Doctor Dolittle with brush and easel
By Paul Haeder
“Always tell the truth. Always take the high road. Live each day like it could be your last. Drink it in. Be adventurous, be bold, but savor it. It goes fast.” — Ben, from the movie, “Captain Fantastic.”
Once you drive down the road overlooking Olalla Slough, you end up on a 6.7-acre paradise. Before humans emerge from the ranch-style house, the visitor is greeted by clicking of tongues, screeches and whistling.
Ram Papish and his wife, Dawn Harris, have a residence that includes an outbuilding called “The Love Shack.” No, the B-52’s song is not on a loop. Rather the colorfully painted aviary is home to a dozen parrots affectionately named, Love Birds (genus Agapornis).
There are other avian family members on the property, in another aviary — blue fronted Amazon parrot, Solomon Islands eclectus and an orange winged Amazon parrot.
I am first greeted by Dawn who has a cold soda for me in hand. I recognize her from one of the trainings I was a part of with the Oregon chapter of the American Cetacean Society as part of my certification to become an ACS naturalist. That was March 2019.
She works as the visitor services coordinator for the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Then Ram emerges with his N95 mask in hand — we all three agreed to the interview and photo session outside.
I first met Ram at the State of the Coast conference at the Salishan Resort. That was November 2019. He imparted a tidal wave of facts and riffs about what it means to be an artist. He is king of anecdotes tied to a life as an illustrator and field biological technician.
Today, on a sunny late June 2020 day, he reiterates at his home what he told the large group at Salishan last year: He considers himself “an illustrator . . . and artists look down their noses at illustrators.”
At the State of the Coast conference, young people abounded, including youthful scientists presenting their research through the elegant process of postering, a mix of science and illustration, something very close to Ram’s heart as he considered in these parts, “The Wayside Interpretative Panel” impresario for the Oregon Coast.
The State of the Coast crowd was in awe of Ram’s hand-painted pants — colorful tufted puffins adorning his trousers is one way to get an audience’s attention.
On the minds of many at the breakout session was, “How do you become an artist?” First, Ram answered in the negative:
“When I went to college, I didn’t think I could make a living at it. I sent out dozens of portfolios to publishers and children’s book publishers. I was really naïve.”
The introduction to art class at Cornell was a turning point in his pursuit: “The professor was basically trying to teach us how to be a snobby artist. I wasn’t going to have any part of that.”
Without question, Ram’s personal and professional drive is to connect people to nature. He works on commission — paid gigs assigned by Oregon State Parks, other agencies and publishers. His drawing avocation started when he was very young; by age 14 he was designing nesting dolls.
Birds of a feather…
Ram and Dawn met in 2002, at the Newport Christmas bird count. He was a single guy and she was married at the time. The three were friends until her divorce. Ram and Dawn eventually dated and then tied the knot.
Dawn beamed ecstatic about their birding trips, including one to the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) where penguins and albatrosses were part and parcel on their birder’s log.
She’s from South Carolina, having attending K12 in S.C. Ram is originally from San Diego from a hippie family fulfilling a vagabond lifestyle.
“My father considered himself somewhat of a poet, a man of letters,” Ram says, smiling. They lived in a tent and spent time in trailer parks. “I was outside all the time.” In eighth grade the family ended up in Eugene.
He is one of five — four boys and one sister. He laughs as Dawn relays how they range in age from 40 to 50.
“Outside” for Ram meant observing nature.
Dawn’s community college years encompassed Manatee Community College in Sarasota, Florida. From there, a BS in wildlife ecology from University of Florida and an MS in the same field from Oregon State University. She ended up as a seasonal employee with US Fish and Wildlife doing work in California on seasonal wetlands and mallard duck transitional ecosystem research.
Ram, the archer
Pronouncing his name means knowing Ram (variant of Rama) is the most common male name in India, the Sanskrit origin meaning as “archer; pleasing.” Think “raw” plus “hmm.”
We have much territory to traverse around Ram’s incredible illustrations and his early proclivity for and talent with drawing.
As a couple, they fit perfectly, as Dawn, 48, and Ram, 47, frequently finish each other’s sentences. It’s obvious Dawn is his biggest fan. I ask them what makes for a good marriage, or couple. Dawn seamlessly states: “We have so many shared interests.” Those include gardening, landscaping, bird watching and travel.
While she has no artistic bent, Dawn supports spiritually and emotionally Ram’s commissions, which include wayside panel illustrations up and down the coast. He has painted more than 100 panels reflecting the area’s diverse ecosystems and flora/fauna.
