15 May Immersive 4-Wall mural at Nature Center
Nature Center at North Mountain Park.
A vast vision: the Rogue Valley through time.
Fun “Cat butt” story!
Artist: Jenna Kesgen.
Painted in 2010 and 2015.
Plus a “river carpet.”
Photo essay published in 2023.
“I love painting and I love science, especially environmental education. It’s almost like a duality. So finding something where I could create art for my internship as an environmental educator was perfect.”Jenna Kesgen
Note: The Nature Center (site of the mural) is closed right now. However, it may open soon for several days a week! I will let you know when it is open, so you can see this immersive mural in person. Also, I will be starting a new “Art in North Mountain Park” walking tour, to be scheduled at times when we can see the indoor art at the Nature Center.
The artist: Jenna Kesgen
Jenna Kesgen’s mural covers all four walls of the Exhibit Center in the North Mountain Park Nature Center building. Not only does the painting surround you completely, but the vision for the mural is also vast in its scope.
In 2010, Jenna was a graduate student in the Environmental Education Master’s degree program at Southern Oregon University. The degree requirement included completing an internship at a local environmental organization. She was drawn to the North Mountain Park Nature Center, because it gave her an opportunity to combine her two passions: art and science.
She worked closely on the mural with Kari Gies, Nature Center Education Coordinator and Karin Onkka, Interpretive Coordinator. These two staff members developed a vision for the mural and Jenna brought the vision to life.
Vast vision: the Rogue Valley through time
Jenna described the vision: “They had the idea of portraying the Rogue Valley in a mural, spanning different time periods and different seasons. If you look around the mural, you’ll see all four seasons are represented.” In this photo essay, I will show you photos of the seasons, which illustrates time as an annual cycle. But that is only one of three ways time is depicted.
On a much smaller scale, areas of the mural move through time from night to sunrise to day and then evening again. Finally, superimposed on the daily and annual cycles of time are illustrations of the Rogue Valley that cover a scale of hundreds of years.
In other words, it is a vast vision, a challenging puzzle of painting possibilities, superbly manifested on the walls.
The painting process
“Even though it is a large mural, a lot of the things you see are tiny vignettes.”Jenna Kesgen
When possible, I love to show photos of the artist at work, as well as early steps in the creative process compared with the finished artwork. As you can see, Jenna made a few illustrations. However, she described her process mostly as “painting from photographs and other points of inspiration without having a fully formed sketch in place.”
The entire 2010 painting process took longer than one year! That was partly because of Jenna’s class load for school, and partly because she likes painting without an audience. Painting on the weekends gave her some privacy from community members walking through the Exhibit Center room and asking, “Oh, what are you working on?”
In addition to the big themes of time and space Kari and Karin described to Jenna, they also gave her an ever-increasing list of specific animals and plants to include in the murals. “So even though it is a large mural, a lot of the things you see are tiny vignettes.” This was the only way Jenna could capture all of the scenes, creatures and plants the staff requested.
2015 mural changes
Former Nature Center Manager Libby VanWyhe brought Jenna back in 2015 to make some changes to the mural. For example, there had been a pioneer covered wagon exhibit in 2010, which included painted details on the wall. Libby wanted to remove the pioneer wagon and replace it with the “Plant Communities of Our Watershed” educational section. Jenna repainted this section of the wall in 2015.
This section of the mural was the most meaningful to Libby. She told me, “What we didn’t have depicted in the 2010 mural was the change in plant communities from Grassland to Oak Savannah to Chaparral to Mixed Conifer Woodland to Sub-Alpine Woodland. All of the different plant communities we see here are now somewhere in the mural.”
Pointing to the plants and animals in small frames, Libby added, “These are a student project. I worked with a student to show representative species of the Grassland habitat, the Oak Savannah habitat, and the others. There is one representative species of plant and animal for each.”
The “airplane ride” story
“Here’s another fun thing that happened,” Jenna told me. “Kari’s husband is a pilot. To give me inspiration, he took me up in his plane and flew me around the valley to see the formations of the landscape. As a thank you, I put his plane in the mural.”
The “cat butt” story
In the photo essay headlines, I promised you a “cat butt story.” Here it is as Jenna told it to me.
