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Partial view of Jay Crosby's "Growth".

Natural Inspiration

Meet 5 artists who use their time on trail to fuel their creativity | by Teddy Wingo and Jessi Loerch

Jay Crosby

Jay Crosby grew up loving nature, but it wasn’t super accessible to them where they grew up in suburban Orlando. They had to look hard. There was a field near their home, and they would examine the grass in close detail. Or they would look for flowers or watch the frogs in a nearby retention pond. They were always looking.

Although Jay grew up in Florida, they had family in the Northwest and visited often. They loved the Pacific Northwest, and after finishing art school, was ready to move to a new home. Ultimately they settled in Portland.

“It felt like a good place to make art,” Jay said.


Additionally, as a queer and trans person, Jay found that Portland was a comfortable place for them to be and that their style of art was a good fit for the Northwest. Jay’s art is in the realm of scientific illustration. They work as a freelance illustrator and also creates pieces for galleries. Recently, they illustrated a story for the Portland Mercury. The story, about Jenny Bruso of Unlikely Hikers, focused on the work she’s doing online and in person to ensure that everyone feels welcome in the outdoors.

Jay describes their work as having two main themes: connecting with nature on a personal and emotional level and documenting and exploring connections within nature from a scientific standpoint.

“My illustrations often exhibit both of these themes at the same time,” Jay said. “I enjoy creating work that feels personal to me and can be interpreted as a representation of human emotions like love, fear or grief. An aspect of storytelling is present in my work. But it is also really important for me to describe plants and animals accurately and in a way that can be educational and informative.”


That theme of connection has been important in Jay’s work — and also in their life. When Jay moved to Portland, they made connections with other artists, particularly tattoo artists. Although Jay had long admired tattoos that were well done, tattoo art was a new medium for him. Whereas previously Jay had only seen more traditional tattoos, in the Northwest they discovered that other tattoo artists were working in styles that were similar to their nature-inspired art — and that Portland could be a market for them as well.

Tattooing had another appeal for Jay — it was yet another way to build connections. Being an artist can be isolating. Sometimes, Jay doesn’t even see his art displayed, if it’s in a gallery in another state. They enjoyed the prospect of being able to work closely with his clients.

Jay has been working on their first tattoos as part of their required training. When Jay is finished with all the requirements, they will be able to take their licensing exam. Jay's first tattoos show how much nature influences their art. Their early works show small details of the natural world, including lichen, insects and bones.

Jayashree Krishnan

At first glance, Jayashree Krishnan’s three styles of art look disparate: landscapes, abstract paintings using resin and contemporary pieces inspired by Sanskrit poetry.

There is a similar theme in many of her pieces, however. Her work is greatly inspired by the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest.

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Jayashree Krishnan's "Silent Solitude" stretches across three canvases, with landscapes merging into one another. Photo by Teddy Wingo.

Jayashree has been hiking in Washington since she moved to Seattle in 1992. She grew up in Bangalore, India, where she often walked, both out of necessity and because she enjoyed it. But she didn’t have a lot of access to natural areas in the large city. That changed when she moved to the Northwest. She has done a lot of hiking, particularly around the I-90 corridor, whose trails are conveniently located for her.

Art has always been a part of her life. Jayashree painted when she hiked, when she went to coffee shops, whenever she had a moment. Yet art was always on the sidelines. She taught math at Seattle University for many years. But about 4 years ago, she knew that it was time for a change.

“I decided I wanted to do what I love,” she said. “To paint and create takes a lot of physical and mental energy, which I did not have when I was doing other things.”

Getting started in art was a challenge. Jayashree knew how to make art, but she needed to find studio space and learn how to market her work and get into juried shows.

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Photo by Teddy Wingo.

Once she had the time to do art full time, she began experimenting. She painted several pieces outside. She enjoys creating landscapes and appreciates how painting can add something more to an image. Art takes away the barrier of language and words.

“You can take a photograph, but the difference with painting, and especially painting on location, is something intangible. It evokes a feeling. When you see a sunrise or you see a stormy sky, there is something that is not very easy to put into words. Those feelings seem to come out in painting,” she said.

"Art is everywhere. It's the thing that connects everybody to the universal language."

