How to resuscitate your art life in three (not so) easy steps

Bierstadt-Sketching

I have been an visual artist since I could first hold a crayon. When I was a child, my parents created art studios in the basement for my brothers and me. There we would draw for hours, sometimes creating our own illustrated books of our favorite movies. Our family went on two-week road trips every summer, and we would fill the hours on the highway by sketching the scenes that flashed by through the windows.

As I grew up, art continued to play an important role in my life, but it often got lost among my other interests. I went to college to study natural resources and environmental education and eventually became a park interpretive naturalist. I used my artistic skills a lot at work, often illustrating brochures and signs or painting murals. Sometimes, I would make a lot of art in my non-work life. Other times it felt like my interest in hiking, backpacking, snowboarding, and climbing completely consumed my spare time, leaving little opportunity to pick up my pens and paints.

In the past year or so, there has been an artistic stirring in my soul. Where I used to be okay with the on-and-off-again relationship with my art, I now long with all my being to draw and paint on a regular basis. I dream about it constantly.  Maybe it is because as I get older–now in my mid 40s–I realize that I don’t have time to do it all. I have to be strategic and make choices with my time to do the things I love the most. The pulse of art in my life lately has been thready at best, but I don’t want it to be that way. How do I give it some CPR?

Step One: Make art part of my everyday life

I have a full-time non-art job and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. I love my work as a park ranger. It is a career I dreamed about since I was a young girl visiting national parks with my family. I have a big passion for helping others learn about nature and the outdoors so they can become better caretakers of wildlife and wild places.

But that still leaves evenings and weekends for art, right? Not exactly.

Having a healthy body is important to me, so I go to the gym to lift weights or head outdoors for a run after work several evenings a week. After returning home to make and eat dinner, there isn’t a lot of time for art before heading to bed so that I also get adequate sleep.

This means all artistic endeavors get pushed to the weekend along with laundry, errands, catching up on email, spending time with family and friends and, of course, all those outdoor adventures that are the inspiration for my art. Whew! I get tired just typing that list. I would love to hear from other part-time artists about how you manage to juggle it all!

My solution is to make creating art part of my everyday life, not just something to do when I have a huge chunk of time devote to it (though those are always nice too!).

What makes this not so easy is that it impacts time with friends and family. My loved ones are going to have to be patient when traveling with me as I will be carrying my sketchbook everywhere. That means I may stop on our trail run (and mess up Strava times) in order to pull out my journal to sketch the raptor overhead.  I may have to linger on the summit to draw the view even if my hands are freezing. I may have to excuse myself from the belay duty rotation to sneak off to sketch rock formations in the distance. I may even have to say no to invitations for adventures sometimes so I can lock myself in my art studio to finish some pieces instead of heading out on the trail. This leads to feelings of guilt and sadness for missing out on things, but I am trying hard to temper those emotions as my solitary art time is crucial to my well being.

mystic-Island-Lake.jpg

Sometimes it is hard to allow myself a day in camp to paint when the summits of  surrounding peaks are calling. However, lately I have been making it a priority. Here I am painting on the shore of Mystic Island Lake in Colorado.

Mystic-Island-Lake-Watercol

I am so glad I slowed down and created this painting of Mystic Island Lake.

Mitchell-Lake-Winter-Campin

As dinner cooks, I pull out my sketchbook to paint Mt. Audubon during an overnight ski trip.

Mt.-Audubon

Looking at the sketch I created that evening takes me right back to the trip.

Trail-run-sketching

I am easily distracted by nature (like this blooming cactus) on my trail runs so it sometimes takes me longer to get from point A to point B. I always carry a tiny sketchbook in my waist pack to record what I see.

NTM-Run-Sketch

I am usually tired and out of breath when I get to elevation high points on my runs. Sketching provides a welcome break and a chance to slow down and observe my surroundings.

Cannibal-Crag

I find it hardest to sketch while on climbing trips, as usually I am either actively ascending a route or belaying and there is little time to spare. Whenever Doug and I climb with other people, I try to get away for a bit to journal, as was the case on a recent trip to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada.

Squirrels

Finding little chunks of time for art is a big goal for me. One day I arrived to a doctor appointment 30 minutes early. Instead of surfing Facebook on my phone, I drove to a nearby nature center and sketched squirrels for 15 minutes.

