PROFILE A Conservator’s Call to Conservation
Artist Megan Kissinger spotlights the wonders of the natural world
The wild “called” to Megan Kissinger long before the canvas had the chance. Even when she’s in a studio painting, the choice of artistic subjects keeps the Fort Myers-based artist rooted with the great outdoors. “Growing up, there wasn’t a day in my life that I wasn’t outside playing,” says the Pensacola, Florida, native. “I’ve always had ant farms and bugs and aquariums—you name it. I’ve always been drawn to nature.”
A conservationist who has explored Florida’s flora and fauna on trails in hiking boots or on waves from the back of a kayak, Kissinger spotlights the wonders of the natural world in her works. Whether depicting herons feeding on riverbanks or butterflies resting on ferns, she looks to capture true life in charcoal and acrylic, and to make sure the still images communicate the life in motion as she’s seen in her subjects’ indigenous habitat.
“Almost always, my artwork has to be something I’ve experienced in person,” Kissinger says. While she works in her studio from photos—usually ones she’s taken while seeking out wildlife—she also wants her artwork to contain some facet of animal behavior beyond what’s captured on camera.
“When I paint something, I prefer to take everything I see and everything I know about that thing, what I felt when I experienced it, and create a hyperreality,” she says. “I am a realistic painter, but in my mind I don’t just want to paint the bird. I want to paint everything I ever knew about that bird. Where it lived. What I saw that bird doing. What it all represents.” Her most abstract paintings are of subjects that are under water, such as schools of mullet swimming in Gainesville, Florida. You can’t take good pictures deep below the surface of natural tannic waters, but you can dive and explore the environment. When she paints, she can base details of individual fish on pictures of the actual beasts, but the motion and how the light hits the w ater comes from a combination of memory and representation of sensations experienced under the sea.
Kissinger’s own experience with art came later in life. She met her husband at the University of West Florida in the 1980s and left school before graduation to follow his career west. After the family settled in Fort Myers around 2002, Kissinger went to finish her degree at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), where she started taking art classes both for fun and to fill out her schedule.
At FGCU, she studied under the late Carl Schwartz, a pioneer of acrylic art in the 1950s and ’60s. Kissinger ended up turning her academic focus to the pallet and graduated in 2005 with a bachelor’s in fine arts.
From Schwartz, she learned the basic techniques she still relies upon today, using charcoals to define the under-paintings of her figures, then filling in the basic forms with complementary colors. Kissinger in essence builds subjects the way the makers
of scientific models would recreate the same life-forms, making accurate skeletons of the creatures and then fleshing them out with detailed elements—but she uses brushstrokes. Out of college, she worked as an in-house artist at The News
Press in Fort Myers, then continued in the area as a freelance artist working for such institutions as Ave Maria University. Kissinger took a job in 2010 as an exhibit illustrator with the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, and now is a conservator at the museum, helping preserve and restore its artifacts. That niche field, she found, is dominated by those with backgrounds in the arts or sciences. With her love of nature and passion for acrylics, she represents both those worlds.
This October, she has a show at FGCU alongside fellow alumnus Dave Shepherd, and her side of the exhibition draws somewhat on her day job. Kissinger describes it as a “museum conservator pondering nature and conservation.” She says, “Most of the art show is centered around cast-off or damaged objects that weren’t any good to anybody anymore, but were things found through the years and that somebody wanted to be saved. You can save damaged things with art, which is also why I love art.”
Kissinger is also a part of the Tower Gallery artist co-op on Sanibel, and continues to do commissioned works for U.S. and international clients. She’s especially proud of her contributions to a massive installation at Canada’s Vancouver Convention Centre, known as the “Silent Skies Mural.”
Artists from around the globe have created works that depict endangered birds. Kissinger contributed paintings of ivory-billed woodpeckers, Manchurian crane, warblers, parrots and other birds. It’s inspiring to Kissinger that her art can help people appreciate the avian species, even those birds doomed to extinction.
She’s especially proud of her contributions to a massive installation at Canada’s Vancouver Convention Centre.