If you've visited an Illinois River Valley fen in the spring, Paula Fong's painting of blooming cobra lilies and western azaleas will stir memories.
If your encounters with wildlife have you wishing you could draw what you see, Irene Brady's books and workshops will attract you.
If you've stalked chukars as they walk up a hill only to watch them fly down it with a laughing call, a Steele Roberts-Ross painting of this game bird will send your thoughts racing east of the Cascade Range.
The work of these Southern Oregon and Northern California wildlife artists invites us to take a penetrating look at the plants and animals that live a few feet or a few miles from our back doors.
These artists use scientific knowledge, personal experience and creative spark to evoke our love for wild places.
"There is something interesting in every square inch of the natural world," says Fong, who celebrates the vivid colors of Southern Oregon's wild plants with watercolor and teases out their finer points with pen and ink for paintings packed with scientific detail and artistic interpretation.
Fong, presently at home in the hills behind Talent, was living in Wilderville, between Grants Pass and Selma, 12 years ago when she gave up a career as a forest ecologist to concentrate on painting. As an ecologist, she identified plant habitat for the Forest Service to use in its management decisions. As an artist, she explored habitat, too.
"I didn't want to just paint a cobra lily, I wanted to describe a fen. When I painted a dogwood, I wanted to describe it in the (forest's) understory," says Fong.
Fong is exact with petal and sepal count, leaf arrangements and settings, but takes liberties with composition to coax additional information from her subjects. If you've experienced the impact of a thumb-sized purple brodiaeia trembling in a field of dead, golden grasses, you understand her fist-sized rendition.
Fong's paintings touch a chord in anyone who has diligently searched the forest floor for something rare or easily overlooked — a chantrelle mushroom pushing through the duff, the undersides of a nodding fawn lily, an inconspicuous calypso orchid.
"Most of the people who like my artwork identify with it in some way," says Fong. "Very rarely do I get somebody who just says 'I don't know that plant, but I really like it.' "
Fong shares her habit of closely inspecting the forest floor for mosses, lichens and fungi with the state's mushroom hunters and attends their fall festivals in Eugene and Portland. "They seem to get what I am celebrating," says Fong.
Scientists at botanical conventions have embraced her line drawing of the unpopular bull thistle, an invasive plant with official Noxious Weed status. "I wanted the linear quality of the thistle with just a spot of color," says Fong, who uses the white background of a scientific illustration to showcase the thistle.
Her trail signs introduce visitors to the uncommon beauty of Limpy Creek Botanical Trail near Grants Pass and Rough and Ready Botanical Wayside near Selma.
For Fong, the opportunity for fresh subject matter is confined only by the time it takes to deeply comprehend the ground. She works from a home studio but makes frequent forays into the woods to check on lighting and color as she reaches for a profound understanding of each plant.
Irene Brady sits at a computer station using a stylus and tablet to add gray tones to her pen and ink drawing of a turkey vulture. A muddy paw print from a bear that took a bath in her bird water still stains her studio window, partially obscuring a hillside of oaks, madrones and manzanitas behind Talent. She's lived here 30 years — long enough to watch the weather and the vegetation change in a canyon she used to call Rainy Canyon for its summer afternoon showers.
"It's terribly important to engender a feeling for wildlife in people," says Brady, who has spent most of her career teaching people about wild animals. In the 1970s, she wrote and illustrated children's books.
"I did the research for 'Beaver Year' at Diamond Lake. I canoed up"¦little creeks and crawled into beaver dens," says Brady. The baby animals in "Wild Babies" developed from many hours of sketching at Wildlife Images, a Grants Pass wildlife rehabilitation center.
Wildlife Images remains a favorite destination and the one she used for a summer course from Siskiyou Field Institute on drawing raptors.
"Someone was holding the birds for us all day," says Brady with delight. She likes watching her students develop what she calls "a wonderful dawning view of the world."
Brady's love for wildlife starts at home, where she keeps the windows dirty so birds won't break their necks against them.
"Once you know something and you don't do something about it, you are actively messing with it," she says.
Her animal repertoire extends into grand and fragile habitat throughout the country. Tourists in the Southwest's national parks use her book "Red Rock Canyon Explorer" to understand a virtual canyon, while closer to home California tourists become smarter campers with her lavishly illustrated "Campground Critters" pamphlets.
"When I was younger, in the '70s and '80s, I was trying to educate the children. Now I feel a greater sense of urgency; I'm trying to educate the adults," says Brady.
She teaches journal sketching to eco-tourists in Costa Rica and to local adults through Ashland Parks and Recreation.
"A nature artist has a place in the whole scheme of things — to bring people to love the environment," says Brady.
At his Yreka, Calif., Steele Roberts-Ross paints a family of California valley quail. "Quail are cute; everybody likes them," says Roberts-Ross.
He might be a little weary of painting one of his best selling subjects, but he's far from complacent as he studies the feather detail on two stuffed birds in front of him for acrylic representations that look ready to walk off the page.
The realism in a Roberts-Ross painting starts with abundant interaction with birds. In his youth, he learned taxidermy and preserved many of his own specimens.
"When you take birds apart and put them back together, you learn how they are made," he says.
He visited his grandfather's ranch in the Shasta Valley often while studying wildlife biology in Oregon 30 years ago and paints from the perspective of one who has killed, raised and photographed birds. He knows birds of prey from hunting with them as an original member of the Oregon Falconers Association.
These days, a bird feeder in his backyard attracts hawks looking to eat songbirds. "I've watched two or three attacks from my desk," says Roberts-Ross.
Last year, Roberts-Ross won California's Upland Game Stamp contest for the second time, this time for a painting of chukars in flight. The chukar, an introduced game bird found in wide-open terrain, is a favorite Roberts-Ross subject.
"You find them in nowhere places," says Roberts-Ross. "In Nevada, you hunt them for fun first and after that for revenge for walking your legs off."
Most of his chukar paintings originate on the Abert Rim north of Lakeview, not far from the John Sheriff Waterfowl Festival that takes him to Burns each April to share his art with hunters who appreciate its nuances.
Close to home, Roberts-Ross takes endless pleasure in the Shasta Valley. He's got a soft spot for a painting of Canada geese in a flooded cow pasture with Mt. Shasta as backdrop. He's memorialized pheasant hunts, fishing trips and dove shoots.
"It was a rare year with no snow on Shasta and doves all season long," says Roberts-Ross, who captures a rush of doves, his own shadow, his bird dog at attention and his brother napping in "Caught Napping on a Downhill Rush." The painting spent some time on the Wall of Shame, a garage wall devoted to work that doesn't sell well but is particularly dear to Roberts-Ross.
The Wall of Shame just might be inspiring a bit of defiance in Roberts-Ross, who plans larger paintings and less commercial subject matter in the near future. Meanwhile, you can be sure he's got a lively scene somewhere in his sights, whether he's watching a red-tail hawk attack the four-foot tail on one of his Chinese pheasants or he's just discovered a duck seeking open water in country frozen down to the springheads.
Mary Beth Lee is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail her at email@example.com.