Step Two: Finish a piece that has been sitting undone in my studio for a crazy amount of time

I am embarrassed to share that the last formal piece of art that I worked on–a linoleum block print of American Basin in Colorado– was started in January, 2010. This was shortly before I became severely ill with Ulcerative Colitis and had to have my entire colon removed through permanent ileostomy surgery.

For a year the project sat on my art table, untouched, while I was recovering and focusing on getting my body strong enough to hike and climb again. I was also putting a lot of energy into another blogging project: OstomyOutdoors.com, to help other active people get through their life-changing surgeries. Once I was healed, adapted to my new colon-less life, and devoting a little less time to that blog, I continued to carve the block for my print here and there. I finally inked it up and ran it through my press last year. My last step in finishing this print is to hand-color it with watercolors. This project has felt like a major roadblock, and I am making it a priority to get the prints painted so I can get on to something new.

What makes this step not so easy is fear. Having a piece sit around for so long seemingly gives it special power and importance. What if I screw it up now after putting all this time and thought into it? I know I need to face that unease and just jump in and get it done. Then I must never let a single project take on that much perceived importance again. I need to get back to a place where I can play through my art and be okay with experimenting and making mistakes so my art can continue to evolve.

Fortunately, even though I haven’t been working on formal pieces in the past eight years, my nature journals have kept my artistic pulse beating.  I love the way my journals help me focus on the present and notice my surroundings. Everything I see and sketch in nature makes me more and more curious about the natural world. I swear I could spend an entire day happily sketching a few square feet of the landscape. My variously sized journals are never far from my side and have become my place to have fun with my pens, paints and words with no fear at all. I wish to bring this same attitude to my more formal artwork.

Inking-1

Ink finally touches the block.

Prints-drying

Yay! The prints are through my press and drying.

AB-Print

I finally chose the colors for hand-painting my prints. Now I have to fill in the whole edition.

 

Mantis

The longer I sketched this praying mantis, the more curious about it I became.

Backyard-Cottontail

Big adventures are fun, but so is finding amazing things to draw right in my backyard.

Cottonwood-Creek

After moving through the landscape quickly on a morning 5K at Cherry Creek State Park in Colorado, I spend the afternoon slowly sauntering through the wetlands recording what I see in my nature journal.

Christmas birds

These drawings were done in the tiniest of my journals:  a 3″ x 4″ book.  I prefer my larger journals so that I can write more text alongside my drawings. However, I carry this small one almost everywhere so I am never left without a place to record the amazing things I see in nature.

Step Three: Follow other outdoor-inspired artists on Instagram

I am old enough to remember when the main way to find out about other artists was to go into art galleries or subscribe to publications like The Artist’s Magazine. However, not that many individuals were featured, and the gallery exhibits or articles were often formal. You couldn’t always get a glimpse into their day-to-day processes or thoughts about creating art.

Enter Instagram. I had an account for several years, but didn’t really use it. Recently I logged on and began digging into the content more deeply. I discovered so many amazing artists who are successfully blending outdoor adventure and art. I may never have found out about these individuals it it weren’t for this social media tool. I have only been following some of these folks for a few weeks, but I am already motivated! If they can make art on climbing and skiing trips and create some studio works, so can I.

What makes this step not so easy is that watching others be so productive with their art can be as discouraging as it can be inspiring. It is hard not to compare my art output to theirs and wonder what I am doing wrong to get so much less done. I am hoping to glean some tips from their stories to incorporate into my own life, while also being realistic with what I can accomplish on a part-time basis.

And one more thing

Just writing this blog post has helped have a resuscitative effect on my artistic endeavors. Writing on a blog that has been sitting inactive for years is intimidating and I have been putting off this post for a while. It feels wonderful to bring my art voice back to life and plan to post more regular updates in the future! It is great to be back!

Upper-Boulder-Lake

 

 

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Yosemite Falls

There are a couple of previously un-posted images on my watercolor page, including this one of Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park. There are more pieces in the works, but the good stuff takes time. Thanks for looking!

Yosemite Falls, ©Heidi Skiba

Yosemite Falls, ©Heidi Skiba

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New Post, New Pages

I’ve added some new pages to this blog to highlight some of the work I’ve done over the years.

