A few weeks ago, artist Rachel Pohl spoke at Hipcamp HQ about finding inspiration in nature. For this International Women's Day, we wanted to learn more from Rachel about becoming a professional artist, what it's like to be a woman in the mountains, and how she manages her work-life balance—among other things!
5/8/18—Today, we're giving away the ultimate FFTW (Female For the Win) package: a $50 Wylder Gift Card, a $50 Hipcamp Gift Card, and a Hipcamp x Rachel Pohl sticker pack. Head to our Instagram to win!
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I honestly think I was born an artist. But I knew when I was a freshman in high school that I wanted to be a professional painter. A teacher asked what I wanted to do for college, and I said “graphic design?” Her response was, “if you don’t become a studio art major, that will be a huge waste of your talent.” Having mentors who believed in me, including my parents, from such a young age helped me see that my strange career path was possible. For as long as I can remember I have been drawn to creating. From paintings of penguins in wildflowers when I was four, to making way too many friendship bracelets, to plein air painting in the mountains as a young teen, I have never been able to stop creating. But it was those around me that trusted in my ability to be a painter for a living, not just a hobby.
What’s been the most surprising moment or learning from your journey in becoming a professional, full-time artist?
The most surprising moments have been ones where I realize “this is really working, I am doing this,” when anything from getting a mural contract to booking a filming gig about my painting process comes up. It’s always flattering to be asked to work with people and companies I admire, and because painting is so fun sometimes I find myself wondering when people will “find me out” and realize that my job is too fun to be legal. Three years ago I received an email from my favorite art gallery in town asking if I’d like to show there, and that was a great surprise! And what I’ve learned throughout the years that I must be ready for the hard moments too, because not everyone is honest, but most people are, and that contracts are a good idea especially among friends, and I should never work for free or for a price that is below what I know deserve. So many artists, especially young ones, are afraid of the not so fun details and also separate the pleasure they find through creating with making it a career, and will therefore not be able to make it one. Just because something is fun, doesn’t mean your time isn’t valuable!!
“Hyalite Reflections” photo by Madison Perrins
In addition to being a talented artist, you’re a formidable force in the mountains, as a ski tourer and a mountain biker. You also rock climb and ice climb. What was it like growing up in Montana, and what does it mean to you to be a woman in the mountains?
Awww, thank you! I have simply always loved being in the mountains, and moving through them in various ways gives me a fresh perspective on the landscape. All of my work revolves around the landscapes I visit and the connections we have with the land. Growing up in an outdoorsy family in Montana meant spending the summers hiking and backpacking all over the mountains around home, trips to the coast and the desert. I started skiing when I was three, fly fishing when I was 11, slacklining in the 8th grade, and climbing when I was 15. I didn’t grow up watching tv, but rather watching elk and sandhill cranes in the field next to our house. I wasn’t raised knowing how to do my hair or paint my face with makeup, but rather how to deal with my hair while skiing in face deep snow and how to paint in watercolors, acrylics, and oils. I wasn’t binding my feet in cute heels for prom, I was spending prom weekend in places like City of Rocks, Idaho, cramming my feet into climbing shoes.
I don’t think that being glamorous and being an outdoor women are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, I admire any woman who is herself, and especially if she loves to get outside. I don’t personally wear makeup or know how to be fashionable in a traditional sense, but I have only love and support for those who do! There is no one right way to be a woman in the mountains. The only requirement in my mind is to treat wild places and the animals that inhabit them with respect. Being an outdoorswoman isn’t about looking a certain way or being a certain level of fitness. It’s not about hiking the furthest or climbing the hardest route. Being a woman in the mountains is about learning who you are through positive and sometimes challenging experiences and taking some of that grit and goodness back home with you. And it’s about sharing the love of the outdoors with your friends and family, empowering other women to do the same, and passing along that reverence to the next generation as well.
How has your work, vision or process changed or developed over time? Can you share some of your earlier work?
My work has always revolved around mountains and animals. Some of my very early work has so much in common with what I depict now, it’s almost ridiculous. I used to paint portraits for a while, but I love the universality of a landscape that we can all relate to, even if we have never been there ourselves. My process used to be much faster, but in recent years my work has become a lot tighter and more and intentional. I seek out the places I want to paint, and go to them in just the right season at the right time of day. I either plein air paint right there, or take photos for later, after scouring the landscape with my binoculars, drinking in the details. If I could have, I’d have started painting really detailed, crisp work decades ago- but skill has to catch up to vision, and it’s exciting knowing that I can only go up from here!
