Chatting With the US Forest Service's Artist-in-Residence

Capturing wilderness on canvas


Whether by kayak, boat, helicopter or state-of-the-art mountain boots, Kathy Hodge goes that extra mile when she paints. She passes whales, eagles, mink, harbor porpoises, a bear, Alaskan ducks and ravens, and signs of moose and wolf. For the second time, she spent part of her summer as the Artist-in-Residence for the U.S. Forest Service, in Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. She was similarly honored in 2011.

For a fortnight in summer, she traveled with a crew of Forest Service Rangers, assisted them with their duties, collected photographic references and painted dramatic glacial and rainforest landscapes. The unique program gives artists the idea of the stewardship behind America’s public lands while fostering “artistic exploration” of these natural, cultural treasures.

Kathy experienced the wilderness like few others. She camped on glacier-carved shores and kayaked calm fiords.

She and Alaskan Forest Rangers took a boat from Juneau, down Stephen’s Passage to Harbor Island, then kayaked down Endicott Arm to Ford’s Terror (a small fiord branching off) where she camped for three nights, then out again to the Arm where they boarded the Liseron, and were dropped off in Holkham Bay, to paddle back to the island. The last day, she took the Forest Service boat, The Sumdum Ranger, to the end of Endicott Arm to spend a day on rocks overlooking a constantly calving Dawes Glacier. Then, she painted it all in explosive, brilliant splashes of color.

The first time Hodge was appointed for this honor (2011) she served as the program’s first artist in the Chugach National Forest, Prince William Sound. Among her duties was removing debris surrounding an old gold mine. Hodge has also served as Artist-in-Resident in ten National Parks.

“While I work mainly in my studio, and am not a natural outdoor painter. I love exploring the natural environment, and the Artist-in-Residence Program has given me a priceless opportunity to live and paint within some of our country’s most spectacular landscapes,” says Kathy. “Working outside means battling sun, heat, cold, rain, bugs, critters, curious spectators, changing light, precarious easel setups and limited or forgotten supplies, and [it] doesn’t always produce paintings that satisfy me.”

“But sitting for hours observing one spot in the landscape allows me to absorb the sounds, smells and atmosphere as the light plays over the landscape,” she says. “Also, hiking across arid deserts, climbing rocky mountains or kayaking for hours in a fiord makes me very aware of the landscape’s scale and weight. I am not just looking at it. I’m travelling through it under my own power.”

She cannot quantify the feeling of deep peace, solitude and focus, far away from her day-to-day graphic design job and distractions when she returns to RI. While never in real danger on a chasm precipice, Kathy says, “I have been lost, exhausted and footsore, and had a close call with a rattlesnake, but all in all, it is probably a lot safer than my daily drive to work.”

Once, she looked up after hearing a tremendous roar to see a boat-sized iceberg roll in the fiord, revealing amazing colors that sparkled in the sun. “Kayaking past against a stiff headwind, I did not dare to stop long enough to photograph it, but thankfully, one of the wilderness rangers took a shot and sent it to me. I do plan to paint it,” she adds. Thousands of tourists can’t wait to see it. Her work is on display in, among other places: Glacier National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park Museum, Acadia National Park, Apostle Island National Lakeshore, Badlands National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and the Chugach National Forest. She will be sending a new painting to the Tongass National Forest as a condition of her residency.

“I like knowing that something of myself remains in a place that I grew to love. In my work, I wish to go beyond capturing a specific location, and explore patterns that repeat across the natural world, caused by the influence of wind, water, erosion and time, while exploring what makes each location unique. I think my work from Alaska has influenced me to explore new color and infused a new freshness to my work,” says Kathy. “I always miss where I’ve been and hope to return at some point, but RI is my home.”