I'm painter Nan Wilson. Summers I live in the Adirondacks. Winters I go south – to a place on the border of Albany's great National Natural Landmark, the Pine Bush. Does that make me a snowbird?
I've always been drawn to the tiny, fragile, unsung (even shunned) in Nature. As a kid, in Rochester, NY, I loved slipping out the door to gather critters—creating secluded dens under branches for us.
A neighbor boy came by and let my bees fly away. I got him back – I splashed green paint across the back of his shirt!
That was the last of my nature-related painting for years. In Art School I majored in Illustration. In New York I designed store windows. In Rochester I worked in a commercial art studio and a department store ad department. I married and raised two girls.
While for family and work I lived in Rochester, it was towards the Adirondacks and Albany I was drawn.
One morning, I stepped out of our Adirondack camp onto a carpet of bluets, part of an amazing natural world stretching as far as I could see. There was nothing to do but get down and peer into those "Quaker Lady" faces.
And over a decade it would be the same scene many times over. Grab handbook, sketch pad, pencils, hand lens (and Deet!), then out the door and adopt the position -- on my knees, bum up, face down peering through my hand lens into the faces of tiny plants.
Now there were two small children. My medium had to be simple, not requiring constant attention. More forgiving.
Adirondack Acre Cont'd
Color pencils -- perfect on a heavy textured paper where I could build up color for depth like with paint. These were to be works of art, not botanical illustrations. They were to be portraits, expressive of the wildflowers' personalities, of how they spoke to me.
I did the tiny bluet large (16" x 20"). In the 26 portraits I would go on to do, by making my subjects larger than life, I helped people see beauty not always apparent with the naked eye.
Subjects kept presenting themselves right outside my door. I painted some "weeds". And others "off peak" like the Dandelion and Milkweed in fall — shooting out spores that would regenerate them in the coming years.
It was a magical time spent in the company of these beautiful living organisms. I'd fall asleep by imagining them – until consciousness drifted away.
There were interruptions. The family transferred to Paris. No place for a nature-focused art (or for raising two tweeny daughters!).
But I did get to study at the Parsons School and do printmaking at Atelier XVII. The latter would have an effect on my future work.
Back home again, I finished the wildflowers, now known as the "Adirondack Acre". The series had four month-long, solo exhibitions including Saratoga's Open Space Gallery, Paul Smith's Visual Interpretive Center, the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts, and the Arts Center/Old Forge. Reproductions of the complete series were sold at the NY State Museum in Albany.
Although stylistically some would feel they were representational, a gallery owner from Saranac Lake called them "surreal."
That "surreal" quality, like in a dream or trance -- describes my state of mind when the paint is flowing. I'm in the zone. I turned to this self-soothing effect to recover from 9/11.
Both daughters were working in Manhattan. As we talked by phone, one saw the second impact from her office window. To calm down, I retreated to the Adirondacks.
There from up in the canopy fell the whirlybirds of the maples, the acorns of the oaks, and the cones of the pines, etc. all falling side-by-side with their leaves. They would later germinate into seedlings.
I painted seven falling leaves in watercolor, each together with its seed. And I called this series "Renewal." Which for me, it was!
Back when peering at wildflowers, I could see insects up close; they were as stunning as they were fascinating. Out came my third series: Critters (watercolors). There paraded mantises, amphibians, lacewings, caterpillars, ants, spiders, butterflies, dragonflies, and spring peepers.
In these paintings I challenged the viewer to take a second look at those that had looked back at me — and really quite knowingly. After all, many species had been around hundreds of millions of years compared to our hundreds of thousands. So, like Farmers, "They know a thing or two because they've seen a thing or two—bum ba bum bum bum bum bum!"
During these early years, I would occasionally present my work at Nature Art shows. Potentially a good fit?
But strolling through the aisles, artist after artist, often self-taught, was presenting a "look" similar to all the others. It was not my look. Large animals were ubiquitous. I mumbled "Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!"
One hint I was out of my element in Nature Art was the show brochure suggesting people to look for my "uncultivated plants."
Fighting back I painted two carnivorous plants — the Sundew and the Pitcher Plant – now in PBS NATURE'S "Plants Behaving Badly."
The big animals weren't cowed. But I felt better.