“Athabaska” Oil on Canvas, 2009
On your Instagram, you share endearing and honest reflections on your personal life and work. It is ever hard to be vulnerable in front of a audience of 75k people?
It is a crazy thing telling thousands of strangers some of your deepest feelings. People begin to feel like they know me, and will say things that are honestly out of line for not actually having ever met. But the emails and messages I receive from people telling me that I have directly changed their lives by inspiring them to paint again, start creating, or just follow their dreams, is very humbling and keeps me motivated to continue sharing. I think vulnerability is how we encourage others to begin to tell their stories, so really it’s a small trade off to be judged by some when I can help so many. I want to spread positivity and help others protect our planet, so feeling a little sheepish for my very human feelings seems like an easy trade off to make.
Painting “Crazy Mountians” Photo by Madison Perrins.
Social media can be a powerful tool and community, especially in the outdoors space. At times, though, I imagine you’ve experienced the darker sides of social media we all experience at some point or another. How do you keep a positive perspective on social media?
I really do value social media for the community of artists and outdoorspeople especially, that I have met or discovered through various platforms. I don’t really take social media too seriously, in the sense that if someone doesn’t like me, I just shrug and move on. Sure it doesn’t feel good when people don’t understand what I am saying, or think they know me but don’t at all, or try and give me unwanted advice. I don’t take it personally when people love or hate my work. I have been lucky so far and have not experienced any horrifying cyberbullying like Caroline Gleich, and I don’t think I’d have the same response if I’d had that experience. I do take seriously the impact we can all have on one another, and how our words can change the world around us. While I don’t believe social media is real life or that Instagram is anything more than an inherently flawed app, I do understand the weight of the darkness that cyberbullying can create, the knot in my stomach from a mean comment, the creepy feeling of knowing someone is objectifying me. Yet I truly do appreciate the community aspect of it, of Instagram in particular. I think all social media has the propensity to cause harm, but also to connect us. I just see if for what it is, a chance for corporations and small brands alike to influence and sell us things we don’t and might actually need, but it’s a great tool for me to spread the word about my work and even about the platform itself.
How do you strive to maintain a healthy work-life balance? What’s important to you about self care? Any tips to share?
Oh gosh, I am constantly struggling with this! I don’t always have a healthy work-life balance. My fiancé Charles and I have a tendency to work too much as we’re both self-employed. You don’t just go home and leave work behind when you’re freelance, you have to create boundaries or you’ll forever be working. I have certainly spent less time recreating and relaxing in the past year than I ever have. It’s been difficult getting out less and working 80+ hours every week. But we have a dream to buy a home and raise a family. Maintaining a healthy balance is a daily task, and what has helped most is honestly thinking back to the weeks where I wasn’t having any fun at all, and think about how unhealthy that was. Even a quick run, a walk around the block, and especially making time to ski and bike, are activities I used to take for granted and now they are super special for me to experience.
Self care is something I used to be super good at, and I am working on gaining that part of my life back. I find sleep to be the most essential piece of self care. If I can get 9 hours of sleep a night, I am a million times more productive and can get more done in a day than if I slept 6 hours. They say that sleeping one extra hour a night can lead to as much happiness as making $60k MORE a year would bring!! I am a huge fan of having a routine, and doing small things throughout the day to take care of myself like doing pushups/ situps, having good posture, drinking tons of water (I NEVER drink soda and hardly drink juice, don’t do coffee either), stretching, eating gummy vitamins, eating mostly plants and meat instead of processed foods, and of course making sure I create. It’s crazy how much you don’t end up painting when you’re a painter.
How long does it take you finish each piece? Is it ever hard to sell originals after putting so much time and love into them?
It really depends! Some of my mid sized pieces (2x3’ or so) take me anywhere from 60-90 hours. I have also painted a few massive murals, and some smaller ones. My latest at 950 square feet took me three weeks of working all day... My work takes a very long time in general though, because I fall in love with each jagged ridgeline, each bush, tree, and ray of sun, and I want to do them justice in my paintings. When I am able to paint outside plein air style I can work much faster. I don’t love working from photos but it’s hard to bring cubic feet of art supplies into the mountains in winter!
