Colorful connections

Ecologist/artist creates vibrant folk art from scientific observation of the natural world

Wyatt Hersey reclines in front of a painting of his that was inspired by a poem by Mary Oliver.

Wyatt Hersey reclines in front of a painting of his that was inspired by a poem by Mary Oliver.

Photo by Ken Smith

Just Lying on the Grass, art of Wyatt Hersey, shows through Oct. 28. Reception, with live music by XDS, Saturday, Oct. 13, 6-8 p.m.
1078 Gallery
1710 Park Ave.

If you were to ask 10 random people to watch the same bird for a few minutes, then draw a picture of it and describe its behavior, chances are you’d come up with contradictory details and doodles of an array of strange creatures. As a field biologist, Wyatt Hersey understands this, and he’s committed to observing and documenting the natural world as accurately as possible for the sake of science and shared perception.

But put a paintbrush in his hand, and Hersey’s depictions of nature become something different entirely. Each separate leaf and petal of a single flower takes on a different primary or pastel hue; the limbs of dancing people bend with soft curves rather than at harsh, realistic angles; and the tail of a coyote, its dark fur mottled with yellow, blue and red streaks, billows and twists like a meandering river.

Hersey’s folk art-informed works more resemble the illustrated pages of a children’s book than the realistic sketches found in botany and birding field guides, and he describes the juxtaposition between his two callings as that between “meticulous observation and loose expression.” Hersey’s murals can be found around Chico—inside Naked Lounge and Tender Loving Coffee—and a collection of his work is currently on display at the 1078 Gallery. The exhibit, which opened on Oct. 4, is titled Just Lying on the Grass, based on a poem by Mary Oliver titled “Just Lying on the Grass at Blackwater.” During a recent conversation at the gallery, Hersey explained that the poem—which describes nature in colorful, emphatic terms like “the hurrying, athletic river” and joyously embraces “the possible glamour of death”—is analogous to his own work.

“I love that poem because the content is very profound and deep … she’s talking about death and how amazing it would be to die and become part of the landscape again, to go back to everything,” he said. “It’s also about how just sitting and observing nature and being quiet can be the same as singing a song of gratitude.

“The title is so unassuming, and I feel it fit the show because it perfectly matches the character of my art,” he continued. “It has a funny, casual, celebratory feeling to it but it’s also profound and [originates] from the same place I’m coming from, which is a love for the relationship between humans and nature.”

Hersey said he has limited formal art training, but that he comes from an artistic family—his father is an illustrator, his mother makes collages and jewelry, and all of his siblings are similarly artistically inclined. He considered art school, but “felt like I wasn’t ready to stop learning about other things yet.” Instead, he studied ecology at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. After graduation, Hersey landed an internship with Point Blue Conservation Science, doing bird surveys at Point Reyes National Seashore. He continues to do field work seasonally—still mainly focused on birds—and has spent the last several summers working in the Sierra Nevadas.

Hersey said his unique perspective on art and nature was largely developed through participating in an extracurricular activity while enrolled at Evergreen—an independent enrichment program called the Kamana Naturalist Training Program offered through the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Wash. In addition to traditional tracking and survival skills, the program focuses on mindfulness and experiencing nature with all of one’s senses. For example, he practiced doing “fox walks” (a form of “stalking, walking meditation”) and maintained a “sit spot” (a quiet place where he could observe changes to a single plot of wilderness over time) for his entire tenure in Washington.

“It helped me develop a sensory awareness of the world around me,” he said. “It helps to use all of my senses while doing field work, and also to focus on the impressions I get from nature and express through my art.”