What’s in a picture? For artist Rob Mullen, who has spent years exploring and painting uninhabited regions of the world, his oil depictions of landscapes and wildlife include a message to protect the natural world that sustains us.
In a normal year, Mullen spends his time deep in the wilderness, most often in high-latitude places untouched by humans. He has been on more than 30 wilderness canoe expeditions between Labrador and Alaska, and spent “untold hours” observing wildlife in these places, plus Arkansas, Montana, Texas, Mexico and Africa. The biologist and ad-exec-turned-painter, who came to Vermont by way of New York City, is particularly moved by the wilderness of the boreal forest, a land of freezing temperatures, deep mosses, clear and cold water, short and scraggly conifer trees, and animals like otters, foxes and brown bears.
This year, however, COVID-19 upended Mullen’s plans to travel to the “Barrenlands” of the Northwest Territories, and so the artist decided to stick closer to his home in Bolton to hike and paint the length of the state. He started at the northern terminus of the 272-mile Long Trail in North Troy on Sept. 29, and has been heading south from there toward the southern terminus, at the border with Massachusetts. Along the way, he’s stopping to capture images of wild Vermont.
Mullen is offering his images in exchange for mile-by-mile sponsorships of his hike, with a range of options. For example, pledging 5 cents per mile, or $13.65 in total if he finishes the entire trail, will get you one high-resolution image of a painting from his trip that is suitable for printing. Pledging $1 per mile, or $272 for the entire hike, gets you five high-resolution images of paintings from the trip, one original oil painting from the trip, 10 select photos from the trip, and a link to track Mullen’s real-time progress on the trail. There are many options in between.
Proceeds from these sponsorships will go to the Vermont Wildlife Coalition, an organization he says is critical to the health of Vermont’s wildlife. VWC’s mission is creating an ecologically-sound future for Vermont’s wild species and fostering a more balanced approach to managing Vermont’s wildlife. A share of all of the proceeds will also go to the Green Mountain Club, a Waterbury-based nonprofit that maintains the Long Trail.
Mullen had planned to hike 10 miles per day, leaving a couple of hours each day for plein air painting alongside the trail. But he found that painting at camp made more sense, as he settled in at Shooting Star Shelter on his first night. There, he painted a boulder, a glacial erratic left behind on the exposed ledge where the shelter is perched, that was colored by the low-angle light of a setting sun. In the morning, while the painting sat out drying, another hiker walked up to the shelter and bought the painting on the spot for $250. Just a few days later, at Hazen’s Notch camp, an art-buyer happened to be hiking by and gave him her contact information.
“It was a bit of an auspicious start,” said Mullen of his first days on the trail, speaking by phone from his home in Bolton where he was taking two days off from hiking.
But after his initial success, the extraordinary amount of climbing on the northern sections of trail began to take a toll on Mullen. His oil paints, palette, brushes and boards weighed about 10 pounds and, though he has been a lifelong athlete and considers himself to be fit, the extra weight was making itself known, and he started to begrudge those painting supplies.
“I’m 64, which was a little bit of an awakening,” he said with a laugh, and so he decided to send home his paints, brushes and boards with his wife, whom he met at a road crossing, and opted instead for a high-powered camera, which he carries in a small pouch attached to the shoulder strap of his pack, and his beloved — and much lighter — sketchbook and pens. For now, at least until he reaches mellower sections of trail to the south, he will capture images through the lens and pens, and back at home in his studio, he will transform the images to oil paintings.
Aside from the natural beauty of the trail, he has been struck on his hike by the comradery and community that develops among fellow hikers. People look out for each other, and one couple even became worried when they hadn’t seen Mullen for a few days. They sent messages with fellow hikers traveling up and down the trail, and asked if anyone had seen him. He crossed paths with the pair on his way in to Bolton, and they were all happy to see each other.
“There is a whole culture out there,” says Mullen, who has been given the trail name Sweat by fellow hikers, a common practice on long-distance trails. “It’s very heart-warming to have these people out on the trail, I don’t get that on most wilderness trips.”
He believes he is called to wilderness because he grew up surrounded by it, in the foothills of the Green Mountains. “I was surrounded by wildlife as a kid. I just never grew out of it,” he says.
When it comes to nature art in general, he explains, “This isn’t just pretty pictures of pretty landscapes, these are the systems that keep us alive.” The sense of wilderness in his paintings, he says, gives a sense of the grand scale of the Earth. They might depict an animal who, he points out, sees the world in a different way from you. Perhaps that animal has never even seen a human being before. His awe for nature comes through as he describes what he works to portray in his paintings.
Whether a person lives in rural parts of the world or in the city, these wild places and their natural cycles sustain us and protect us. “We need these natural systems,” he adds. And through his art, he aims to create a vehicle that leads viewers back to nature.
He says, “I don’t know if I can cram that into a painting, but I’ll try.”
Mullen’s art work can be viewed on his website www.paintnpaddlestudio.com and at the Robert Pall Galleries in Stowe. Visit www.vtwildlifecoalition.org/sponsors to sponsor his hike in exchange for art work.
Another Vermont hiker is hitting the Long Trail this year to raise money for a good cause. Hiker Jocelyn Hebert, of Calais, completed her fourth end-to-end hike of the 272-mile Long Trail on Oct. 3 after 27 days of hiking. Zuni Bear, as she is known on the trail, used her hike as a fundraiser to support people with Parkinson’s disease in memory of her father, Peter J. Hebert, who lost his life after living with the disease for 10 years. She says her father’s courage and determination to be as independent as possible fueled her own courage and determination to start Peaks for Parkinson’s in 2010. The organization aims to raise disease awareness, encourage physical activity for all and as a tool to slow disease progression and to raise funds to support people with Parkinson’s.
Hiking the trails has many benefits, says Hebert. There are the physical and mental benefits of exercise, but also the improved sense of self; she leaves the trail healthier, happier and more motivated. The trail is a great place for one-on-one conversations as well, and she has heard from many people that her multiple hikes have inspired them and their on-trail conversations have had an impact.
On this most recent hike, she was on the trail with many people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who were younger than she. News had spread of Zuni Bear’s fourth end-to-end hike with excitement and astonishment, and she got a lot of questions; one fellow hiker even asked if she was a masochist, which made her laugh. She points out, “You can be older, or average, and be a powerful inspiration to people. You only need to believe in yourself.”
On a previous Long Trail hike, Hebert raised $10,000 for the Vermont and Massachusetts chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association, and she is currently fundraising to meet that goal again. She has asked for the money to be used to support caregivers in Vermont, as she feels that can have the most direct impact on improving people’s lives. Hebert plans to blog on her website about her hike and, while she is almost to her fundraising goal, she invites people to donate at www.peaksforparkinsons.org/