But then, when I still was feeling out of it, the organizer of a winter Nature Art Festival made a valuable distinction, he said of my art, "It's not just Nature Art, it's Art!." Feeling "out of it" that way was great!
The Four Stages Of The Monarch
The critters with which I became most fascinated were the butterflies with their special life-and-death relationships to plants.
The butterfly is more than the adult – it includes the female's choosing of the tenderest tip of the right plant to nourish her egg and caterpillar; the freaky caterpillar's fake eyes looming scarily; the craftily-disguised chrysalis in whom an incredible transformation would take place. Each stage is important and beautiful.
So I painted four, larger-than-life monarch watercolors in which the striated egg, the banded caterpillar, and the bejeweled chrysalis (size-wise) held a status equal to the many-splendored adult.
As these hung in the Roger Tory Petersen Institute, I crowed inwardly – I had struck a blow for my world-view!
Butterfly Life Cycle Series
From my fascination with all this sprung my signature Butterfly Lifecycle Paintings, showing all stages plus host plant, habitat and environment, a feat traditional photography could never do.
It could be that I was channeling the great German illustrator-naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). She documented the metamorphosis and plant hosts of 166 European species. She included descriptions of their life cycles.
Alternatively, Titian Peale (1799-1885) was an American illustrator-naturalist who, sadly, never got to publish his gorgeous "Butterflies of North America" subtitled "Whence They Come, Where They Go, and What They Do." As finally published by the American Museum of Natural History in 2015 we see botanical illustrations of butterfly and moth life cycles along with poetic text expressing a deep love of butterflies at every stage.
I had painted many of my uniquely artistic lifecycles before I became aware of these artist.
The Albany Pinebush
Among my favorite places for researching butterfly lifecycles was the Albany Pine Bush. I would travel from Rochester to see what was flying, especially the Karner Blue. My husband was raised in Albany and loved it. So when I mentioned moving back he jumped at it.
A small house at the Pine Bush's Blueberry Hill West trail-head came on the market. We bought it and named it "Doll House on the Dunes." I could see Karners just s few hundred feet up the trail. I especially enjoyed painting its life cycle. The Karner's caterpillar, like the caterpillars of all blue butterflies, is protected by ants.
So there amidst the delicate blues of the Karner and blue-purples of the wild lupine were what some would see as "worms and ants"—things they'd rather not see on their living room walls. And yet the painting has been very very popular, so many people did.
The power of Art!
And in the Pine Bush in fall, flies the stunningly beautiful Buck Moth.
Researchers constantly comb the Pine Bush and one gave me a female Buck Moth to which I lured a male who mated with her. Back to the doll house on our dining room table she laid her eggs in a perfect spiral around a twig. Check it out HERE
Observing And Raising Butterflies
Observing host plants and their lifecycles is the starting point of what I do. Host plants are the specific plants on which butterfly females lay their eggs to assure their caterpillars get the specific nourishment they need.
After Albany and the Adirondacks it's to the Rio Grande Valley that I return most often. The "RGV" has the greatest number of species in the country including exotic migrants up from Mexico. Whenever possible I'm with a butterflying buddy Ronda Spink who possesses magic divining powers for egg seeking and caterpillar wrangling. It can take hours combing a single plant, looking for an egg or even waiting for one to be laid.
My husband calls it "butterflying at zero miles an hour".
We could not be more different from most butterfliers. For them an outing is about adding species to their "life lists". If just a glimpse (an "identifiable look") is what they get they will move on.
I've raised several butterflies at the Alamo Inn in Alamo, Texas with help from Rhonda and a guy who actually raises caterpillars for a living!
I do the Texas Butterfly Festival at the National Butterfly Center —now under extraordinary tension. Federal workers have cut down plantings and harassed their Mexican-American grounds keepers in anticipation of "the wall" cutting off a huge chunk of their property.
Painting At Last!
Only when I have each of six elements in place -- habitat, host plant, egg, caterpillar, chrysalid and adult, can I finally begin painting. When my familiarization with a species has matured, I paint these entire bizarre and remarkable cycles.
And a painting doesn't begin until all the elements for fine art have also been addressed.
The first step is a splashy, colorful ambiguous background suggestive of the environment into which the other elements will be set. It's like having dessert first! This background sets the composition and palette of colors I use in the rest of the work.
