By now, the link between human creativity and the natural world is well-known. Don’t just take Henry David Thoreau’s word for it. Much of what the 19th century author experienced and felt as he wrote in isolation amidst the trees next to Walden Pond is now firmly backed up by modern science; Being in nature has a major impact on our minds, making us less stressed, more focused, and more creative. In one 2012 study, researchers found that spending four days immersed in nature made backpackers 50% more creative. According to another study, the act of walking through green spaces can send the brain into a zen-like, meditative state.
Melissa Mary Jenkins knows this interplay between nature and art better than most people. The Canadian artist not only draws inspiration and focus from the scenic, wooded landscape outside her farmhouse; She actually makes her own natural ink from the plants, nuts, and other natural materials she forages there. The result is a body of abstract artwork that doesn’t just resemble the Earth with its organic-feeling tones and shapes – it is literally made out of the Earth, thanks to the materials, colors, and focused peace of mind it offers Jenkins each day.
In celebration of National Art Day, Jenkins is offering a free, printable download of one of her pieces below. We interviewed Jenkins about her creative process, its deep roots in nature, and her recipe for a focused, inspired, and creative life.
We know that being in nature can have a big impact on creativity. How does nature influence your own creative process?
Nature is pretty much the basis for my creativity. The lines, colors, shapes, tones, and variations of nature all spark my creative juices. I create all my paint from nature. So everything that I paint with now, I’ve created from plants that I’ve discovered in nature. We have access to hundreds of acres of property to walk on, and I have a dog that loves to explore with me. So we go out several times a day, just noticing things in nature and the shape and aesthetic of different things that I’m looking at. So it basically is the basis of my artwork and my inspiration.
I struggled for many years with Lyme disease. There was a time when I could hardly walk or even talk or read a book. I remember the first time that I was able to walk out in the farm fields. There was very little motivation for me to get outside because I would often feel so terrible. I didn’t feel like doing anything, but I had a little puppy who needed exercise. So when I did get outside, it was a really huge part of me noticing so much of the color in nature and all the potential in it. When I started to feel better, it was being outside in nature that really helped me.
How did you get started creating your own natural inks? What do you use to make them?
There really isn’t a lot of information out there about making ink. In the last year or so, it’s become quite popular in my little corner of Instagram, but probably not in the real world. I’ve had to go into rabbit holes and search out a lot of botanical dyers.
I was at a meeting for creatives and a friend showed me avocado ink, which was ink that she made from cooking avocado pits or stones. It’s a beautiful pink and I was really intrigued. We love avocados in our home and I always have them around. So I went home and I started creating ink with it and dying fabric a bit. And then my children and I started creating inks up at our cottage using pine cones and turmeric and different things.
I’ve also started experimenting with making my own paint from rocks as well from crushing pigments down. When we went to Mexico last year, I found these seed pods that I’ve used for stamps as well.
I have this secret recipe that I create lavender ink with. And if you just cook up lavender ink in hot water, it’ll just be kind of a light brown, which I love, but people expect a beautiful purple from lavender. I did this deep dive on the internet and discovered that it needed certain acidic qualities in order to change it to a pink or purple. I was able to go out into the swamp area out here and pick the right type of herb to actually turn into pink and purple.
This summer, I started making ink from inky cap mushrooms that dissolve into ink all on their own. It’s a horrendous smell, but if you can overcome that and put a little essential oil in it, it’s incredible. So I’m always discovering new things, which is really neat.
Natural inks are undoubtedly more environmentally-friendly. How else do you prioritize sustainability in your work?
Around the same time that I started making inks, I had done a big studio cleanup and noticed so much garbage that I had collected. I used baby wipes a lot in my artwork, I guess because that’s what I had on hand around my house. I just had so much garbage and I realized that I really needed to change my process.
Now when I do cleanup of the studio, there’s hardly anything in the garbage. And the paper that I use, I reuse into paint swatches for selling my ink. And then I also make my own business cards with whatever is leftover from paintings or from watercolor paper I’m cutting up.
I’ve learned so much about sustainability. For instance, I’m in the process of making my own ink for stamping. And I really wanted to use sustainable sources, like for glycerin. So I’ve talked to the companies themselves and I’ve learned so much about the products that go into creating what I’m creating. So I’m doing my best to be as sustainable as possible. With every little aspect, I’m thinking about the footprint that I’m making.