His interpretations entice the visitor to reflect on the ecology but also to realize the illustrator behind the images is deeply ensconced into the land. It’s a case of love for and deep reflection of nature.
Anyone hiking around Toledo high school might hear those love birds (the parrots) and other rescued parrots this birding couple has helped settle in this exotic land (for an Amazonian bird, yes, Toledo is super exotic).
I try and find more than eight feeders and eight bird boxes on the property. As I leave their home, Dawn shows me the mason bee box they made. I am happy to recall that this April, the couple came in second statewide with 48 bird species sightings in the backyard one-day bird count.
“The earth is what we all have in common.” — Wendell Berry, Naturalist and writer
There are questions about what comes first, art or the environment. There is a passion in art, and yet for Ram, it’s nature that he works with as his universal canvas. Berry’s comment isn’t lost on Ram.
He uses water color techniques with acrylics. He is in his studio showing me the new iteration of his techniques using a computer screen, program and smart pen to design and illustrate work.
He’s working on a junior biologist book for K3 youth. It’s a cool learning tool, sponsored by the Alaskan Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. He’s got one double-page ship cut-away illustration with the goal for readers to spot 15 rats Ram has strategically drawn onboard.
As a panel illustrator Ram knows “less (text) is more.”
“No more do we have textbooks on a stick,” he stated at the conference about the old style of wayside or historical signage where page after page of text dominated markers and panels.
He utilizes the “Rule of Threes” — three seconds to read the headlines; 30 seconds to glance it over and get the gist; three minutes to read everything including the captions.
His work includes tidepool life in Pacific City, shorebird stop-over on the Bandon Marsh, tidepool explorer at Cannon Beach, sea bird islands at Ecola State Park. He has illustrations in field guides, to include Oregon birder books.
He’s a veritable encyclopedia of ecosystems, bird life and aquatic, river and terrestrial species.
In the field
The couple can’t wait for outdoor activities and group meetings to resume with the Yaquina Birders and Naturalists group, of which Ram is president.
Both Dawn and Ram have been speakers on separate occasions for the Oregon Chapter of the American Cetacean Society. Birds and their habitats are their focus, with Ram’s added panoply of art from the field.
Dawn has seen many changes in the Fish and Wildlife Services and her profession: more women. She reflects on what has influenced women to embrace nature and the outdoors.
She attributes this to the power of narratives of such female scientists like Rachel Carson (“Silent Spring,” 1962) who is considered the mother of the environmental movement and who also worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Add to that Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle and thousands of female scientists and educators growing the field to include girls interested in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.
Obviously, the STEAM. movement — add Arts to STEM — links to Ram’s avocation.
For Harris, wildlife comes first. For Ram, art comes first but his art would be a shell of itself without the integration with and interpretation of the natural world. They have no children, and their lives are intertwined with landscaping, gardening and those darned long-living rescue birds.
The whimsy Ram imparts is universal. He has some amazing paper mâché masks and animals, such as a bigger-than-life turkey vulture. Two books he illustrated and wrote for children — “The Little Fox” and “The Little Seal” both published by the University of Alaska Press — captivate the child’s imagination and wonder for the seal’s and fox’s world.
Ram reiterates he’s always willing to go to public schools to wow youth with his incredible background in art and science, while deploying his flair for public speaking to captivate young and old alike.
A fast-paced PowerPoint with all his illustrations projected on a screen are both impressive and awe-inspiring for young and old.
The best things in nature
The biggest thing Ram misses in this time of lockdown is the summer sea bird camp coordinated through the Pribilof Island Seabird Youth Network, which covers four volcanic islands in the Bering Sea. He’s been the wildlife illustrator there for more than eight years.
The camp works with youth, many Aleut, covering these areas:
• Open doors to careers in science and natural resource management.
• Increase sense of ownership and understanding of local resources.
• Provide training in marketable multi-media skills.
• Provide education in seabird ecology, research and conservation.
Dawn reiterates how disappointed Ram is now that the camp has been cancelled due to Covid-19. The youth are big losers, since they will miss the collective IQ and creativity of the staff, the comradery amongst themselves, and the amazing ecosystem splendor including 11 species of birds that breed on the island.
As part of the team, Ram works in a partnership between the Pribilof School District, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, the City of St. Paul, Tanadgusix Corporation, the St. George Traditional Council, St. George Island Institute, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the wider scientific community.
The program’s website, http://seabirdyouth.org/ shows the amazing facial and body language of not only the youth getting so much out of the time, but also people like Ram, who in many photos has these ear-to-ear grins while he’s mentoring and instructing youth.
