By Mary Fassbinder
As a painter and lifelong naturalist, I’ve learned that inspiration comes in many different forms. Sometimes it’s an inkling of an idea that grows slowly, until finally manifesting into a vision; other times, inspiration comes in a lightning bolt of an idea — this must be done, no matter how difficult or unreasonable it seems now.
The latter describes how the National Parks Project came to me. I awoke one day and realized that my 20 years of painting and many more years of exploring the natural world would be reflected and recorded in a series of paintings done on location, en plein air, in each of the 60 national parks in the United States. The plan was simple: Go to every national park and make a painting of the park. Simple, and yet not at all easy.
As a 55-year-old woman who did not consider herself a risk-taker, my improbable journey began. I planned to pay for the project through my framing business and by selling my art. What I didn’t realize at the time was that completing the project was impossible without the assistance and generosity of so many people all along the way. From Acadia National Park in Maine to American Samoa National Park, and everywhere in between, I was the recipient of an unbelievable level of care and assistance, including offers of places to stay, vehicles to borrow,
even free train tickets and air flights. Most importantly, during this project I learned about faith. Faith in people; faith in the process; and ultimately, faith that the universe will provide.
As an example, as my commitment to the project came into focus, a customer walked into my framing shop and mentioned that a friend in Ohio was selling a 30-year-old Volkswagen Westfalia. Did I know anyone interested in buying it? A month later, after a big art sale in my shop, I was driving across the U.S. in my new “Westy,” whom I named Charlie, painting the first eight parks of my project. That first park, Isle Royale in Michigan, remains my favorite, for it signifies the moment I stepped into my vision. This was real!
I chose the sites for my paintings by asking someone I met along the way and felt good about – a ranger, docent, volunteer – their favorite spot in the park. I then went to that spot and painted. So my paintings reflect not the iconic images we may have come to know, but the hidden gems of those who know the places well. Hidden gems are always best, in national parks and in real life.
Despite many obstacles, including a broken elbow, and seemingly insurmountable financial and logistical challenges, I found my way to the end.
I thought I completed the project in May 2018, in Yosemite National Park, but then discovered that a brand-new park, Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, had just been named, so I officially completed my project there.
I would like this collection to be seen by many people, and to provide inspiration to get outside and visit these national treasures. I especially would like people to share with others the love of the natural world.
Ultimately, I hope that this project will make a difference, that it is actually true that one person can have lasting effect on the world. If that is true, I will look forward to being an old woman, sitting on my porch, satisfied with a job well done.