Hummingbirds and Healing
Exhibited in venues ranging from the Smithsonian to a local physical-therapy office, Jan Gunlock's wildlife art brings outdoor beauty in.
Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder
Jan Gunlock's success sometimes takes her by surprise. Gesturing toward one of her earlier works, a dramatic pen-and-ink drawing of a bighorn sheep propped up against a chair in her Silver City studio, she tells how the picture wound up hanging in the Smithsonian — almost by happy accident, to hear her tell it — for more than three years.
"I had just joined the Association of Natural Science Illustrators and I was encouraged to submit a piece of work for some upcoming exhibit," Gunlock says. "I couldn't believe the honor of being asked. And then I heard it was accepted!" She clasps her hands together in a gesture of humble surprise, almost disbelief, then adds an animated, nearly breathless, "Well!" She pauses to smile at the memory.
"So it hung for three months in that show. The Smithsonian! You can imagine what a big deal that was to me!" she says. "It was around the time when the piece should have been coming down, that exhibit was over, and I get a call asking, 'Would you mind if we kept it here for three more years?' I couldn't believe it! I almost wanted to ask them, 'Are you sure?'"
During the time her bighorn was exhibited, Gunlock and her husband made a trip to see the work hanging on those hallowed walls, as did friends and family members. "Oh, it was thrilling to see it there," she says.
Gunlock works mainly in colored pencils; the colorful implements sprout from lazy susans and small buckets on nearby tables and desks all around her. Her drawings often are detailed with fine lines of pen and ink, and sometimes augmented with watercolor washes. She also does some work in scratchboard, a medium in which the image is scratched into a black-faced plane, the scratching away revealing the white of clay or chalk below the surface.
Thematically, Gunlock says, her work is all about nature. "I've done a lot of desert landscapes, animals. I had quite a 'cactus period,' too," she says with a laugh. "Most recently, though, it's been birds."
Hummingbirds are a favorite topic (like the one featured in "Beauty Above, Beauty Below," this month's Desert Exposure cover). The many windows of her Silver City studio give a view out on her sanctuary of a backyard, feathered friends flitting in the branches just the other side of the glass. Over one desk hangs a playful "Hummingbird Crossing" sign. A puffy whimsical hummingbird wind ornament perches on a nearby coat rack. Gunlock takes a sip of her strawberry lemonade, then sets the glass back down on a coaster adorned with a hummingbird image, next to a beverage napkin, also decorated with one of the tiny birds.
Along a small wall of pegboard, numerous hummingbird pictures hang in various types of frames. Gunlock's husband, Ed, does her framing these days since he retired from a long career in accounting.
"Ed's a wonderful photographer," she adds enthusiastically, adding that she has worked her drawings from many of his photos.
Before moving to Silver City 10 years ago, Gunlock and her husband had bopped around numerous states. "I met Ed in Chicago and we left there 40 years ago," she says. The couple lived in California and Arizona, and had settled into Nevada for 23 years before coming to rest in their current New Mexico home. "We've been in the West longer than anywhere else now," Gunlock says. "I like being able to say that, because I really love the West. It's a very special and unique part of the world."
She credits her professional artistic awakening to her westward move. "I started my artwork in midlife," she says. "Oh, yes, I had drawn since I was a child and I took some classes, but I didn't get serious about art until I was around 40. That was in Nevada. I was inspired by the natural beauty of the desert and the wildlife there." Eyes wide, she throws up her hands and exclaims, "Well, how could I not be? A person can't help but be inspired in the midst of all that beauty."
Creating wildlife art — "at a time when no one else was doing that kind of art, as one gallery owner told me," Gunlock adds with a laugh — she soon was teaching graphic illustration classes at the Community College of Southern Nevada, in North Las Vegas. She traveled throughout the West for several years as a workshop instructor for the Koh-I-Noor Pen Co., a purveyor of fine-art pens. After that, Gunlock began offering her own workshops.
For having started her art career later in life, Gunlock has generated a large body of varied work and racked up an amazing number of credentials, which she humbly refers to as "some of my highlights."
She's served as artist-in-residence at the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in Socorro, for which she created a two-sided bird identification card. She holds up the laminated card and laughingly says, "You have to get these exactly right! The (Audubon) experts are looking at them and people are going to use these actual cards to help them identify birds!"
Since the late 1980s, Gunlock has shown in at least a dozen juried exhibits from California to Washington, DC, and in solo shows throughout the West, including at the WMNU and Silver City museums locally and at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque. She's taught numerous art workshops — twice for the Mimbres Region Arts Council, as well as at WNMU and Santa Fe Community College, and in such inspiring places as Yosemite National Park, Death Valley National Park and the Ghost Ranch Conference Center in Abiquiu, NM.
Locally, Gunlock's work has been shown at several hummingbird festivals. Notecards of her work — hand-colored, on high-quality non-acid paper — are sold in Silver City locations including The Document Center, the Silver City Museum, the Inn on Broadway and Bear Mountain Lodge, as well as Spirit Canyon Lodge in Lake Roberts. She says that after someone from the National Parks Service spied her cards at Spirit Canyon Lodge, she was invited to show her work at a hummingbird festival at the Chimizal National Memorial in El Paso next spring.
She loves creating what she does, she says, as a way of preserving natural beauty and bringing it indoors so people can enjoy it. She is especially proud that her work is shown locally at Desert Springs Physical Therapy in Silver City.
"Suzanne (Thomas, physical therapist and owner of the Desert Springs facility) really believes in my work, and she has created such a beautiful healing environment," Gunlock says. "I'm so pleased that she thinks my work enhances her space and is good for the work she does."
Gunlock's large pencil and ink drawing "Dawn at Desert Springs" greets patients and visitors at the entrance to the therapeutic facility. Thomas commissioned Gunlock to create the piece.
Taking a moment between patients, Thomas enthuses about the piece and having Gunlock's other works on display throughout the building. "It's a serene, welcoming image," Thomas says. "I've loved Jan's work since I first saw it. I love this one that she created for me because of all the little animals coming out in the morning. All of her work is uplifting, and I feel it adds to the healing atmosphere here."
Birds appear in force in the pencil-and-ink piece. A trio of red-wing blackbirds flutter in the marsh grasses alongside a small creek. A Gambel's quail sits on a branch, poised to drink from the spring, as a pair of mallards floats nearby. A wading heron looks skyward, its neck craned in the characteristic, dramatic curve. A deer stands behind a tree, the anchoring image that draws the piece together, top to bottom. The leaves, rendered in fastidious detail, form a canopy above the animals' heads and seem to float on the breeze.
Throughout the building — down the hallway and in treatment rooms — Gunlock's drawings remind the viewer of the splendor of nature. While all the wildlife images are painstakingly accurate in every detail, Gunlock has incorporated some playful interpretations, too. In a picture of a roadrunner, the sun is portrayed as a New Mexico "zia" in the sky.
In "Rufous Hummingbird," the tiny bird sits in its characteristic alert posture. The branch beneath it is not much more than a pen-and-ink line. In nature, the elegant twig would be, perhaps, just enough to hold the tiny bird's weight. In Gunlock's rendering, it is the perfect complement, supporting the bird visually while not calling attention to itself.