Like a lot of Homer artists, Kim McNett has found the way to a career means many different paths — but she’s wandered places most Alaska artists can only imagine.
With her fiancé, writer and filmmaker Bjørn Olson, McNett has been from Homer to Utqiagvik, including the Iditarod Trail, most of it by fat bike and pack raft. She has kayaked from here to Seward and in Prince William Sound. Though she uses modern, high-tech equipment, her explorations have been done with a keen eye toward nature, and recorded in the tradition of James Audubon with pen and journal.
One of Alaska’s premier nature journalers, McNett has found a niche in the local art scene with her detailed drawings of mushrooms, trees, animals and marine life. She also has begun to develop a calling as an Artist in the Schools and a teacher and booster of the craft of nature journaling.
Though she has exhibited at galleries — most recently at a pop-up December First Friday show at Salmon Sisters — and sells her art locally at Two Sisters and through the online store Etsy, McNett said she wants to go beyond art as a material object.
“I feel more and more that what I want to share with the world is not necessarily my art as a product, but the practice and the experience,” she said Tuesday in an interview at her Kachemak Drive beachfront cabin. “If I can expose people to the benefits and the rewards that nature journaling brought to me, that feels very fulfilling.”
McNett, 34, grew up near Bellingham, Washington, in a home in the Pacific Northwest rain forest.
“I definitely owe my naturalist tendencies to my parents having raised me in the forest like that, and just giving me full-range freedom to catch frogs and build forts and tear plants apart,” she said. “That was like my whole childhood.”
A 2007 graduate in biology and evolution from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, McNett came to Homer in the spring of 2009 for what she thought would be just a short-term seasonal job teaching environmental education at the Center for Alaska Coastal Studies.
“My plan was to use that money to take the ferry to go back home to Bellingham — but I met Bjørn,” she said. “The night we met was the night Redoubt rained ash all over the town. It was this geological scale message.”
She never left.
“I think I found my soul mate, and that was pretty obvious, but also just the community, the natural surroundings, the opportunities,” she said. “… When I came here I realized this place had everything I needed.”
In her education, McNett never had any formal instruction in art, though she had always loved to draw.
“I was a bit of a rebel. I can remember thinking I didn’t want anyone telling me what to draw,” she said of art classes. “Why did I not do some fundamentals? I did my own thing. That was just my naïve teenage self.”
At Evergreen, she took a class in botany, which came with the requirement that she keep a journal.
“That helped me keep a regular practice, and integrate it with biology and ecology,” she said. “I’d say that’s my foundational passion and what my education is in.”
After college, McNett said she considered a career in research science, but found it “a little bit stuffy.”
“It didn’t align with that sense of wonder and curiosity and exploration — actually being outside,” she said.
Her work with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies as an environmental educator led her to the field of what she calls “informal education,” especially with young children. Nature journaling combines art and science and offers an avenue into learning.
“The neat thing about a natural journal is, I feel like it’s just the right amount of guidance and parameters, but a ton of creative freedom,” she said. “So the idea is, it’s natural subjects you’re interacting with, but you can take that whatever direction you want. When it comes to nature, there’s no shortage of subjects.”
Nature journaling also helps facilitate the naturalist skills of observation, identification and experience.
“All of those things, your curiosity, even your sense of passion, you’re focusing your attention again and again,” McNett said. “When you draw something, you have to look at it carefully — and not only look at it, you interpret it. That play between your eye and your hand on the paper and that refocusing, you’ll notice so much more than you ever would if you just look at it.”
On the state Artist in the Schools register, McNett has done residencies in Homer, Wrangell, Brevig Mission, and, most recently, Little Diomede Island, just two miles from Big Diomede Island in Russia. She has turned her passion for nature and art into a teachable practice that engages students in schools as small as 16.
Right about the time she started as an Artist in the Schools, McNett discovered John Muir Laws’ book, “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling.”
“He is a wonderful resource,” she said of Laws. “… This came about right as I started teaching. Not having a background in arts education, not having seen somebody demonstrate to me how to break down drawing and visual art — this is a gold mine.”
Nature journaling can be broken down into three elements, McNett said. “It’s pictures, it’s writing and it’s numbers. … Can you interpret something in those three languages?”
At Little Diomede, the school principal challenged her to do an collaborative art piece for the school. One problem McNett ran into with the Artist in the Schools program was that she taught in the school year, not a conducive time in the Arctic to go outside and draw.
With the Little Diomede children, she got an idea from a Homer artist friend and teacher, Alayne Tetor. Tetor told McNett about string art, where colored string is strung on pins to make elaborate mandalas or geometric patterns. At the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, kids played a game involving tossing around a ball of yarn to illustrate the web of life.
“The yarn represents this energy transfer,” she said. “It starts with the sun and pretty soon everybody is connected.”
At Little Diomede, she had students pick an animal and draw it on a plaque. On a big wall panel they then made a mandala in the middle to represent the sun, and connected strings to phytoplankton and then zooplankton and then tiny fish and up to marine mammals and humans.
McNett also teaches nature journaling to all ages. A Kachemak Bay Shorebird Feature Artist several years ago, she has done nature journaling workshops at the May festival. Last fall she did a workshop for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies at its Wynn Nature Center and she will do an overnight workshop this spring at the center’s Peterson Bay Field Lab. This winter she has formed an informal natural journal club that meets 5:30-7 p.m. Wednesdays at the center’s headquarters next to Ulmer’s. More information about her work can be found at her website, www.kimsnaturedrawings.com.
When not doing wilderness adventures or classes, McNett also works as an outdoor adventure and kayak guide for the Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge and St. Augustine’s Kayak Tours. She also was the first kayak tour guide for Inspiring Girls, a tuition-free wilderness adventure program for teenage girls that includes women from diverse ethnic and geographic backgrounds.
All of these paths have brought McNett to a satisfaction in her art that goes beyond selling work and into helping people find their own art.
“Teaching people how to do it and watching them get fired up, and seeing them posting their own work that they’ve spent their time on — I feel like that’s more fulfilling to me than producing a product,” she said.