Some gals have the most romantic life: Laurel Mundy is a wildlife illustrator and tiny home resident (and instagrammer) most of the year, and seasonally, she's in the field conducting Northern Spotted owl surveys on National Forest land, drawing from her original studies as a biologist in college.
Most of the year, Mundy lives and works in the beautiful Skagit Valley region of Washington, about 40 minutes north of Seattle, where she shares the tiny house she built with her boyfriend, Brandon Husby. It's in this tiny house where Mundy works as an artist, and you can see more of her work and life at her website.
This time of year, however, Mundy will be in the field. Late spring and all summer long is owling season, and the owl work is east of the Cascades, the mountain range that cuts our state in half. I caught up with Mundy over the phone for our chat, after she answered some of the below via email.
Happily, the same day we spoke over the phone, Mundy found two spotted owls on her evening's survey.
What was your path to scientific illustration?
Laurel Mundy: I definitely didn't think I would end up an illustrator. I graduated from college thinking I would attend graduate school in a wildlife biology program the following year. However the application process was extremely competitive, so I put it off and decided to try a field work job for a couple seasons.
While I enjoyed the (field) work, I continued to draw in my free time. It became a bit of an obsession where all I would do during my time off was draw, it was all I wanted to do. Mostly birds. I eventually decided after some introspection that though I loved field work, it just wasn’t a perfect fit for my “career.”
I started researching science illustration mostly because it had been mentioned to me by several art and illustration teachers over the years, both in high school and college, after they saw how I enjoyed drawing animals in great detail.
How did you get into field work?
LM: I got into owl surveys when I applied for a wildlife conservation internship after college. They placed you in a position somewhere in the west working with wildlife or plants. I got the call, heard the words “spotted owl surveys”, and couldn’t think of any cuter-sounding job in the biology field.
That first position wasn’t nearly as glamorous as it was made out to be. The “surveys” were actually habitat validation surveys, where we trudged out into the 105 degree Arizona desert looking for suitable Mexican spotted owl nesting habitat. I never saw a single owl. The following year I was hired to do actual hooting surveys for Northern spotted owls in Oregon. I saw about a dozen different individual spotties that season, and it greatly influenced my illustrations.
Describe the spotted owl survey field work you are doing this summer. What's a typical day like?
LM: I'm working for the US Forest Service this summer in the Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest (in Washington state). My shift starts in the late afternoon, around 5 or 6 p.m., and lasts 8 to 9 hours. This is mostly night work! Usually I'm out til 1 or 2 a.m. but once after a really long loop, we got back at 3 a.m. and the robins were already singing for dawn!
We work in pairs either hiking or from a vehicle, and head out to mapped surveyed locations where there has been historic record of spotted owls nesting. We have to visit each site 6 times during the season. Late May through August is peak owl season in Washington, so this goes on all summer. When we reach a calling station (a mapped owl site), we play a track with calls on it to see if we get a response.
The spotteds are already reluctant to to hoot because they do not want to attract the attention of Barred owls [which are their predator]. The spotteds won't hoot if it's raining or thundering, or even if it's too hot. This spring has been really wet, delaying some of the surveys, so I will probably be working through part of September this year.
The last two years this 5-month job has been enough to last me for a year, along with the artwork I sell.
How does your field work inform your art? Do you have time to draw in the field?
LM: Being with a rare creature is a life-changing experience. It feels magical, almost like you’ve been let into a secret level of nature. When I went off to art school [following the first year of surveying], owls were featured in many of my pieces. Seeing particular behaviors in the field also inspires unique illustrations that I would not otherwise have thought to compose.
Though I don’t have time to draw in the field during spotted owl surveys, I love field sketching in my free time. I try to bring a sketchbook for hikes and camping trips and do at least one landscape, plant, or bird I’ve seen. These sketches often lead to fully rendered pieces later on.
How do you gather materials for your work? A combo of sources? Photos, field drawing, skins, etc?
LM: It’s definitely a mishmash of sources. In the science illustration field we might call it “Frankenbird” (parts of the bird taken from many different photo sources). I’ve used skins and specimens before, though sadly I rarely have access to these. I would love to have my own natural history museum on hand!
I usually draw creatures and habitats I’ve seen personally, which helps give me an idea of how they look in three dimensions. I’ll often use photos taken by family or friends to help generate the composition for the piece.
What do you learn from each art project/job/assignment?
LM: I get to learn the anatomy of each species I illustrate. So it ends up that the biology side and the illustration side fuel each other.
I see a new species of bird and I want to draw it and learn about it, and when I draw it, I find out all kinds of things just in the process of getting its anatomy correct.
And a lot of science illustration is creating a piece that explains a scientific process or concept through illustration; you can’t do an accurate illustration until you understand it fully yourself.
How long have you been an artist and what are your long term career goals?
LM: I’ve been an artist since I could hold a pencil. My teachers would always have me illustrate the little class pamphlets and handouts when I was a kid, because I was the only one that could draw three dimensional objects in perspective, and people instead of stick figures. I was pretty shy so it was fun to be good at something and be recognized for it.
I’m hoping after a few more years I’ll be able to make illustration my full time career. It hasn’t been super lucrative for me so far, but I’m hopeful. And I’m so thankful to have the wildlife survey work until then!
Since college I’ve been working wonderfully exciting jobs and I’m thrilled to be working somewhere that makes me happy. I hope to do illustrations for the National Park Service or other federal agencies and scientific institutions in interpretive signage, field guides, or other educational materials.
Do you have a mission as an artist, a message you want to convey through your work?
LM: I really hope to inspire an interest in learning about nature and conservation for folks with a non-science background, who can see my work and learn something about what they can do to help in wildlife conservation efforts—be it donating, volunteering, or making a lifestyle change.
Are you a birder? Where are your favorite places to see birds?
LM: Of course! I definitely select hikes, campgrounds, and road trips based on where I think I’ll see some new, unique birds. Some of my favorite spots in Washington are in the mountains, where you see some things you wouldn’t think exist in our state. In the high country around the North Cascades I’ve seen white-tailed ptarmigans, gray-crowned rosy finches, pine grosbeaks, and other fun and unusual birds. At work doing owl surveys I also see a ton of new birds! Just the other night I saw a flammulated owl for the first time.
And now for the tiny house questions--what brought you to build and live in a tiny house?
LM: We mostly decided on it while we were living in an apartment in Seattle and paying most of our income to rent while working seasonally. For the lifestyle I enjoy, which includes not working full time and doing fun and enriching jobs that generally don’t pay a lot, something low-cost and low-maintenance like a tiny home just seemed like an obvious next step. I also like to spend a lot of time outside so don’t need a lot of space inside my home.
How do you separate the two initiatives--being an artist and tiny house advocate?
LM: I’d say they go hand in hand—the tiny house lifestyle begets the ability to be solely an artist for part of the year. It is a little tough fitting all of my many art supplies in 240 square feet, though. I do have a lovely desk set up that Brandon built, with a bunch of cubbies for all of my stuff. Eventually we will build another (even tinier) house that will serve as my art studio, and we can turn my current “studio” into more living room space.
It’s allowed (and made) me simplify my life, giving me more time for art and less time spent working at a job I don’t enjoy just to pay for a mortgage, etc.
Interview conducted in late May, 2017. Portions have been edited and condensed for clarity.