About five years ago, Jessica Bryant and her two children walked onto Corbin Point, a rocky spit on Tubbs Hill’s southern side.
Bryant had walked the hill many times, but something was different this fall day. The light was warm, highlighting the changing colors of the trees and bouncing reflections off the calm lake water.
Bryant took a photo.
Now, years and at least 80 hours of painting later, that placid fall scene is traveling the country after one of Bryant’s paintings, based on that photo, was accepted into the 154th Annual International Exhibition of the American Watercolor Society at the Salmagundi Art Club in New York City.
A competitive, juried show, Bryant’s piece was one of about 140 chosen from more than a 1,000 submitted .
After the show, her painting of Tubbs Hill was one of 40 chosen to travel the country.
The painting is on display at the Sacramento Fine Arts Center in California.
“I really love the fact that Tubbs Hill is being seen everywhere,” Bryant said.
Bryant, a watercolor artist since 2007, teaches classes in Coeur d’Alene. While predominantly a landscape artist, she brings an attention to detail, mood and character that befits a portrait artist – or perhaps an ecological historian.
Each place, after all, has its own history and feeling, she said.
“I want my stuff to feel like you are there,” she said.
“But if somebody else can look at something I painted and feel like they are there and remember the smell and wind … that’s like painting an excellent portrait of your friend.”
That drive to communicate the feeling of a place and how that place impacts the people who come in contact with it has sent Bryant into the wilderness for weeks at a time.
A frequent artist in resident at various national parks, she’s helped wrangle bison, assisted on archaeological digs and studied black-footed ferrets, one of the most endangered mammals in North America.
All in the name of a deeper understanding of place.
“Most of the landscapes I do are like a portrait,” she said. “You really have to be true to what makes that person or that place, that person or that place.”
Tubbs Hill is a frequent subject for Bryant.
Bryant has always been drawn to art and was raised by an artistic father. She dabbled in other disciplines, considering becoming an astronomer before studying America studies at the University of Minnesota.
“My art teacher told me I’d never be happy if I wasn’t making art,” she said. “And my science teachers told me I needed to go into science.”
She started with science, but the single-minded focus necessary of research pushed Bryant toward more multidisciplinary pursuits. At first that was American studies, a broad discipline that requires an understanding of history and politics, she said.
“I like everything, but I don’t like any one thing enough that I only want to do this narrow dive,” she said. “You can’t piecemeal stuff. That’s just not how the world works.”
In 2001, after college, she moved to Coeur d’Alene and worked at North Idaho Community College for a spell before going to California in 2007 with her husband, a software engineer.
While there, she stayed home with her two kids. That’s when she started taking watercolor classes as a way of getting out of the house. A natural night owl, she was soon painting until 2 a.m., drawn to the challenge and creativity of the medium.
“Watercolor is wonderfully intellectual,” she said. “The way it works, you can’t just paint back over. You have to think and problem-solve when stuff goes wrong. It’s awesome. It’s way more flexible than people give it credit for.”
After returning to Coeur d’Alene in 2008, Bryant continued taking classes, this time at Spokane Art Supply and Spokane watercolor artist Stan Miller. By 2015, Bryant had opened a studio and was teaching.
At the same time, she’d started submitting pieces to the American Watercolor Society, the most prestigious and oldest watercolor association in the United States. In 2013, just a handful of years after seriously picking up watercolor, Bryant got her first piece accepted into the AWS show in New York. That was followed by an acceptance last year and this year’s 2021 acceptance. She became a signature member of AWS this January, one of the highest honors in watercolor in the world.
Getting accepted into these shows and becoming a signature member is a huge honor, Bryant said. This year’s acceptance, combined with the selection for the traveling show, added to her accolades.
Bryant sees the true value in her work as something more primal than awards or traveling shows. For her, it’s about building and providing a connection to a place and its people, in all the attendant beauty, tragedy, comedy and pain.
Tubbs Hill, for example.
A pocket of nature surrounded by a growing city, the downtown Coeur d’Alene spot is a “perfect small-scale example of larger issues,” Bryant said in an email.
“Picking one wildflower isn’t just picking one wildflower – it’s the dozen other people or more that will also pick a wildflower the same day, in the same area,” she said. “Stepping off trail for a great photo isn’t done by just one person, but dozens, every day. The durability of nature is finite.”
Bryant hopes that her depiction of Tubbs Hill on a calm afternoon bathed in the long light of fall highlights the importance of natural space and transmits the soothing balm that the natural world can provide.
“So many of us go through life largely detached and unaware of the natural world,” she said. “I like to think that my work can serve as a means of connecting people to the outdoors. A reminder of our fundamental connection to nature by way of an experience with a painting, whether or not the landscape is a familiar one.”
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