Illustrator built career combining science, art

Juneau color

Posted: Friday, January 08, 1999

When Kathy Hocker draws a cat, she starts with the skeleton.

Knowing where the bones lie, she can form the flesh and fur from pencil lead or brush strokes.

The Juneau native created her life the same way, using a bachelor's degree in biology as the first step to a career in art.

``I've always been trying to mesh two halves of myself, trying to meld the art and the science into one,'' said Hocker, who is a free-lance scientific illustrator and part-time nature teacher.

Every day she goes outside to sketch, usually to the wetlands or beaches. Before drawing a plant, animal or landscape she observes it as a scientist would.

``I try to spend some amount of time just looking at it first, touching it and smelling it, getting to know it,'' Hocker said. ``The first step to drawing is putting your pencil down.''

Otherwise you're drawing a preconceived notion of the object, an archetypal cat instead of the real one in front of you, Hocker said.

Field drawing is sometimes challenging in Juneau. In 25-degree weather this week, Hocker drew snow-covered trees at Vintage Park from the warmth of her car. Often she brings items inside to draw when it's cold out. Dried yarrow and small pine cones are taped to her drawing table. She carefully arranged skulls, gourds and bird feathers under the glass top of a coffee table, where copies of Scientific American are stashed.

Hocker's understanding of plants and animals shows in her finished drawings, said Brian O'Callaghan, vice president of Sea Reach Ltd. The Oregon company depends on Hocker as one of its four main illustrators and writers for interpretive signs and exhibits, including the exhibit at DIPAC's Gastineau Hatchery in Juneau.

O'Callaghan describes Hocker's art as chameleon-like, able to mimic any style. Her drawings can be playful without assigning human characteristics to the animals, he said.

``Quite a few people can sketch or can draw critters, but you don't find many people who have been through the rigors of scientific natural history illustration,'' O'Callaghan said from Oregon. ``It's kind of a lost art.''

Hocker learned the lost art through a graduate program in scientific illustration at University of California Santa Cruz. Other students from the same program have fulltime jobs illustrating for companies in California, but 30-year-old Hocker decided she'd rather live near the wilderness than draw it from afar. She spends an average of 15 hours a week on free-lance illustrations for Sea Reach or books by Juneau authors.

E-mail, faxes and Federal Express make it possible to free-lance long distance, Hocker said. She drew signs for North Algodones Dunes Wilderness in the California desert without ever going there, working from photos Sea Reach sent her.

Hocker's art won attention in Juneau when three glass ornaments she painted with birds were sold for $210 at KTOO-FM's December fund-raising auction - four times the expected amount. Hocker was as surprised as anyone and when the bids passed $100 she decided to make the winning bidder a fourth ornament.

One of the bidders, though not the winning one, was Mary Claire Harris, a retired school teacher who became a fan of Hocker after taking a weekend field drawing workshop from her and another artist, Richard Carstensen.

``I just kind of worship the ground she walks on because she provided me with such a wonderful, wonderful joy in being able to put my thoughts down on paper and enjoy nature,'' said Harris, who continues to draw every Friday morning with another retired teacher.

``It's not often you see a truly talented person like that who is willing to teach,'' said Harris, who had been frustrated by other art classes.

Harris was impressed by Hocker's skillful and nonthreatening manner. One young girl in the class was having difficulty drawing a blue jay, so Hocker brought over a bird skull to show the child how moving the eye would fix the picture.

Hocker sometimes teaches workshops through the Discovery Foundation and will give classes in field sketching through Community Schools in March. Drawing is an excellent way to learn about nature, said Hocker, who also teaches nature studies classes to elementary children through the Discovery Foundation.

``You pick up something like an alder leaf and draw it from a couple different angles, I guarantee you'll learn something new,'' Hocker said.

She scrawls questions in the margins of her own sketch pad: ``What is this? What does this look like in the spring?''

Hocker learned to be curious about the natural world from her parents. Her pilot father often landed the family on a remote beach in Southeast Alaska to explore the woods and shore.

It's important to share the love and knowledge of the plants and animals without the end-of-the-world paranoia found in some environmental curriculum, Hocker said.

``It's sort of misleading, the idea that we have the ability to destroy the Earth,'' Hocker said. ``But we can certainly make it miserable for ourselves and other species.''



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