SPRINGFIELD — Autumn in Lane County came and went, painting our sidewalks with rich oranges, deep reds, and moody yellows. The air is crisp and clear. It has what longtime Springfield resident and wildlife artist Marissa Gibson calls, a “quiet peace to it.”
The Pacific Northwest has always provided vivid fodder for creatives – with a tactful blend of muted gray-greens from Ponderosa pines, and the gold of dry grasses turning, endless inspiration is right in our own backyard. That is, if you know where to look.
Gibson was born and raised in Lane County, developing an eye for noticing the little things. As we spoke, they pointed to a solitary gray seagull perched atop a lamppost, visible through the coffee shop window.
“There’s always going to be wildlife in urban spaces, whether we like it or not,” they said. “It somehow works for them, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
Gibson is the recent winner of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) annual stamp contest in the “Upland Game Bird” category– rendering elusive mountain quail in watercolor. Their work will be printed on collectors stamps and prints as a part of the “Habitat Conservation Stamp Program,” which provides a way for all Oregonians to give financial support to conservation efforts.
The sale of the stamps supports bird research, surveys, habitat improvement and conservation projects.
Gibson takes inspiration from the life around them, watching birds at Dorris Ranch and other natural areas in the county. The mission of ODFW’s contest is at the heart of their creative process – conservation “comes from observation,” they say.
“The act of being outside and looking at things existing is good for the soul,” they said. “And when it comes to painting birds, it’s about more than the animal itself. I’m observing what it’s doing, what the weather’s like… finding a balance of showing the detail of the bird and the life around it.”
Their painting is the first watercolor entry to win ODFW’s competition, something Gibson takes pride in.
“It’s been my favorite medium for as long as I’ve been calling myself a professional artist,” they said. “The perception of watercolor is that it’s loose, but I think that wildlife artists have really mastered using it in a detailed way to show depth. And it’s accessible. Which is why it’s not always considered on the same level as acrylic and oil.”
Gibson started painting at a young age, encouraged by teachers and mentors to pursue art as a career, filling sketchbook after sketchbook with portraits of animals.
“My interest in migratory birds and painting started around the same time,” they said. “And I got a lot of encouragement while I was learning. That’s what’s fun about this – there is no bad art. It’s good because it’s out there and someone made it.”
Gibson is a recent graduate of Whitworth University, where they studied both fine art and biology, noticing the intersections between their two passions.
“I’m really interested in the interaction between people and the species that use the same habitat, whether that’s for recreation, agriculture or urban areas,” they said. “As I paint wildlife and birds, I always want to represent the species and the space better. And that means knowing more. Whenever I’m out watching birds, I’m always thinking about the world around them too.”
Within that professional trajectory, Gibson was able to study other wildlife artists and their impact on scientific research.
“Art as science communication is really important too,” they said. “There’s only so much that a piece of literature from a journal can tell you. It’s important to have science be accessible and having good images is the first step.”
Their most recent interest? Adding to the ever-growing list of birds that have visited their backyard.
“It’s a little island of urban space,” they said. “And it’s always changing.”
Marissa has a unique way of capturing her winged-subject’s personalities, showing an intimate and powerful relationship to the landscape around them. Using their emotive combination of soft, blurred backgrounds and highly-detailed color work, Gibson’s compositions honor the presence of the whole scene – not just the bird.
“I would consider myself an illustrator more than just a painter,” they said. “Because the things that I make are saying something, communicating more than just the shape of the bird. It’s an illustration. A conservation narrative in an image.”