural subjects, but they tell a story about my place in nature and the journey that I am on.
Salsa – What encouragement can you offer to someone who wants to draw, or paint, or create any type of art, but doesn’t believe they can do it?
Kim – There is a pervasive myth that the ability to create art is an inherent gift that some of us have and most of us don't (some people even claim that it's genetic!). Though some of us may have a special aptitude for art, the assumption that most of us are unable to acquire artistic talent is the farthest thing from the truth. Just like any other practical skill, it just takes time and practice to develop. When people say, "I can't draw" what they really mean is "I don't like my drawings". Of course they can draw, they've just stopped practicing, usually as an adolescent. This is why so many adults say with frustration that they draw like a kid. Of course they do if they stopped practicing when they were a kid! I know that people mean well when they tell me that I “have a gift,” but this really undermines the lifetime of dedication that I have given to the practice. I wasn't given it, I earned it.
I encourage EVERYONE to practice drawing, and I'm going to let you in on the secret to developing artistic talent: you MUST be OK with making drawings that you are unhappy with (I do it all the time). As soon as you let a “bad” drawing stop you, you've closed the door on yourself. If you enter a growth mindset and recognize that skill is something that is earned with effort, you will start to see your work progress. There's a plethora of free online instruction and tips to get you started and accelerate your learning. One of the most gratifying feelings is to watch students make works of art that are better than they expected of themselves. It's not about how good the drawing is, it's about finding satisfaction in the activity. If you can enjoy yourself enough while drawing to maintain regular practice, then you have succeeded!
This is my fundamental belief: If you can hold a pencil, you can draw, and if you can see, then you can learn to draw from real life.
Salsa – You sometimes lead workshops on journaling. It seems like it must take an almost completely different skillset to teach others than to create your own work?
Kim - My hat is off to teachers and educators everywhere! Teaching is an art in and of itself, something that is developed over time and with experience. Thankfully I have many years of experience as an environmental educator and naturalist interpreter, a dear friend who is the local high school art teacher, and a newly burgeoning community of nature journalers and instructors to rely on as resources. Constructing my own educational curriculum has been an ongoing process. I test things out and refine my lessons as I learn what works well and what falls flat. It has been so rewarding to travel to rural Alaskan communities and teach nature journaling and drawing in the schools. Because journaling is more about the process than the product, I have found that teaching has become a centerpiece of my artistic philosophy and mission. As I mentioned above, my personal practice has improved greatly as a result. I love spreading the joy of nature journaling, and seeing the genuine way that it promotes personal mindfulness, scientific curiosity and an appreciation of nature.
Salsa – Can you share the names of a few artists that inspire you and what you love about their work?
Kim – William D. Berry was a skilled wildlife artist that spent his later years sketching in Alaska, specifically in Denali. His background was in animation, and his ability to capture the behavior and expressiveness of the wild animals he saw is singularly remarkable. I think about how many resources we have access to now and then I think about this man in a log cabin in the wilderness with no electricity, spending his days out in the field, so effectively sketching the animals from real life. It's really inspiring.
Ramona P. Hammerly is an artist from Puget Sound (my home region) that has illustrated field guides of trees, including “Northwest Trees.” I don't know a whole lot about this artist, but her pen-and-ink illustrations of the rainforest trees blow my mind, in part because they are so skillfully rendered and also because she so perfectly captures the spirit of these magnificent beings that I have always held in high spiritual reverence. As an emerging artist, I was baffled at the idea of trying to draw an entire, complex tree. By observing her line work, I was able to mimic many techniques and now sketching whole trees is one of my favorite things to do.
John Muir Laws is a practicing nature journalist and teacher in the Monterey Bay area. He has published several books including “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling.” He, along with the community and clubs that he helped found, has revolutionized the philosophy and practice of nature journaling as a tool for discovery, accessible to all. I would say that Laws sparked an international movement and support network around the practice of nature journaling. The Facebook group The Nature Journal Club has more than 15,000 members (and it's the most healthy and positive social media following that I know of); there are annual international nature journaling conferences; sub-chapters of the club have formed around the world; and his newest publication, “How to Teach Nature Journaling,” has provided educators and teachers with a blueprint for incorporating nature journaling into their classroom curriculum. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to John for his influence on my work, and am honored that some of my photos and student work samples are published in his new book!
Salsa – Where can people see more of your artwork?
Kim – My work can be viewed on many online platforms, all under the name Kim's Nature Drawings
Instagram @kimsnaturedrawings and Facebook page Kims Nature Drawings
I also sell my artwork on Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/shop/KimsNatureDrawings
Salsa – Any final thoughts on the intersection of bicycles, the outdoors, and art?
Kim - Follow your bliss! For me, all of these activities fill my soul and bring me joy. They all feed each other. I encourage anyone out there to pursue the activities that call to you. I was told many times that I wouldn't be able to “make it” as an artist. I don't even know what that means, but I'm extremely glad that I never quit! I am so grateful to Salsa Cycles for their support in my process, and the pursuits of so many others that seek experiences and connections to nature and adventure. Take the time to slow down, smell the flowers, watch the clouds, set up camp, and stay a while. With all the craziness in politics, social media, and environmental crises, we need this now more than ever. We actually have to actively choose to step away, breathe, quiet our minds and appreciate all of the many things that are good in our world. You will never think that it wasn't worth it.
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I love being outside. I prefer to ride on dirt. Or snow. If I was born a hundred years earlier I might have been a polar explorer. There's a great natural world out there to see, smell, taste, listen to, and experience. Life slows down out there and the distractions we've created will disappear if you let them. Give me a backpack and let me go.