The images are divided into three categories: block prints, pen and ink drawing, and watercolors.

I’d love to hear if you have any favorites, but here’s one of mine!

Wyoming Storm, ©Heidi Skiba

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Taking a Break

I have been silent on this blog for a while, mainly because I have not been working on much art lately. In the beginning of summer, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to try to do everything: work full time, get back into good physical shape after my ostomy surgery in November, seize every opportunity to go on outdoor adventures each weekend, and work on lots of art. On top of that, I got very excited about starting another blogging endeavor: a site to chronicle my return to outdoor adventures with my ileostomy. Through the blog, I hope to end some of the misconceptions and stigmas surrounding ostomies and show what is possible after surgery.

It only took a few weeks of living at mach speed to realize I was trying to do too much. I decided that this was the season to focus on returning to outdoor pursuits and helping  current or future ostomates with my new site, so I took a break from art for a while.

Of course, when I said take a break from art, I really mean from working on more formal pieces. As an artist, I never feel happy if I am not drawing and recording the world around me. On most every outdoor excursion I make, I bring my nature journal with me and fit in time for some sketching.

When the temperatures drop this fall and the snow begins to fall, I will head back into my studio. For now, it is off to the mountains for more adventure!

A journal entry done in the Flatirons of Boulder, CO using Prismacolor Premier markers and watercolors.

A sketch of Mt. Harvard done from camp in the Horn Fork Basin after a successful summit climb. This piece was done with water soluble Pilot Razorpoint pen and watercolor.

A simple pencil sketch done on a four-day backpacking trip to Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park.

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Weathering the Storms

I finally had a chance to work on some art today. I am almost done carving my American Basin linocut, and hope to do the first proof of it next weekend. The past two weeks have been incredibly busy. I must be trying to make up for all that time I was stuck at home healing up!

My Certified Interpretive Trainer course with the National Association of Interpretation was phenomenal. I learned some great techniques for teaching others how to be effective interpreters, but the course affected me on a much deeper level than that: It reaffirmed my passion for interpretation and reminded me of why I went into this important field. My love for nature and wild places is endless, and I have a strong desire to help other people connect to their natural and cultural heritage so that these things can be cared for and preserved.

Continue reading

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Carving with my snowboard instead of on my blockprint

Even when I can’t get to my blockprinting, I usually at least try to do some sketches in my journal. This week, it just isn’t happening. Sunday, I went up to Loveland Ski Area for my first snowboarding since surgery. I thought for sure I would get tired after a few runs, which would provide the perfect opportunity to cozy up in the lodge with my sketchbook and a cup of hot cocoa. However, the powder gods blessed us with over 8 inches of fresh powder. Once I got out in the fluffy and forgiving snow, I didn’t want to quit boarding. After a few spills early on, my muscle memory kicked in and I flew effortlessly down the slope, smiling gleefully. I only ended up stopping for lunch, when they closed the lifts for a bit due to high winds. I ended up boarding from when the lifts opened to almost when they closed.


Another evening, Doug and I went to watch the Colorado Rockies battle the Dodgers (and win). It was a gorgeous day, and we parked a distance from the stadium and rode our bikes there. Again, I almost brought my sketchbook thinking it might be fun to capture some of the action out on the field with my pens. However, we were sitting down the third base line, where ball after ball often flies into the crowd. Last summer when sitting in the same area, a spectator in front of us got hit in the face with a ball. I figured it was best to keep my eyes on the field instead of on my sketchbook in case I needed to duck, or maybe even catch a ball.


Now it is time pack. In a couple days I am leaving for a week to attend the National Association of Interpretation’s (NAI) Certified Interpretive Trainer workshop in Fort Collins. After completing the class and passing the credential requirements, I will be certified to train the staff and volunteer naturalists at my job site on the NAI curriculum. I am excited to take this course, as I love training fellow naturalists and sharing my love of natural history interpretation with others.

So, it may be a while before I post again. When I return from my course, I am going to get to work on completing my American Basin linocut. I want to finish the carving so I can print them up and start on the hand painting with watercolors. Though I love this project, it has been sitting on my desk for far too long, and I have a lot of ideas of other images floating around in my head that I want to start working on.

