Sara Wolman is an award-winning Graphic Artist, Conservationist, and Science Communicator. Her art reflects the relationship she has established with the environment and serves as a reminder of the inherent connection we all have with the natural world. She strives for her art to be used primarily for education and engagement, and to allow audiences to form their own relationships with nature.
Originally from New York, she lived in the bush village of King Salmon on the Alaska Peninsula for almost 7 years. She now resides in a small cabin in the hills of Fairbanks, Alaska.
She has worked for the Forest Service maintaining trails, for the National Park Service as a Park Ranger, and for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a digital media specialist. Her work can be found at National Wildlife Refuges (including Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), National Park Service sites, and museums across the country.
She has created artwork for conservation non-profits and NGOs such as The National Parks Conservation Association, Explore.org (A project of the Annenberg Foundation), Environment for the Americas, and The United Nations Environmental Program.
She is the lead Designer/Filmmaker behind the international sensation Fat Bear Week and was 2021’s World Migratory Bird Day artist. When she is not working on conservation-related art, she is often found rafting rivers, climbing mountains, and gaining inspiration from the beautiful world we live in.
Tell me more about your relationship with public lands. What do they mean to you?
I’ve felt incredibly connected to public lands, ever since I was a child. Growing up just outside of New York City, it was hard to find truly green landscapes with the sounds of nature. Any chance I got to go north to the Adirondacks and breathe the fresh air was treasured.
I’ve spent the past 10 years now working for public lands in Washington, California, and Alaska. They have truly become an innate part of my life.
How has learning about the environment impacted your actions?
The environment is intertwined with everything I do in my life. Seeing the very real effects of climate change on a daily basis in Alaska has driven me to show the world what is happening.
What can concerned athletes, scientists, artists, or creatives do in the face of global challenges?
Educating and engaging the public is extremely important. One must provide factual information with direct causes and effects to truly educate. It needs to be a message of altruism, rather than self-promotion and consumerism. People in these fields have the opportunity to collaborate and bring messaging that the public can actually connect to.
How important is mitigating climate change to your life?
It is extremely important. By living so close to the arctic I am constantly inundated with the severe effects of climate change. Communities in Alaska are so closely connected to the lands they live on, and climate change is a continuously growing threat to subsistence lifestyles up here.
Temperatures are warming, wildlife is dying, and fires are becoming more prevalent. Working to decrease climate change is imperative to the future of all life forms up here.
Can you tell us a bit about your passions beyond “work”?
My work and passions are interlaced. I have worked for public lands within the arctic and subarctic for almost a decade and recreated within them as well.
I am an avid wildlife photographer and artist, and being able to see these animals in their natural habitat and draw them for both work and play is a dream. Alaska is truly an artist’s paradise filled with inspiration.
Do you find that these passions blend, merge, or complement your work?
Most definitely. I really started to develop a passion for birds through my fieldwork and then drawing them just became a bonus. They are probably some of my favorite subject matter to create.
Do you find these passions tied to given environments or landscapes?
I really came alive in my creative work when I moved to Alaska. I can’t even describe in words how special this place is from the incredible scenery to the amazing cultures here.
How do you give back to your community or to the underserved?
For years I traveled to remote villages and provided free art lessons tied in with conservation messages to youth and adults alike.
What are your materials and how do you think about them?
My favorite art medium is oil paint, but that was not the easiest thing to come by when I lived in a village. I took to watercolor and pen and ink when I worked as a park ranger and then expanded into the digital world.
I find digital art to be extremely accessible, especially in places that you can only get to via plane. People from all over the world can easily see your art and the message it provides through a digital medium.
All of my work consists of photos that I have either taken or were given to me. I then take the exact color palette of the composition and use it in my creation. The colors you see in my wildlife illustrations are not made up, they are the exact color of the animal. It shows how truly beautiful nature can be. I am merely the messenger.
Is there a specific moment in life or a series of events that instilled in you a passion for your craft or passions?
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment as there have been many moments in my life that have led to where I am now. Growing up in a place full of skyscrapers and commerce made the green outdoors that much more special. I’m sure that longing for connection to the natural world was what fanned the flame to be closer to it.
At the end of the day, why do you do your craft? Are there goals ahead, a constant love for the process, or a yearning to learn more?
I want the world to experience nature in the ways that I see it. I see my work as a way for people to truly look at these animals, down to the tiniest detail. It is important to me that people understand how special these creatures are that we share the world with because they are not able to vocalize it themselves.
I find it very meditative to try and recreate the way light flashes off of a feather or illuminates a scale. I hope to continue to draw people’s attention to wildlife and the lands they inhabit and learn to love every aspect of them.
Do you have any “heroes’ to speak of? How are you inspired?
Many of the elders I have worked with and befriended in the villages I resided in are truly inspiring people to me. The knowledge they contain and hand down is irreplaceable. They have a spiritual connection to a place that greatly transcends western knowledge and ideals.
A key ingredient to building a sustainable future?
Reducing consumerism and our reliance on oil and gas.
A book that shaped your life?
The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Who inspires you today?
All the scientists and researchers behind the scenes that are truly doing conservation work and do not get recognized for it.
Favorite artist currently?
I really enjoy the work done by Fairbanks watercolor artist Robin Farmer.
Most sublime moment in nature?
I was working on a caribou diet study on the north slope of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) flying around in a little R44 helicopter. We flew over a mountain and came upon thousands upon thousands of the porcupine caribou herd, many of which had just dropped their calves.
We landed and I was surrounded by a living breathing mass of animals and their young. We stayed there quietly as they moved beside us. A few minutes later an entire herd of muskox emerged, and they began lazily grazing alongside the caribou, only about 50 yards from us. The north slope is filled with life.
Who taught you something significant?
Many of the elders in villages really taught me how to speak and learn from nature. I am forever grateful for this knowledge.
Any big moments of Zen in the outdoors?
Paddling down a river in Katmai National Park and having thousands of red sockeye salmon swim and jump alongside me was life-changing.
What have been your biggest challenges?
Living in isolation in places that are only accessible by boat or plane can be difficult. Luckily I managed to form a very strong local community.
What do you do when you get out and away from the office/lab?
I love to watch for birds, go ice climbing, and identify plants and make them into tinctures.
How can the outdoor industry change?
The outdoor industry still has a large hold on the consumer market. Every year there seems to be an updated piece of clothing or gear that the public feels compelled to purchase. They focus mainly on the look and feel of the outdoors, and not the people that are doing the real science to keep these places intact. The industry should focus on and highlight people that use their gear for conservation and learning.
How can the outdoor industry act to affect change with regard to outdoor recreation and public lands?
Public Lands should be viewed as a sacred treasure, not a place to have continuous photo shoots for the next big thing. So many times, even in the extremely remote places I worked in, people were so lost behind the camera or their phone that they couldn’t even take in the space and the wildlife around them.
The outdoor industry should be enhancing a person’s experience and connection to nature, not selling the outdoors.
What other brands do you love?
Xtratuf, Rab, Millet, Carhartt, Apocalypse Designs, and Outdoor Research have been great while living in Alaska. I will say though, I love my Nocs for the field and daily life since they’re not clunky and are super light.
What keeps you going?
Hope that even though my work is a pinpoint in the grand scheme of things, maybe it’ll be a pinpoint that inspired another.
Do you have a mantra?
Always plan for plan F.