For centuries, the illustrations of wandering naturalists have offered creative expressions from the field, providing personal experiences and perspectives that inspire wonder for the natural world. Take, for example, Margaret Shaw, who in her well-loved book “A Countrywoman’s Journal: The Sketchbook of a Passionate Naturalist,” recorded in watercolor and prose the unspoiled flora and fauna of the English countryside. Or Walden’s Ridge’s own Emma Bell Miles, an artist, writer and poet whose work captured the essence of the natural world of Southern Appalachia.
It is within this genre that East Tennessee artist Vickie Henderson creates. A watercolorist, writer, photographer and naturalist, Henderson draws deep pleasure from nature, and her artwork is an expression of the wonder she finds there.
Born and raised on a farm in Nashville, Henderson said she has enjoyed drawing and writing about nature since childhood. She recalls sneaking into the corncrib as a child to watch mice at play and delighting in the swallows that darted out of the barn at daybreak.
“I have always loved the animals and birds I meet in my everyday wanderings,” she said. “They make me laugh, surprise me, and show me tiny portraits of their lives and personalities.”
Henderson’s creative talents and interest in nature were rekindled in adulthood, after raising two sons and working in private practice in the mental health field. She credits this awakening to a cold morning in February of 1999 when she attended the Sandhill Crane Festival and saw thousands of sandhill cranes in the cornfields at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Birchwood, Tenn.
“Since that captivating moment, I have felt driven to experience more of nature’s wildness and to share what I see and feel in my art,” said Henderson, who resides in Knoxville.
Henderson quotes Aldo Leopold in “A Sand County Almanac” to describe her affinity for cranes and their creative inspiration: “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words."
Today, Henderson’s gentle ways with watercolors and words help promote conservation and education about birds native to East Tennessee. She has authored and illustrated the “Whooping Crane Activity Book” for the nonprofit organization Operation Migration, which introduces children to the magnificent whooping crane, and the Tennessee Ornithological Society’s “Discover Birds Activity Book,” a 12-page book that focuses on how birds adapt for winter survival.
In April, Henderson published a sketchbook journal titled “Red-shouldered Hawk Territory,” which chronicles her experiences while sketching and observing a nesting pair of suburban red-shouldered hawks in Knoxville.
“This book came about quite by accident,” Henderson said. “I was at a business meeting and noticed a gorgeous female hawk fly into view outside a window. I jumped up and ran to the window to watch it. When I left that meeting, I heard an ear-piercing call and found the hawk perched less than 15 feet ahead of me on a low-lying limb. As I climbed into my car, the male glided by me at eye level from across the road. I thought, ‘These hawks are just too accessible for me to pass this opportunity up.’”
Henderson returned to the site for the next four months to observe and sketch the two red-shouldered hawks, encountering a range of experiences that took her deep into the lives of these raptors that are native to East Tennessee.
“Few people have the opportunity to share their yards and homes with red-shouldered hawks,” Henderson said. “This sketchbook journey is an inspiring example of peaceful coexistence and the joys and rewards of sharing our home territories with wildlife.”
Ultimately, Henderson aims to inspire others to venture outdoors, and she encourages the use of a nature sketchbook to record experiences and creative inspiration. “A sketchbook is a journey into seeing, a place for your heart to come right out onto paper,” said Henderson, who writes about keeping a sketchbook on her blog at www.vickiehendersonsketchbook.blogspot.com. “All you have to do is show up, dig in, and get started. The rest will just happen. Sound like a bit of magic? It is.”
To learn more about Vickie Henderson’s artwork and books, visit her website at www.vickiehendersonart.com.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. She enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on Earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.