How does your art evolve through the seasons?
I actually just put together a binder. I call it my ink Bible from all my years of experimenting with ink. It’s all organized by the seasons, so you can flip through and see the colors. And as you head more towards autumn, you’ll see the acorn ink and the walnut ink. They have deep brown, earthy colors. In the winter, it’s a little more difficult, but you can still find pine spruce cones that can make a deep, rich brown – and alder catkins, which are tiny little things that hang off trees hanging over the lake. You can make a lovely ink with that.
We just ordered a new freezer so I can fill it with all the berries and different items that I collect all year. And then you can actually cook them up during the winter and have a little bit of summer on your paper.
What about your indoor creative space? Tell us about your studio and how the look and feel of that workspace influences your work.
My workspace is my home studio off the back of our old stone farmhouse. Windows line three walls looking out onto farm fields, a pond, a cedar forest and an apple orchard. One wall has built-in shelving which allows me to display my artwork and cherished collections. Sometimes, I find myself just staring out the window or at the art on the shelf inside. I find it really refreshing.
It’s all very natural looking and thrifted. I have tapestries on the wall hung with wood frames that my father-in-law creates for me. I’ve got plants hanging on the wall. Little pieces of paint swatches. A mobile hanging in the corner. There are things I’ve thrifted along my travels that all have special memories attached to them.
One of my problems is that I love a clean, minimal space so that I can just focus on what’s on my table. But then as I get going creatively, it just turns into a hurricane. All of the organic elements, like plants and whatever’s going on on my desk – it all just piles up until I can’t walk in there and can’t really create anymore and I’ll have to create in my kitchen. Then I’ll do a big cleanup and then it’ll start again. It’s kind of like this creative ebb and flow I go through.
How else do you stay focused? Any tips you can share?
My number one tip is to go outside. Whenever my mind feels like it is spinning out of control, a walk in nature always seems to give me a fresh perspective. For me, focus is just about finding a state of peace in my mind, which can be hard sometimes. I find that silence and views of nature help me to stay focused.
I also suggest having a space that is minimal, calm and serene so that the simple act of picking up a paint brush or a pencil can take you away for a little while.
I find that distraction can be rather fluid. When I’m writing, I can’t listen to podcasts or even music. I need the quiet. But then when I’m painting, sometimes it helps to listen to an audiobook. So listening to audiobooks and podcasts and music can be a huge part of my inspiration.
I recently had some silent time in my studio and I found myself just staring out the window. We have a pond outside our window with four pet ducks that swim in there. And that distraction actually helped me focus.
What else inspires you creatively, aside from nature?
I love to read and I love to be inspired through words. I often find wonderful quotes within the fictional novels I’m reading and then write them down and keep them in my studio. Things that resonate with me.
I have a few books that really inspire my work. “Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking” by Jason Logan is what really inspired me to get into making ink from nature. There’s another book called “The Organic Artist” that has lots of recipes and ways to create art tools and paints and everything you could think of. And I have field guide books about flowers and things like that.
I’m a total paper book person. When the libraries were closed, I started reading on my phone, and I’m not a huge fan of it. I love to have a book in front of me, for sure. Then I can make sticky notes and add bookmarks and things like that.
I often find myself writing notes down from music as well. We have a whole music room here; Singing and music are a huge part of inspiration for me. So yeah, pretty much everything in my life is an inspiration. Sometimes you just need to notice it.
You’re making one of your pieces, titled “Alone But Not Lonely” available as a free, printable download that can be turned into a Fracture glass print. What’s the story behind this painting?
I used avocado, ink, acorn ink with iron added to it to make it turn it gray. The acorns were collected on the lake where I was doing the painting. I didn’t have the ingredients to make my black ink, so I used charcoal from a campfire.
It was a special time in August. I was up north at our cottage for about three days alone, and it was the first time I’d actually been alone in five months. But I was far from lonely. I was reveling in how quiet it was. Our cottage has floor to ceiling windows, so it’s a whole wall of windows looking out at the lake and the hills of trees. It creates a seamless feel like you’re outside, even when the windows are closed. I was not lonely because I had all of this inspiration around me. It was pretty amazing.
“Alone But Not Lonely” by Melissa Mary Jenkins
Click to download
Image will download as a .zip file automatically. Use the code ARTDAY20 to get 20% off of a Fracture print of it.