Conservation Through Art

Floridian Taylor Ikin uses her art
as a voice for environmental activism.
By James A. Metcalfe
Watercolor Magazine
Winter 2004 Issue
Reprint permission granted by Watercolor Magazine

Spoonbills up the Creek, 2003, watercolor, 20 x 26

   Taylor Ikin has a message, not just to art admirers but to everyone who shares her world.  "Love nature," she proclaims.  "Appreciate its power, its wonder, its delights-keep our water safe, preserve our magnificent flora and fauna, and relish in all the glory it provides us."
   Ikin is one of the thousands of citizens who are worried that we might be losing the battle for our environment as erosion and corrosion are outpacing efforts of preservation at an alarming rate.  So Ikin does what she can do to contribute to the effort: she paints.
   "My specific strengths as a painter relate to my strong feelings about our earth and how we envision our responsibility as the watchdogs for our planet," she says.  "My images weave a positive story and are, by subject matter, fairly enjoyable to the eye.  They are pleasing because I see the world of ours as a pleasing place.  I record the environment and, in so doing, build awareness while leaving a legacy at the same time."
   Each of her works not only documents local imagery of the Tampa area but also serves as a personal plea to conserve water and preserve nature.  Her passion for her work is absolute, as evidenced by her current project titled The Hillsborough Collection, which takes viewers on a unique journey throughout Hillsborough County, Florida. Most of the 30-plus interpretive watercolor paintings in the collection depict various nature scenes from legally protected areas in the region, many of which are virtually inaccessible to the public.  Through the Environmental Lands Acquisition Properties Program (ELAPP), Ikin was granted the opportunity to observe, photograph, and sketch the county's pristine landscape.

The Golden Aster, 2003, watercolor, 26 x 20

   "'Conservation Through Art' could well be the subtitle of The Hillsborough Collection," says Ikin.  "It tells a story of the love of land, waters, flora, and fauna with which we, the residents of Hillsborough County, have been blessed.  My primary goal in designing the project was to create an exciting body of work that leaves a legacy of images to be enjoyed for their aesthetic quality and to foster a unique sense of awareness about park properties and public responsibilities.  In short, I hope to awaken the public to what is theirs-to respect it, enjoy it, and take pride in it."
   The Hillsborough County Water Department and the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation & Conservation Department commissioned this self-taught artist to create specific paintings of the area, then they reproduced them as outreach educational posters and distributed them to residents and all schools throughout the county.  While the original paintings now hang in the county's administrative offices, reproductions have been on view at environmental conferences throughout the United States, illustrating how Hillsborough County is one community successful in working to educate the public in the preservation of their areas to ensure a balanced existence with nature.
   "Visual art, by its very nature, prompts the viewer to respond on several levels with several senses," she explains.  "My paintings deal with basic art elements: watermedia, style, and an aesthetic approach.  Because people usually respond easily and quickly to these basic art elements, this allows viewers extra time to experience an intellectual interaction with the context, and that is where I hope the conservation and preservation message is realized."  Some of her collection highlights unique and endangered flora, as in The Golden Aster; wildlife, as portrayed in Roseatte Spoonbill; and even special scenery, such as the painting Hillsborough River.  "Hopefully the aesthetics of the subject matter in the piece prompts the mind to realize that what one sees in the picture is what one actually gets in life.  The message then is clear," she emphasizes.  "If you want what you see, you must keep your world as the image depicted in the art.  Paint it in art, conserve it in real life."
   An admirer of the works of Cezanne, Picasso, and watercolorist Nita Engle, Ikin often selects her subject matter by impulse or introspection.  "Open space, shadows, and sense of peace all quickly capture any attention," she says.  "When I come upon an area that may be empty of matter but full of grace and isolation, or one that is uninterrupted by the intrusion of humankind, I am compelled to paint it.  It might be the light as it bounces off a winding path, or the shadows from masses of trees, or the golden light of a disappearing sunset as it surrounds the bend of a meandering river.  If I feel a response in my heart and soul, my camera and sketch pad are at the ready."

