We recently interviewed MaryEllen Hackett, an artist, park ranger and the woman behind Here and Farther. She describes how her passions for art and nature have shaped her life's path, and as an outdoorswoman, shares practical and sound advice for those looking to venture into the wild.
A: As a ranger, what is your day- to -day like?
M: It changes a lot depending on the season. Typically I get the weather reading and assess if there are any road issues like fallen trees or fresh snow affecting the road. During the day I try to be where the people are, and am often called to medicals and search and rescues. A lot of time is spent training as a team to respond to those kinds of incidents.
A: How has exploring the outdoors affected your confidence and inner self-talk?
M: My first backpacking trip was as a ranger. I practiced with my gear the night before. About three miles down trail I leaned on a rock and my camelback broke. Then two days later my filter failed. Visitors asked me for help with their own gear and I had to just take a moment to assess then figure it out. Looking back these were really minor problems but I draw from that experience often when in situations that are unfamiliar. I feel confident knowing I can solve a problem because I have to, and knowing that about myself calms me down and lets me get to work.
A: With nature as your teacher, what has been your toughest lesson?
M: We are always going to be reactionary to nature. To its changes, to its constants. Preparation goes a long way beyond having the right gear, you need to know how to use it. Plans should always be fluid, because there are times where it is just not going to be possible to stick to the plan.
A: For many of us, our connection with the outdoors stems from experiences when we are young, being exposed to camping and hiking as children with our families. Do you remember when nature became an integral part of your life? Were your parents involved in that process?
M: Absolutely! We did not camp a lot but we boated a lot, and were given a lot of leeway to go get lost and build forts. My dad taught me to sit still and watch as nature goes back to normal after we disturbed it. I will never forget a hawk that swooped past a few feet away during one of these times. My mom was involved with a local barrier island protection group and that was my first exposure to volunteering, attending beach cleanups, and tangentially the idea of park rangers. She took my siblings and I on sections of the Appalachian trail in Vermont as day hikes and that also was when I started sketching plants and animals seen on the trail.
A: You say that your heart was gravitated toward landscape painting. What is that process like for you, to sit and paint what you love so much?
M: I came to landscape painting in my senior year of college after trying and never gaining traction with portraits and still life painting. While working at the Fire island Lighthouse in the winter I started doing landscape paintings while waiting for occasional visitors. The combination of being in a place, knowing it well, and caring for it through experience, led my paintings from a series of paintings, to a senior thesis, to a constant subject matter.
A: A little more than a year ago, you decided to rebrand to Here and Farther. Can you expand a little bit on that process, and what those inner transitions were like for you?
M: My re-brand was the third one I did in as many years but this time I am settled into it. That was part of the problem with my earlier names, Restless Map, and Peripatetic Studio, which were hard to remember, hard to spell, and ultimately only captured my own interest for a short period of time. My requirements were that the name evokes my work thematically, that is was easy to say and spell, and that it allowed for room to grow and experiment. Here and Farther reflected my sense of being in a place of stability and looking out from it. It mirrored my move from seasonal to year-round work. And most importantly I have been excited to make work using it.
A: How has your new- found stability impacted your life? How does it feel to be able to plan in advance, and would you say that it has impacted your artistic expression?
M: Having extra space and consistency has allowed me to start working in oil paint again, which is literally larger. But on a small scale I have just begun to start making paintings using sketches and incomplete paintings from the years.
I will not get caught up in any weeds, and will be focusing on making paintings. The variation from studio paintings to plein air is subtle, but to me it is a chance to work entirely in favorites and revisit some beloved places. Its a series that is just beginning.
An art related passion project that I am throwing myself at right now is to continue the work I did in 2016 as Centennial Artist Ambassador via Weir Farm National Historic Site. I am trying to reach out to artists who I think would be good fits in National Park Art residencies. I do not have a role in the selection process but I have participated in a few residencies and understand the process and have an email ready for anyone who wants the resources to look into applying to one. If this is you please get in touch.
A: What advice would you give to someone just venturing into the outdoors?
M: I would advise them to start small. I see people decide they want to be outside more so they immediately plan an overnight trip. Maybe try a full day first, or a car camping trip. I love the backcountry, but my favorite trips involve stopping for tea and a painting for several hours which cuts the miles I travel. But I know my goals, and I think people should figure out what their motivation is. Is it miles? Is it peaks? Is it a vista? Or is it stopping 100 yards down the trail because a good painting presents itself?
Some practical advice: When you do go out make sure you actually know how to use your equipment. Test run the stove before you pack it. Take a buddy. Time degrades things, if you have not used something from your pack in a season, you really need to take it out for a test before going out again.
A: Our everyday lives can consume us at times. What fuels you to live wild?
Not every weekend can be a trip, but I try to get out and do a short hike (or walk, lets call it what it is) on my Friday and it sets the weekend off right. And an even smaller outdoor activity is that I like to step outside with my tea in the morning. Just being removed from the reminder of housework or the to do list by several feet and one threshold is a mental break that allows me some clarity. The more of these moments I have, even on a small scale, creates a more adventurous “normal.”
A: What’s your one piece of wild wisdom for our community?
M: Be patient and flexible with yourself and others on your adventures. Bring people with you who are into what you are into. If you are cautious, be realistic about someone who pushes you out of your comfort zone. That concern is going to keep you safer, and may keep you safe from the many ways people get hurt outside. And don't let going outside become another checklist where you get the same emotional response to going a set number of miles as you do completing the dishes.
A: What book is on the top of your ‘required reading’ list for women?
M: Without a doubt the “Lioness Quartet” by Tamora Pierce. A college friend gave it to me and it changed my life. Do not scoff at its placement in the Young Adult section- the themes are universal to age. I took a lot away about being a woman in a role that is unexpected, but also who embraces her femininity over time. I love that she could be many things. And of course there is romance, sword fights, and magic- but it is totally original, and based on publishing date I now read all other female lead fantasies and compare them to Lioness Quartet. I could go into specifics but fear giving spoilers. It is from the 80's and has been re-released every few years, so get on Ebay and look for a set with good covers.
A: How do you howl often every day?
M: Quietly, like loud enough to be heard audibly by the person next to me. But I try to embody the idea of a moment of “here I am! This is me,” when I am faced with a challenge I tend to stay calm because I know I will figure out a solution. I raise the bar for myself often, especially in art. I recently reevaluated my accomplishments from the last 5 years and realized that if I was getting into shows regularly that once were reaches, I need to change what I am applying to. I need to increase my rejections so that when something does stick, it is on a new level. I was listening to an interview with Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr, Hamilton,) and he was talking about a time he was working in LA and realized “other people's work was inspiring me, and not my own.” The idea was powerful to me, that we need to be doing what we enjoy seeing in others. This does not mean copying, but it means becoming the artist who you were inspired by.
MaryEllen Hackett is an artist and park ranger. In 2010, She graduated from Adelphi University with a B.F.A. in painting and printmaking. Her artwork has been shown nationally. Hackett has received artist in residence positions at Joshua Tree National Park, CA, the Vermont Studio Center, Weir Farm National Historic Site, CT, and Fire Island National Seashore, NY. In 2016 MaryEllen was given the title of Centennial Artist Ambassador from Weir Farm National Historic Site for the National Park Service Centennial. Currently based out of the Sierra Mountains. Learn more at hereandfarther.com.