“Like all creative processes, there was a lot of feedback. I would paint an initial version, then get Kari and Karin’s feedback. Sometimes I would have to change it, depending on what their thoughts were. A really good example that’s kind of funny is in three of the photos I sent to you.”
“I had a really amazing cat back then, who unfortunately has passed away. Her name was Clover. I painted her in the “sustainable home” [“Green Living Home”] area. I put a cat in there. I based it on a photo of my cat walking away, so it was a cat-butt portrait on the wall.”
“Kari told me, ‘I don’t think people want to just see a cat’s butt. Could you add a face?’ So I added a face to the cat.”
Here is the mural portrait of Jenna’s late cat Clover, as it looks today.
Jenna’s artistic journey
I like to ask artists about their artistic journey in life. Jenna described hers: “As a kid, I always loved to doodle and draw. I was told that I was creative. My mom was a science teacher, so the academia world of science has always been a part of my life. Growing up in the woods of western North Carolina, I spent so many hours playing outside in nature. It was imaginative play that gave me so much joy, I knew I wanted to devote my career towards learning more about nature and sharing that knowledge with others. That’s what got me into environmental education.
“Being an artist has always been a part of who I am. I guess the reason I didn’t start painting until I was 19 is because I wasn’t exposed to it. I didn’t have anyone to say, ‘Hey, have you ever tried doing this?’ I didn’t take an art class in high school. When I got to college I thought, ‘Maybe I should try this.’ When I tried it, I really liked it. As I took some classes, my skills quickly improved and I realized I had a knack for it.”
Since then, Jenna has been able to combine her loves for art and nature. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Like Ashland, her current home town has trails and beauty close by, which allows her a strong connection to nature.
Her current job is at the North Carolina Arboretum, with a title of Creative Engagement Coordinator. She enjoys the challenge of using many aspects of her creativity, mostly designing and building exhibits. She paints large nature scenes, uses graphic skills in making creative signage, and much more.
She is currently working on a new collection of paintings highlighting wildlife native to Western North Carolina. You can see more of her work at her website: kesgenstudios.com and you can follow her on Instagram: @kesgen_studios.
Two of Jenna’s other artworks
“I painted [the tropical rainforest] when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador,” Jenna told me. “That is one of the times I remember thinking, ‘I really like doing this. I like being an artist.’ I was an environmental educator there and painted that mural for the classroom of a veterinary rehabilitation center. It was painted on wood. When the center closed, I asked if they could send me the mural. They cut it into small pieces and mailed it to me. I donated it to the SOU Environmental Education program, but I don’t know if they still show it in their office.”
I (Peter) am happy to report that the painting is still in one of the rooms at the SOU Environmental Education program, as of May 2023!
Jenna is proud that her 2008 painting of the Brooklyn Bridge won “best in show” at a Brooklyn art gallery show.
Concluding words from Jenna
“I learned a lot from the collaborative process [with Kari and Karin]. Creating art in a public space can sometimes be just you, but this was about incorporating other people’s thoughts. Even though I was the only one painting, it was a group project because it was their vision I implemented. I also got a kick out of doing something that I love so much, not knowing if other people would like it, then getting positive feedback and being appreciated.”
The Stream Channel carpet
When you walk into the Exhibit Center, you will notice a long, narrow fabric art carpet that ties in with the mural. “This welcoming fabric art design creates a flow through the landscape of the room, leading visitors directly toward the riparian habitat mural element. On the stream mural, at children’s height, a number of silk scarves hang on natural hooks, inviting imaginative water play.” [from the 2015 Nature Center Annual Report]
Libby VanWyhe explained that “The riparian corridor is a major focus of the room. That’s why I got the stream carpet. I was trying to figure out a way to continue the Bear Creek stream channel from the wall into the room. Bear Creek is such an important part of our education at the Nature Center, but it’s a small part of the room. I was looking for a way to create more engagement, to bring the viewer out of the mural.
Libby found this carpet design at Angela Adams Designs, a carpet company in Maine. This design, made of New Zealand wool, has a water theme, with its elements suggesting rocks and ripples or waves of water. She asked the company if they could create a rug with this design in a long, thin river-like pattern – and here it is.
Chesney, Linda. Interview, April 2023.
Kesgen, Jenna. Interview and personal communications, April and May 2023
VanWyhe, Libby. Interview, May 2023.