Jayashree also creates abstract images using resin. It started as an experiment, but she loved the effect so much, she continued. The end results are complex pieces with a lot of depth. Many resemble an aerial landscape, such as the junction of a beach and the ocean, or the complex look of a glacier seen from high above. She loves the feeling of a vast area in a small frame.

Jayashree’s contemporary spiritual pieces are detailed and complex. In some of them, she brings to life Sanskrit poetry. She learned both the language and a love for the poetry from her grandfather.

Jayashree says that because Sanskrit is such a rich, complex language, it is well suited to poetry.

Photo by Teddy Wingo.

For one of her contemporary spiritual pieces, “Valmiki in Tapas,” Jayashree was inspired by the feeling of arriving at the top of Poo Poo Point after a hike. The painting, inspired by a poem, shows the Sage Valmiki in meditation, on a summit high above a valley.

“It’s like when you’re coming up the trail and the trees begin to thin and then suddenly, you’re at the top. … It’s that feeling, the sense of height and light,” she said.

For paintings like that, it takes much more time for her to carefully consider the meaning and her goals than it takes to actually paint.

“I put a lot of thought into what the viewer is seeing. There is a meaning in those paintings. And I find that they are very universal. Anyone from anywhere on the planet should see what message I am trying to bring across. And it’s usually not something you can see immediately. It’s like putting a puzzle together. There are several layers to it. It’s very contemplative. I hope it will spark introspection,” she said.

Now that she’s freed up the time to paint and create full time, Jayashree says she doesn’t think she’ll ever stop. Art is part of her life. And when she’s creating art, the memory of that time stays with her, all the details crisp and clear.

“I’m inspired by everything, everywhere,” she said. “We say it’s art, but to me any discipline or subject is just something that we have demarcated because it’s easier to wrap your brain around. But to me, it’s really just life. Art is everywhere. It’s the thing that connects everybody to the universal language.”

Marko Oblak

Marko Oblak’s artwork is immediately captivating. His minimalist, nature-inspired style is done freehand with the use of finetipped pens to create unique drawings that make powerful use of positive and negative space.

“My style began to take shape through my travel sketches,” Marko said. “I took a long trip after college, through all of Southeast Asia, where I had the opportunity to draw every day and it naturally occurred by putting pen to paper.”


Marko, who is a full-time landscape architect based out of Seattle, is a selfdescribed “lover of the natural world.” His two biggest passions, outside of art, are fly fishing and climbing. His passions take him all across the Pacific Northwest, where he draws inspiration for his work.

“My favorite piece I’ve done is one titled ‘Alpine Lake,’ “ he said. “It was inspired by a day at a mountain lake that had a series of channels, which almost made the lake feel like a river. All around the edges of the lake there were blooming wildflowers and you could see a peak towering in the backdrop.”

“My duty as an artist is to capture the beauty of the world in my own style and act as a delegate for Mother Nature”

The resulting piece is in simple black and white and captures a vision of a riverlike body of water weaving through the tall grass in the foreground with the mountain standing proud in the back.

Marko’s work can be purchased in print and sticker form as well as on a variety of clothing items such as T-shirts and hats.

Marko also designs tattoos on commission, though he himself is not a tattoo artist. His style of fine line work is well suited to tattoos.

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“It’s a pretty humbling process because it’s permanent and the clients are trusting you as an artist,” he said. “But it’s always fun going through the entire process with a client, starting with a photo or a specific memory that is important to them and then seeing the final format of the tattoo on their skin.”

Marko takes a small Moleskine sketchbook on trail for his backcountry climbing and fly fishing adventures to make sure he can capture the moment, through art, and create a lasting piece when he returns to the studio.

“My duty as an artist is to capture the beauty of the world in my own style and act as a delegate for Mother Nature,” he said.

Mountain Layers by Marko Oblak

Nicole Ringgold

Nicole Ringgold was hiking when she had a realization.

She had recently started working in an art studio in a beautiful greenhouse in Twisp, where she and her family had moved after their home was destroyed by wildfires in 2014. She had been making jewelry and other art using rocks and metal. But many other artists were working in a similar medium, and she was looking for something different.

“One day on a hike, it dawned on me, ‘Oh, here I am working in a greenhouse and surrounded by plants.’ And I challenged myself to make 30 botanical pieces,” she said.

It was the beginning of a whole new style of art for her.

