Barbara Schelling creates realistic local and regional bird and animal illustrations but adds a quirky or fantastical aspect to them. She wants to tell a unique story that reflects their individual characteristics and also, reflects who we are as humans.
A BRIEF BIO ABOUT WHO YOU ARE AND WHAT YOU DO.
I am a retired graphic designer, living in Bigfork, Montana with my partner, Jamie, and two schnoodles. Bettywhite and Billie Bird. I love where I am – to live in a beautiful place is to never run out of inspiration. I am a member of the Nakoda (Assiniboine) tribe and I’m continuously learning about cultural, personal, and historical aspects of my indigenous heritage. My mother’s family is based out of the Fort Belknap, Montana, reservation and have been storytellers, craftspeople, and artists going back generations. Just recently, I started painting the wildlife around me. In the paintings, I want to capture the details and anatomy of local birds and animals but add in a quirky personality through a fantastical embellishment and brief story. These illustrations reveal our own human condition: our fragility, our questions, our experiences, our emotions, and our humor. I want to create a connection between humans and wildlife – to foster empathy and compassion towards our wild cousins by proving that beauty, light, and humor are in the details.
DESCRIBE YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS... HOW DO YOU WORK AND MAKE THE GREAT THINGS YOU MAKE?
Sometimes the bird or animal's individual characteristics (physical or behavioral) influence the direction of the illustration. Sometimes I have a specific idea of what we do as people and anthropomorphize that into the bird/animal illustration. Either way, the story will hopefully be recognized by the audience. I do a lot of research about the specific bird or animal. You don't want to make the mistake of confusing a Black Capped Chickadee vs. a Mountain Chickadee. Egads! I pencil sketch in my idea - if it looks like it's working, I will paint in with gouache paints, usually on heavy smooth Bristol paper.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I have had a great life-long career as a graphic designer. I loved my job, but seven years ago, I wanted to do a project for myself, with no other person or partner driving the creativity, so I started drawing birds. I had recently started birdwatching and saw, surprisingly to me, that they have very unique personalities. There was a young Pine Siskin that all other birds screamed at if he came to the feeder. What the heck was wrong with him - maybe just an annoying personality? Who knows. There was a Rufous hummingbird that was so territorial and mean that we dubbed him Eric the Red. That stuck and he became Eric the Red with a viking helmet as an illustration.
WHERE DO YOU DRAW YOUR INSPIRATION FROM?
Nature, of course. I am also inspired by our own human condition. We have had very strange times these last few years. I feel that sometimes when it's dark, some lightness and humor, some little story we can relate to, can make a difference, even for a moment. I want to to reinforce the human-animal-nature connection, which is inherent to living in Montana.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF AS AN ARTIST AND BUSINESS PERSON?
I am still amazed that people have liked my art. It feels like a miracle and I don't take that lightly. One important thing (for me) is that I don't take commissions or requests, as I am afraid that will turn this into a "job" similar to my graphic design career. I lose control of the creativity. Also, someone's idea for an illustration might not jive with mine - and that would result in failure, I'm afraid. So through all of that, I have been able to create product variations, sell originals, sell prints, meet customers at fairs, work with retail partners, and it's still very very fun.
DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS OR SUGGESTIONS FOR YOUR FELLOW ARTISANS AND MAKERS?
Don't do what others are doing. Trust yourself and your own instincts and make that thing that makes you happy first, even if it feels a little weird or antithetical. Others will see what you see. Your work might not speak to everyone, but when it does, well...it can bring happiness to someone, which can be so healing and rewarding in these stressful times. People want to buy from artisans, and they want unique perspectives. Go do it.