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Snippets of Life

I am sometimes amazed at a place’s ability to take me right back to different moments in time– especially if it is somewhere that I have visited year after year. The location usually hasn’t changed much between visits, yet I have often gone through profound transformations since last stepping in that exact same spot. The sights and sounds of that specific place can often recall memories so strongly, that it is like watching a movie snippet of my life in my head.

On Sunday, I went on a hike on the Fowler Trail in Eldorado Canyon with Doug and our friend, Greg. From there, we continued up the spectacular Goshawk Ridge Trail, a path I had never followed before. Eldorado Canyon is one of those places I have visited numerous times, and it holds a lot of memories. As we started our hike, I came face to face with some artwork of a falcon on the trailhead sign that I did while working as a park naturalist at “Eldo” in 1995. Seeing that drawing took me to that summer, and I began to think back to all the hikes I led in that exact same spot. It was one of my first jobs as a naturalist, and I gained a lot of confidence and skills there that provided a foundation for my career. Eldo is also the place I started my very first illustrated sketchbook journal. Though I had kept a diary-like journal since I was a child, it was in the park that I was inspired to begin incorporating drawings into the pages. One afternoon, I went down to the creek after work, and drew a wild rose on the first page of my new sketchbook. Hundreds of pages and several volumes later, that love of sketching and writing lives on.


Later on Sunday’s hike, we approached a bench along the path and I remembered sitting in that same place, sketching with Molly Dog at my side. The Fowler Trail is an easy hike, and it was one of Molly’s first excursions after she lost her front leg to cancer. I recall being ecstatic as she happily galloped alongside me, and knowing that the tough choices we had to make in her treatment had allowed her to do the things she loved again.

Farther on the trail, we came upon the backside of the Bastille, a 600-foot rock formation. Over ten years ago, I had climbed every pitch of a long route on its north side as one of my first lead climbs (where I head up first and place all the gear to put the rope through to hold possible falls). Where I was now standing with Doug and Greg was the place I had descended from the top. I remember being utterly exhausted when I got down from that rock climb, but I also had a huge sense of accomplishment over doing something that was extremely challenging for me.
 

So what snippets from my life will be playing in my head when I am in Eldo at some future date? I imagine that I will be on an airy rock face, looking across the canyon at the Fowler Trail. From there, I’ll reminisce about the fun hike I had with loved ones. I will remember the beauty of exploring a new section of trail I had never been on before, and recall the strength I felt scrambling up the tiniest rock slab, feeling so alive again post-surgery. I will remember gazing longingly at the climbers on the rock faces across the canyon and knowing that I would be up there again someday.
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No Longer Separating the Strands

For a long time, I felt the only thing I should comment on in my art blog was drawing, painting and printmaking. It even felt strange to write about vacations, though these were often the inspiration for my wilderness-themed artwork so that seemed like an okay stretch. However, I am not very good at compartmentalizing my life into separate fragments. I view it more like a piece of fabric with everything intricately woven together. As I set out to start writing again post-Ulcerative Colitis (UC) and surgery, it feels very weird to hardly mention something that has been such a big part of my life lately, and to breeze through it in my last couple of posts in a sentence or two. After all, the whole experience has completely altered the lens through which I view life… and create art.

Though I had UC for years and managed to deal with it, this fall I finally saw it jeopardize the activities I am most passionate about and at the core of my life: outdoor adventure and art. I had never let the disease stop me from doing what I loved before. I often went climbing, skiing and hiking in the midst of flare-ups and just made do the best I could. Most of my friends and family didn’t even know I was sick. I was a master at covering it up. However it was on a 3-day backpack trip last September that I noticed my latest UC flare seemed to be entering a new level of severity. The last day of the trip we were going to take a fairly easy hike up a nearby peak. I, for the first time ever in my history with the disease, felt too ill to make the ascent. It really didn’t bother me at the time. I still had my other favorite thing to do: sketch. I sat on a boulder while Doug summited and recorded the landscape around camp in my journal, happy to be outside and immersed in the beauty of nature. That bliss was short-lived. As we hiked out to the car that afternoon, I started to really worry about how sick I was feeling and that this was not going to be my average UC flare. Ten days later, I was hospitalized for two weeks as my illness worsened and my health rapidly declined. I lost 25 pounds and could barely stand due to weakness. However, at that time my spirits remained fairly positive– at least I was still able do my art. I had Doug bring my watercolors to my hospital room so I could paint from some of my wilderness photos on the internet, but my supplies never made it out of my bag. I was just too tired to be creative.