It is always hard to see an original go, I don’t think there’s a single one I don’t miss at times. But knowing that they are in homes with people who love them makes it very worth it. I constantly have to remind myself that being a professional artist means parting with originals, it’s kind of in the job description! Plus, with almost every new painting I make, the “loss” of older ones hurts less. I think of my paintings as chapters of my life, and look back on them with a quiet knowledge that all things must pass, and with each chapter I am building the present I live in today.
“A-Frame Alpenglow” Acrylic on 12x16” Panel
If you could only paint one place for the rest of your life, where would it be and why?
That is a tough question! Probably Montana. I love living here, there’s so much wilderness and megafauna. The mountains in most of the state are so empty, it feels like you’ve traveled back in time. I think the rolling hills and jagged snowy peaks, bison and mountain goats, blue ribbons of river and vibrant green springtime hills are pretty neat. This will always be home, I am a 6th generation Montanan and I plan to have our kids be 7th generation, so we’ve got to stay, haha. But thankfully I can travel all over and paint! It’s funny because my trips used to revolve around skiing and biking, but now I point at a map and think “what do I want to paint?”
“Crazy Mountians” Acrylic on 12x26” Panel.
Could you pick one piece that you’re most proud of?
I am sure I’ll have a different answer in 6 months, but that’s the beauty of creating. You have to keep outdoing yourself to progress. Right now it is my “Hyalite Reflections” piece. I think it really transorts the viewer to a very real and tranquil place. I put a lot of heart and soul into that painting, and I almost capsized my kayak in a freak wind storm while working on it out on this very lake! I am proud of it because it is the direction I want my work to go in, photorealism combined with imagination to create a world we all want to dive right into.
“Hyalite Reflections” Acrylic on 18x24” Panel
Who are the women who inspire you—either in art, in the mountains, or just in your life, and why?
There are so many!! I have a whole fleet of lady friends who I admire so much for their ability to crush in the mountains, care for others, and make me laugh until I cry. My best friends are for the most part super under the radar, in the best way. My mom, aunts, and grandma also inspire me and have taught me so much about taking care of the ones I love. I admire so many creatives too, who have crafted careers that allows them to both travel and make their own schedules, especially impressive in a male dominated outdoor industry. It’s been cool seeing the paradigm shift in recent years because of these badass and determined women!! Some of my favorite female artists are Gianna Andrews, *Iuna Tinta (it really is *iuna not Luna) , Nikki Frumkin, Christina McKeown, Andrea Fairservice, EustatiaPage (no space I think, may be a pseudonym but not sure) Sarah Eisenlohr, and Stephanie Gauvin. And in life in general, the memory of my late friend Inge inspires me every single day with her brightness. When I am having a hard day, I remember that I have to grit my teeth, laugh it off, then bake some cookies for others like Inge would have.
What’s one message you’d like to pass along to other young artists?
Be well and do good work. Not only do you need to be technically skilled, but if you want to be a professional artist, get ready to have your whole life around that. It is not easy to be an artist, but it is easy to choose a life of happiness and adventure if that’s what your heart truly desires. That being said, many things, from websites to sticker production to making prints, are far easier than you’d think!! Don’t be afraid to ask others for what they’ve done to make their jobs work, the world thing that will happen is they don’t help! I
can’t emphasize enough how important it is though to create unique and meaningful work. Find your own artistic voice, don’t just copy other people’s or paint what you found on google. Emulation can be a way to teach yourself to paint, but trying to sell something you’ve copied really isn’t cool. It’s worth developing your craft, being strategic about your business, trusting in your prices, and honing in on your contract writing (and reading) skills! And remember to be forgiving and patient with yourself! Creating a job that nobody has had before is no small feat.
For those who just want to create for fun, remember that painting is an expression of you, so therefore there’s no wrong way to do it. Don’t get down on yourself for not being able to paint or draw something perfectly the first or the 1,000th time. That whole 10,000 hours thing? It’s real. But don’t be intimidated by that, or think you have to be a master to have fun, or create pleasing work.