Nicole Ringgold's creations are all forged by hand, not cast. Photo by Cymone Van Marter.

Nicole’s pieces are detailed and intricate. They retain the feeling of the living plants she bases them on.

“What I would do is find a plant. I would literally have it in my hand and pull it apart to understand how it was constructed,” she said.

"One day on a hike, it dawned on me, ‘Oh, here I am working in a greenhouse and surrounded by plants.’ And I challenged myself to make 30 botanical pieces"

She would look at the leaves and the stems and try to make each component by hand. Then, she reconstructed the elements into a handmade metal sculpture of the piece.

“Every day presented a really amazing challenge,” she said.

The first plant Nicole created in metal was a kind of succulent called a string of pearls. To create it, she had to learn how to make a hollow ball. As she tried more plants, she learned more skills.

Photo by Cymone Van Marter.

Now, after several years of work, she’s created a huge variety of botanical pieces: tiny fern rings, cedar branch bracelets, hemlock cone necklaces, shooting star earrings and so much more. She also makes other items inspired by nature, such as tiny bees or intricate metal moths. She constantly has to remind people that her creations are fully handmade. She doesn’t use a cast; she shapes each piece herself.

Nicole sells her work online and in a limited number of galleries. She also accepts commissions. Recently, she began teaching; she currently offers several weeklong courses each year. It’s added a new dimension to her work.

“Being an artist can be relatively isolating. Teaching enables me to socialize and connect with other people interested in doing the same kind of art,” she said. “Teaching helps me translate all of the self-taught skills I hold in my head from thoughts into words. I learn how to talk aloud about those skills to someone else and explain what it is that I’m doing. ... It has drastically pushed my skill level, and I see that I am more of a master of my process than I realized.”

Photo by Cymone Van Marter.

When she’s not teaching, Nicole is continuing to make her own pieces and work on commissions. She’s also constantly inspired by her time on trail. She hikes nearly every day; on Fridays, she hikes with her daughter, a tradition they’ve had for 6 years. Sometimes, she and her daughter go straight from a hike to the studio.

“It’s a big part of my process to be inspired by the plants I find on hikes,” she said.

Mariah Reading

From the forests of Maine to the shores of California and now the backcountry of Alaska, Mariah Reading is on a mission for change. A landscape painter, Mariah collects trash in national parks and protected lands. She then uses the trash as canvasses to paint the landscape where the debris was found. Her art highlights a unique way to leave a place better than you found it.

Mariah cultivated her brand as an eco-artist during an art class her senior year in college. She suddenly realized how much usable material was being wasted.

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Mariah Reading's aret is beautiful; it also offer's a powerful message about caring for wild places.

“I wanted to find a way to draw parallels between painting landscapes and feeding landfills,” Mariah said. “For my senior project I collected all of my crusty paintbrushes and made them into a canvas to create my landscape on instead of throwing them away.”

After graduation in 2016, Mariah embarked on a cross-country trip from Maine to California, with the goal of picking up trash in as many national parks as possible along the way. The following summer, she worked in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas where she created her favorite piece, titled “El Hub Capitan”.

“The hubcap was cracked off perfectly to the form of the mountain range,” she said. “That was the piece that started the photography trajectory that I am on now, where I align my pieces with their landscapes, and I am really thankful for it.”

Now living in Alaska as an artist-in-residence, Mariah spends a significant portion of her time in Denali National Park, where she always hikes with her paints. Recently, her residency took her on a 10-day trip into the backcountry that brought a welcome surprise.

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Photo courtesy Mariah Reading.

“Over the course of 10 days, the only piece of trash I found at Denali was a crushed can under a rock,” she said. “All the other surfaces I painted on were my own trash or pieces from the Denali recycling center. … Denali provides a beautiful example for other protected lands to follow.”

“I hope my art can act as an entry point for people so we can improve and mitigate our footprint in order to lessen the blow on the environment”

After the conclusion of her time in Alaska, Mariah will be the artist in residence in Zion National Park in Utah for the month of September.

“I hope my art can act as an entry point for people so we can improve and mitigate our footprint in order to lessen the blow on the environment,” she said. “My goal is to encourage viewers to check their own habits, especially in the protected landscapes that make America so beautiful.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept+Oct 2018 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.