Protected Properties, 2003, watercolor, 26 x 40

   In particular, this world traveled artist enjoys painting water.  "Water is precious and forever speaks to me," she explains.  "It is a subject I paint frequently - rivers, ponds, oceans, bays, creeks, any type of water, especially if it has reflective qualities that show depth and shadow.  The Hillsborough Collection represents a narrative that is more about flowing water than any other subject.  After all, Florida waters need protection and conservation, for they are essential to the state's attraction as a place to live, play, and enjoy.
   "Regardless of subject matter, my paintings have a rhythm and motion that consistently reflect my brushwork," says Ikin, "and much of that has to do with my use of a synthetic paper called YUPO [www.vupo .com], a tree-free paper originally used in the printing industry.  Once I felt the slick, glasslike, sparkling surface of YUPO, I knew it was special.  I absolutely love talking about it because I love the challenge it gives me and the results it produces.  The advantage of using YUPO is that it provides a sense of total freedom to layer paints and then, if need be, remove them back to the original white of the paper.  This means that every painting is salvageable since the painter is able to eliminate, partially remove, or just shove aside whatever is necessary to bring the image to completion.
   "YUPO accepts mixed media well yet has no tooth to grab the paint," explains Ikin.  "I notice viewers tend to get up close to my images to study the texture and then remark about how lively the brushwork looks, often mistaking it for finger painting.  Keep in mind that YUPO leads and the painter follows," she cautions, "so when using it you must be patient.  Step aside to give the paint and paper plenty of time to interact.  Save most adjustments until the surface has dried, for as long as it is wet, something is still going on, and often that is the best part of the painting."
   Ikin, who may have as many as 25 paintings going simultaneously, says her approach is all about "being and feeling free.  To begin," she quips, "I stand to paint.  This allows me to dance around, swing my arms, fling and spray paint, and then back up for a distant look.  Most important, I paint big and wild and love what I am doing."

Take a Hike, watercolor, 2003, 20 x 26

   In terms of her style, she describes, "1 am a lifter.  I enjoy mushing the paint onto the paper, stirring it around and creating energetic shapes and colors.  I often begin by building the surface with layers of paint-sometimes these are predetermined, sometimes they are casually executed.  I then start to scoop out paint as I design and retrieve the image.  Sometimes what happens on the surface offers a change of direction, and I am now responding to and following the painting.  A casual application of paint that I intend to be a reflection in a stream might instead emerge as trunks of trees, similar to what happened in Into the Woods.  The paper suggested I shift gears and together we came out with tree trunks."  Keeping in mind that nothing is permanent, Ikin maintains an almost cavalier approach to the start of each painting.  "I believe you have to start big, get the action going in the beginning, then start to draw it all together," she says.  "If you begin tight, you will never be free, and there will be no movement.  Your painting will be rigid and uninteresting.  Remember, starts never look like finishes.
   "Color really doesn't matter in the beginning," she stresses.  "My trees might be purple and the grass orange, but I make adjustments later.  Getting paint all over the paper is what is important, because there is nothing more intimidating than a sheet of white paper.  With my 2" flat brush, I pick up red paint on one end, yellow on the other, and in the middle, blue.  I have three colors on one brush, and I dance it across the YUPO and magic happens.  The colors blend and make marks I couldn't imagine when using only one color at a time.
   "Seldom do I draw directly on the paper.  I much prefer to draw with my brush," Ikin declares.  "I do, on occasion, grab my watercolor crayons and pencils as well as my permanent-ink pens to include jabs and swirls of color to enhance the image with energetic line work, and from time to time, I might collage or add some pastel marks.  Anything goes if it makes a better painting."
   Ikin paints from a combination of quick sketches and copious photographs.  "Even poor shots are often full of information," she adds, "and I never duplicate an image I see in a photo.  Rather, I interpret it as I respond to how the paint flows and the scene develops."  As a way to keep connected to a landscape, Ikin often takes a stone or leaf from the area back to her studio to have when she paints the scene.

Gator on the Hillsborough, 2003, watercolor, 26 x 40

   When it comes to supplies, her list is "quite simple," she says, noting that her choice of brushes is straightforward.  "In particular, I prefer a Golden Fleece 2" flat bold wash or Robert Simmons 2" Skyflow, which feel like extensions of my right hand, and I could not paint without a 2" flat.  I also like C olden Fleece Nos. 28, 32, and 38 rounds as well as an assortment of various small-size rounds, a No. 12 or 8, and a mall brush for my signature and very small details.  Any brand that feels good in my hand is fine with me, and I find synthetics to be better performers than real hair or sable brushes."  For her watercolors, Ikin is a firm believer in American Journey Paints because of the selection of colors, as well as paints from Maimeri Blu, M. Graham, and Holbein.  While her color choices often vary from painting to painting, she usually avoids earth colors as well as Payne's gray, because she feels they tend to dull the image.
   Both art and preservation significantly affect the cultural character and quality of life in Hillsborough County.  With that in mind, Ikin is in the process of planning to expand the "Preserve With the Paintbrush" concept.  Her next project could very well be the Greater Hampton Roads area of Virginia, which includes Norfolk and Virginia Beach.  "I have already scouted part of the Great Dismal Swamp, which encompasses an area beyond, but between, Norfolk, Virginia, and Elizabeth City, North Carolina," she says.  "It's a magnificent area."
   Given Ikin's passion for art and love of nature, it may not be too long before her art philosophy is part of every community in every state.
   Ikin is a former president and continuing board member of the Florida Watercolor Society.  She also serves on the board of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County.

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