Eventually I got out of the hospital and regained strength with the help of a powerful drug. I was so excited to have my energy back. However, that same drug gave me excruciating joint pain, and I soon found I could no longer walk very well or hold a pencil. I stopped the medication, but the pain lingered. I spent a lot of time those weeks crying, wondering if I would ever be able to hike or draw again. I realized that having surgery to remove my colon was the best chance I had at regaining my life. I counted down the days until my consultation with a surgeon, hoping that I would be a good candidate.

Fortunately I was. Now, at almost five months post-op, I am simply amazed at how good I feel. All the side effects of medications are gone, I am back to hiking and sketching, and best yet, am cured of UC. Every day I make a new discovery of how life is better after surgery. I am filled with immense gratitude… for the support of my friends and family, for my incredible surgeon and for the opportunity to get a second chance to live my dreams.

My selection of photos for today’s blog post may not have made sense before: a journal entry from my backpack trip last September, some sketches I did in the park across the street while I was at home healing and a close-up of carving lines on my block print that I worked on this morning. But today it seems to fit. Art, my love of the outdoors, my illness and recovery– it is all tightly woven together. And I am no longer attempting to separate the strands. Instead, I am going to take this new strong and beautiful fabric and create something amazing.

 



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Just Ducky

I have been so cooped up the past six months recovering from Ulcerative Colitis and having surgery, that I want to be outside constantly now that I am feeling amazing again. Monday I was really in the mood to do art, but it was gorgeous out and I didn’t want to stay in my studio indoors. Instead, I packed up my nature journaling supplies and headed to the Wheat Ridge Greenbelt hoping to sketch some of the waterfowl that frequents the park. Every winter, my bird I.D. skills get a little rusty, and sketching is the perfect way to refresh my memory. When I journal, I usually go out without an exact plan and just let my curiosity lead the way. I wasn’t five minutes down the trail when I caught a glimpse of a spectacular green-winged teal standing on a rock in the middle of Clear Creek. I say a glimpse because he flew off as soon as I pointed my binoculars in his direction. However, in the same area, I saw some American Wigeons and Northern Shovelers. I sat down to record them in my journal. As always, when I sketch in busy places, people love to stop and chat. Today was no exception– I got to hear all kinds of stories about birds people had seen and their nature adventures. It is pretty neat to be able to connect to people this way when creating art.

When I was done sketching at the creek, I headed east on the path and spotted a boardwalk going into some cattails in an area of the park I had never explored before. I knew something had to be hiding by the pond in that direction, and soon found some mallards along the shore. One male I was viewing couldn’t decide whether to stay in the water or on land which made for some frustrating sketching. I finally gave up and decided a portrait of his feet would have to do.

As the sun sank behind the foothills, I packed up. Before I returned to the car, I took a minute to enjoy the present moment. I closed my eyes, felt the last rays of sun warm my face, and listened to the calls of the birds in the cattails– content with my “Just Ducky” day.

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finally getting back to doing some art

I have not written in my blog for some time, but am finally getting back to doing some art and writing. It has been a rough six months. In August, my husband and I lost our 13.5-year-old Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Molly (pictured below on one of our last trips together). Our little family unit had been pretty much inseparable for all these years–ever since she was only a couple of months old. From climbing 14ers to going on extended canoeing and backpacking trips, we had so many amazing adventures together. The grief we felt over losing her was huge.


Then in September, I became seriously ill after years of fighting ulcerative colitis, and had to put all my energy into getting better. Some of the drugs I took for my illness gave me horrendous joint pain, and I could barely hold a pen, let alone my linocut tools. The good news is that I am finally on the mend, off of all medications, and will be completely recovered and back to full health soon. (Knock on wood!)

Today I carved on a block for the first time since last summer, and I was in pure bliss to be doing what I love again. Every mark I made on my image of the spectacular San Juans also reminded me of how far I have come, and how I will be up in those mountains again soon.

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