A juggling act follows where "natural history" and "fine art," come together. Some aspects become representational. My art is purchased by entomologists -- its subjects must be scientifically accurate.
I pick perspectives to bring out distinctions between butterflies in flight, and at rest; males versus females; and so on. Because I familiarize myself with each subject, flora and fauna, I include small hidden elements that make each lifecycle distinctly interesting.
In printmaking I loved that look of the rough edge of handmade watercolor paper. It took me awhile to simulate that edge, now a signature effect throughout my series.
I paint butterfly lifecycles to make visible their struggles finding specific plants to lay their eggs and provide food for their caterpillars. Butterflies had had vital connections to the plants of my "Adirondack Acre." but there were critters that circled above the fray: Dragonflies.
By painting them larger-than-life I could get people's respect for the body structures, colors and behaviors that allowed them to survive over three hundred million years. I looked to depict their ferocity when, in pre-historic times, they were many times larger than today.
I use a similar approach for dragonflies as for butterflies, but, while the centers of my paintings of vulnerable butterflies are vacant, the powerful dragonflies are front and center.
To the Japanese Samurai it was a symbol of power, agility and best of all, Victory. I went dragonflying in Japan with their top expert.
My host netted dragonflies, a practice I avoid. He was about to net a mating pair when I called out "STOP." He held up and looked surprised. I said in my best "foreign accent" (yeah sure) CO-PU-LAT-ING! He smiled and backed off.
These days I continue both my butterfly and dragonfly series, now about 30 paintings each.
Adversities and Diversions
They say never follow your kids but our move to Albany was in part to do just that — one daughter's family being in Portland, Maine the other's in Merrimac, Massachusetts.
The move proved prophetic.
One daughter at age 40 suffered colon cancer and a granddaughter at age 3 bi-lateral kidney cancer at the same time. They both went through surgeries, chemo and radiation, all at the same time.
A Mexican malady, three cases of cancer, two household moves, five grandchild births -- all took place in around six years. And everything from birthday parties to bankruptcies.
Not much art got done then.
More recently the pandemic shut down the shows where I had traditionally sold my prints but it gave me time to morph my art into different formats – specifically posters, note cards and, most recently, totes. These have been welcomed by the gift shops of the Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center and the Albany Museum of History and Art.
The Thursday Naturalists
Taking stock -- although well into my 70's I had been unable to put my artistic identity into words. But I was making progress by a process of elimination:
My BFA major was Illustration. My entomologist customers required my subjects to be representational. And the two artists who (unbeknownst to me) had established a precedent for my Butterfly Life Cycle Paintings were botanical illustrators.
But I am not an Illustrator.
Although the subject of all my art was Nature, the "look" of my art is not what characterized "Nature Art" (It's not just Nature Art, it's Art!).
And, while butterflies dominated my recent subject matter, my "butterflying at zero miles an hour" was totally uncharacteristic of what butterfliers (i.e. listers) do.
Enter the "Thursday Naturalists.'
In looking for contacts with people in Albany who shared my interests, I heard of the "Thursday Naturalists."
The Thursday Naturalists Con't
This intrepid group, mainly octogenarians, sets forth each Thursday year-round to discover what's up in the area's most fascinating nature spots. I somehow found out the area they would be visiting one day and showed up.
They regarded me warily and were most interested in how I was able to find them out.
But with time, they adopted me, and I learned that their curiosity about all Nature, including the tiniest of plant life, matched my own. Their leader, when not walking, was normally on the ground describing the tiniest plants.
That the Capital District has so many unique natural history meccas has been a major unanticipated benefit for me. The naturalist side of me has blossomed here.
I am an artist first and foremost. But I identify strongly with these Thursday Naturalists as well. So! After so many years I finally found my artistic identity here in Albany.
I don't sell the originals of my series. But once we returned from vacation to find a pinhole leak in a pipe had damaged over a third of our house and two of the "Acre" originals. We saw we could not protect my originals like a museum would.
So the "Acre" originals were accepted by Chief Curator Laura Rice of the Adirondack Museum who exhibits them regularly.
For Posterity Con't
And the "Renewal" originals have been accepted into Albany's New York State Museum's collection by curator Aaron Noble. Aaron called them "a unique response to the events of 9/11."
It's so satisfying to feel that people may be impacted by my work as an artist-naturalist both during and beyond my time.
And that's my story!