Art and journalism combine to create a more empathetic West

Writer-editor-illustrator Sarah Gilman talks about her latest project for High Country News.

 

Sarah Gilman’s studio desk just before clean up after she worked on several hyper detailed paintings of animals for magazines.

In 2006, Sarah Gilman came to Paonia, Colorado, to begin an internship with High Country News. She had spent the summer doing trail work on Mount Massive, a Colorado “fourteener,” and that winter marked the beginning of her long and winding road at the magazine. Over the years, Gilman has worked in various capacities for HCN — editor, illustrator, contractor and writer. These days, she’s based in the Methow Valley in Washington, where she works as a freelance magazine writer, editor and illustrator.

In February, Gilman wrote and illustrated a reported essay for High Country News, in which she examined the human relationship with cougars — animals still surrounded by myths despite new research that’s drawn them out of the shadows. The project, which paired Gilman’s signature prose with her striking watercolor paintings, exemplifies the way her journalism career and more recent ascent as a visual artist are increasingly enmeshed.

High Country News spoke with Gilman about her process, the wonder of the work and how the combination of the written word and illustrations can foster more empathy in the West. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

High Country News: How did the idea for this particular project, “The mystery of mountain lions,” come about?

Sarah Gilman: A little over a year ago, I moved to north-central Washington, and within three or four weeks of moving here, I had run into not one but two cougars — after a lifetime of living in cougar habitat and never encountering a single one, despite being in their territory all the time. 

The first encounter I had was when this young cougar came running out of this foggy, dark forest at 3 p.m., when I was texting someone about dog-sitting. I was about to leave to do reporting in California, and I wasn’t paying very close attention until I saw that my dog, Taiga, had turned her head. And so I turned my head. I was stunned. This animal was so close. 

For most of my life, cougars were always these things that we talked about but never saw. They were these vacant shapes that we filled up with stories about what we thought they were, what we heard they were and what we read that they were. High Country News Editor Emily Benson reached out to me after she learned that I had had some interesting encounters with cougars in my new home, and I was happy to write about it.

When I am the writer on a project that I’m illustrating, I almost always do the illustration after the writing. In this case, the cover illustration merged concepts from not only my story but also a feature story on wolf reintroduction in Colorado. There, the illustration was a bit of a hodgepodge, because we were trying to get at this idea that there are these misunderstood animals that are made up of all of the different kind of cascading forces of human thought, fear, science and opinion. And that’s where you see those illustrations of bones, traps and guns — to communicate those elements of fear.

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HCN: There’s a lot of creative ownership in being both the writer and the illustrator for a project. Can you talk about what it's like to juggle that, and how each process feeds the other?

SG: For me, the two complement each other really well, in part because I actually have a formal background in studio art. I came later to literary nonfiction, but I had often thought about writing in the same way I thought about painting when I was conceiving of ideas and the overall arc of the story. When I get to do both, it actually feels like me doing my whole work — the kind of thing I’m meant to do. I don’t know if I can have a full-time writing job again, and that’s because I’m kind of a mush. I’m not any one particular thing. I am a journalist — but I would go crazy if I was writing journalistic pieces only. When I write and draw a story, I feel complete in a way that is uniquely mine. And so when I’m chasing a story that I know would be a good one to illustrate, often the two are really tied together from the get-go. I’m most attracted to the stories that I know would be a good story to illustrate. 

HCN: I’d love to hear more about your origin and progression as an illustrated artist and how that existed alongside or outside of your trajectory as a journalist.

SG: At this point, I probably have much more experience as a journalist professionally. In college, I majored in both fine arts and biology, but I went to a liberal arts school, so writing was a huge part of what I did as well. When I was working as an artist in college, I had this feeling of not really being sure how to translate that into a life for myself that I actually wanted. My perception at the time was, you know, if you wanted to be a working artist, you were cloistered in your studio, you had to live in city, you needed to sort of play this gallery art game that seemed really sealed off from the experiences of most people and very linked to the wealthy. That always felt really alienating to me.

When I discovered literary nonfiction in a workshop class in college, I just totally fell in love with it because it combined some of the creative thinking you do with art while also combining it with analysis, which was what I really loved about biology. Writing in this way felt more democratic and connected to the people and places that I wanted to be: in a small town, out on the land in the West, where I was from. My early opportunities — the High Country News internship in particular — set me on this trajectory.

Later, as an editor, I felt like there was this part of myself that wasn’t really getting answered. I would conceive of illustrations for magazine stories and cover stories that I was editing, and that was so satisfying. As an editor, I would key on these big messages and themes that were coming through the writing, and I would able to work with an artist to make those things come alive. It was really neat — but also not ultimately satisfying, because I wanted to do it.

My earliest editorial illustrations were for HCN, my first being this kind of hilarious illustration for a story about search and rescue statistics. It was a terrible illustration of a purple man who would be the most likely to have trouble evacuating. 

HCN: The West is this dynamic, complicated region that’s misunderstood. How do you think that this combination of journalism and art can help people understand it in a deeper way?

I hope this kind of art creates an immersive experience for readers so that they feel transported and engaged in a person’s life or an issue in a way that they might not if it were just written.

SG: One of the things I am most interested in as a writer is trying to insert nuance into these issues that are often portrayed as black-and-white. A boilerplate example would be thinking of rural people as backwards and uneducated, instead of thinking of rural places as being incredibly dynamic and diverse, and filled with different kinds of people and lots of unexpected stories. That’s been a focus for me as a journalist — to focus on those places that get flattened out or left out altogether by larger discussions.

I hope this kind of art creates an immersive experience for readers so that they feel transported and engaged in a person’s life or an issue in a way that they might not if it were just written. Art creates a sense of wonder that is accessible without being value-loaded. I hope the combination creates empathy and gets past some of the polarization that makes so many Western issues hard to talk about. Stories that are digested in this way, I think, reach a broader cross-section of readers and become something that people can unify over. Finding ways to tell stories that way makes them accessible, more broadly. I hope that builds empathy and helps us build more space for each other and for wildness.

Paige Blankenbuehler is an associate editor for High Country News. She oversees coverage of the Southwest, Great Basin and the Borderlands from her home in Durango, Colorado. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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