Nature artists puts down roots on San Juan Islands

Jill Bliss in her studio on San Juan Island

From a small farm in Northern California, to the high-end fashion industry of San Francisco and New York—artist Jill Bliss is getting back to her roots.

Her shelves are lined with plant and bird identification books. Her fridge is filled with live spouts.

For the past three years, Bliss has been wandering through the islands in the Pacific Northwest and landed in the San Juans, where she finally gets to live in the landscapes that inspire her art instead of just visiting them.

“I’m going to live by the sea, in a cabin in the forest,” Bliss said. “That was my dream as a little kid.”

Bliss is a nature artist. Her work is inspired by animals, plants and ecosystems.

She’s well known for her recent collection of ecosystem drawings, where she  outlines a living creature and draws everything that contributes to its life inside the lines. She has been getting to know the local resident orcas, and is creating designs of her new friends.

She has a series of flora and fauna drawings local to the Bay Area in California. She drew the plants and animals that surrounded the city as a way to teach herself about them. The drawings were picked up by a publishing company, printed on stationary and sold throughout the country.

Lately her inspiration is drawn from the Salish Sea and its surrounding landscapes, like mushroom medleys and underwater scenes from sunrise kayaking and afternoon hikes.

“I’ve always drawn the things around me,” she said. “It’s how I understand how the world works.”

One of her earliest memories is setting out to explore the 45-acre family farm she grew up on, that was surrounded by a 1,000-acre cattle farm. Everyday when her chores were done she’d pack her backpack and set off with a sandwich, water, and art supplies.

So it’s no surprise that when she did make her way to the San Juans, she first lived on an off-grid property on Waldron Island where she had to hike two miles just to reach the Post Office and County Dock, the height of civilization on the small island.

Nature artist, city life

dssaBut it wasn’t always seascapes, flora and fauna for Bliss. Her family sold the farm when she was in high school and moved to the suburbs. She attended college and studied fashion design, which led to a five-year career in San Francisco as a production manager for high-end women’s fashion companies.

This set her on a 15 year journey living from city to city, including a stint in New York where she refused to wear black. It was there she swore off the fashion industry for good, when she witnessed two women in their 40’s talking about each other’s clothing with remarks like “that’s so last year.”

“I didn’t want to be 40-years-old in the fashion industry and superficial like those ladies,” she said.

Clad in muck boots and hiking pants with a streak of green in her hair, Bliss has made good on her promise to herself.

With a master’s degree in design theory, Bliss resided in Portland and continued designing and selling her own products, and taught as an adjunct professor at Portland State. She was growing her own food and taking excursions to the mountains and ocean to research. Her job, after all, is capturing nature on the page. She was getting closer to her roots and the pace of life she truly desired but city life was, well, unnatural.

Finding Home

Three years ago she sold nearly everything she couldn’t fit into her van and headed North to the islands on a self-imposed sabbatical. While her sabbatical is officially over, what she found in the Salish Sea has become a way of life.

She focuses her art on forests, farms, and the ocean–her life on simplicity, self-reliance, and taking things slow.

“My art and life are more integrated,” Bliss said. “Here I get to live in the landscapes that I’ve always depicted in my artwork”

While the stresses of life haven’t disappeared completely since Bliss left the city, they certainly are more manageable. She’s learned to live just about anywhere, and with less.

Since arriving in the islands, Bliss has hopped around to homesteads on Whidbey Island and Cortes Island in Canada. Her first place in the San Juans was on Waldron, where she was a caretaker of an off-grid property and learned how to fix the systems herself. Her studio was a tent, her neighbors a family of eagles. Growing her own food when she can or belonging to the local CSA, Bliss cans her food and takes aspects of all her different living situations on her journey toward self-reliance.

She currently resides on San Juan where she sells her art prints through her online store, at the summer Art Markets, and at art trade shows on the mainland. She’s also a trained naturalist.

For Bliss, everyday is an adventure in freedom. Even if it just means packing her backpack with water and a sandwich and heading out to one of the many forest trails on San Juan, just like when she was a kid. One could say her life is quite blissful. And yes, that is her real last name.

To contact Bliss or to see her designs visit www.jillbliss.com.