Brushing Fear Aside with a Paintbrush
Watercolor exploration with Claire Giordano, Refuge Artist in Residence

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Fear often keeps us from doing things we may truly enjoy. When it comes to fear and nature, people often think about their anxiety about going out into wild spaces—engaging with a cougar or a bear, getting lost, or the eeriness of nightfall out in the wild. Something that doesn’t often come to mind is the fear of making art in nature. However, when asked to pick up a paintbrush or a pencil and sketch or record their observations in the outdoors, many people panic.

This anxiety or distress is often a result of someone feeling like they are NOT an artist. They may wonder if their skills are good enough to even attempt to record what they’re seeing, and they may be too scared to see what might be possible when their brush makes contact with paper. And so, they never even try.

As an art major and artist, it is easy for me to say that artistic skills are within everyone. People who hear me say this often shrug it off, noting that they couldn’t make what I am able to create. 

But when we stop comparing ourselves to others, we begin to understand that each person’s artistic skillset is unique to them, just like their personality. And thanks to teachers—those amazing people who empower us to try new things—and supportive communities, people often find they learn to love a hobby or activity once finally given a reason to be vulnerable and try it. We are learning and experiencing this at the refuge, with recent ventures into the creative arts. As we work to provide new creative ways for people to connect to nature, we as a staff are taking a leap to be vulnerable and try new things alongside the budding artists participating in our offerings. 

On a rainy Pacific Northwest spring morning in late May, people gathered under a covered porch of the Plas Newydd Farm, looking west to the Lewis River and the far hills of Oregon across the Columbia River. On a map, it’s just a crow’s flight from the refuge to the farm, and yet with the openness and vast space of conserved land in front of us, it felt like we were in a distant place—an extension of the refuge where plants and wildlife thrive.

With Claire Giordano, a skilled and passionate artist and teacher, leading us, an eager and nervous group was gathered for a painting demo that morning. Plas Newydd is our neighbor to the north, and home to the Plas Newydd Farm Arts Initiative. The workshop was inspired by Abby Braithwaite, the founder of the Arts Initiative. She wanted a way for people who work in conservation to come together to gain creative skills in a collaborative space, and to foster better storytelling around the conservation work we all do but struggle to share in a captivating way. Participants included refuge staff and volunteers, other USFWS program staff, and partners in conservation including members and staff from the City of Vancouver, the Lower Columbia Nature Network, and Friends of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. 

As the rain stopped and sun peeked out, Claire, a Washington-based environmental artist and writer, showcased to the group a little about her experience as a resident artist at the refuge. Through a collaborative effort, the refuge partnered with the Ridgefield Arts Association, Washougal Arts and Cultural Alliance, Friends of Ridgefield and the Plas Newydd Farm Arts Initiative to host Claire for two weeks to capture the beauty of the landscapes in front of her. The hope was that her art would inspire and connect those who may not be able to make a visit of their own to these special places; that it would break down barriers to who art is accessible to; and highlight the asset National Wildlife Refuges bring to communities. 

Claire is a dynamic teacher, passionate about creating both masterpieces and some “happy accidents” of her own. Her enthusiasm shines when she invites you to dip your brush in the paint, and her cadence is deeply welcoming and inviting. She has a great ability to show how easy and relaxing art can be, and how it can be affordable and accessible. Her teaching style coupled with personal stories of her trials, lessons learned, and vulnerability help everyone feel empowered, with elevated confidence to remove their anxiety and try art in nature.
At the conclusion of the workshop, many vowed to keep practicing and growing their artistic story-telling skills, and step out in front of their fears. Others discussed how to stay connected with each other, networking, planning ways we can expand what Claire has jump-started for us all, and thinking about how we can bring more opportunities like this to the public.  

As a graphic designer, illustrator, and former “doodler,” I see our public lands as vistas waiting to be splashed down on canvas, as the theme of a poetic verse, or the inspiration that gets someone to write a short story or blog (aka myself, who is a self-proclaimed non-writer, that needs to take my own advice that EVERYONE is an artist.)

The hope going forward is that we continue to grow the opportunities at our sites and within the community to connect to nature via the arts. Nature journaling along the trails, the Junior Duck Stamp Art Contest, future artists in residence, and more await. The Community Nature Center under construction at Ridgefield NWR will hopefully be a site to host many more arts opportunities when it’s completed in 2026

Visit @claireswanderings on Instagram to see some of her amazing work from the Artist Residency Programs she has completed, including her time at the Ridgefield NWRC.

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