Both Ram and Dawn assert this is the best way for young and old to learn, engage in life long critical thinking and to continue on as mentors and teachers themselves, whether they go into educational fields or not.
Where are people — students — going to get the in-the-field and on-the-canvas wisdom Ram Papish brings to the proverbial table unless they are there, hands on, with him, in a learning environment with the tools of the trade — camera, brushes, paints, photographs and field research?
Ram qualifies as a unique illustration instructor at the Sea Bird Camp because he has also had 20 field seasons working as a biological sciences technician studying birds and other wildlife, primarily in Alaska. He’s a hands-on artist who encourages youth to create art.
What’s more inspiring to youth than an illustrator who has his work published in books and publications, including the Handbook of Oregon Birds, Northwest Birds in Winter and Oregon Birds?
His last big outing was in January, at the OSU Extension office for a talk, “Drawing on Nature: Connecting People and Wildlife Through Art.”
From paperboy to illustrator
We’re looking at the round plates adorning the kitchen where Dawn is setting up some chips and salsa. It’s a new obsession Ram is involved in creating — sgraffito. These are amazingly simple images of nature, and birds, to include one of my favorites, a kingfisher. The word is derived from the Italian, “graffito,” a drawing or inscription made on a wall or other surface (think graffiti) .
In ceramics, sgraffito is a technique of ornamentation in which a surface layer is scratched to reveal a ground of contrasting color. Ram mentioned this at the State of the Coast talk, too.
Before Ram was designing dolls, he was a paperboy. He recalls how in Eugene he was throwing the newspaper on the lawn of who would be one of his illustrator idols — Larry McQueen.
“I recognized him from a biography of him I had been reading.”
McQueen is still around, and his biography and bibliography are deep when you go to his page on Artists for Conservation.
Here’s a snippet from McQueen’s page:
“I grew up in the small town of Mifflinburg in central Pennsylvania. Birds fascinated me from the start. With colored pencils, I attempted to draw birds that I observed on early morning forays around the neighborhood. One of the first books my parents gave me was “The Junior Book of Birds” by Roger Peterson, illustrated with a small selection of paintings done by several bird artists of the time. Each illustration in this slender book presents the bird in a full page of habitat. As a child, these images influenced my perceptions of the bird in nature, profoundly. Around the age of ten, I was given two books with impressive artwork: a 1937 edition of reproductions of Audubon’s ‘Birds of America’ and another large volume entitled ‘Birds of America,’ with illustrations by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. I have since studied the original work of these great bird artists, with veneration. The inspiration of others continues and I regard as pivotal, the paintings of the great Swedish wildlife artist, Bruno Liljefors, of early 20th Century.
At age twelve, I was invited to be a founding member of the Bucknell Ornithological Club at Bucknell University, close to my hometown. Involved with regular meetings and field-trips, I was learning about ‘ornithology’ as a subject, and my birding skills greatly improved.”
At age 15, Ram tells me he worked at a public relations firm producing illustrations for brochures and advertisements. At 16, one of Ram’s paintings was hung in the US Capitol building.
He was the political cartoonist for the South Eugene High School newspaper. “I did a lot of political cartoons.” Pen and ink drawing was his forte.
He did illustrations of jet boats for a business on the Rogue River; wildlife scenery for different chambers of commerce; designed nesting dolls of endangered species for the Nature Shop. That was by age 16.
He’s still a lifelong vegetarian, incubated at birth by plant-based diet parents. “When you grow up without eating meat, you just can’t stomach it.”
Dawn bends with Ram’s dietary choices, but she still dives into BBQ pork when she ends up back in North Carolina. Ram is experimenting with sushi — tuna — and so far, he’s faring well.
Dawn and Ram’s last trip together on a flora and fauna safari was in Tanzania on the Serengeti plain during the heart of the migration. “The power of those herds of wildlife I have not experienced before. I took around one hundred thousand photos,” he tells me.
For most of us, we will have to vicariously live those trips, through the prism of colors Ram deploys and the interpretations he makes with brushstrokes as our naturalist guide to the art of nature.
Maybe Ram really is the Doctor Dolittle of the illustrator’s world, and he is in good company, with one of this country’s more well-known “illustrators” defining his art:
“Some people have been kind enough to call me a fine artist. I’ve always called myself an illustrator. I’m not sure what the difference is. All I know is that whatever type of work I do, I try to give it my very best. Art has been my life.” — Norman Rockwell
PH: What’s the most difficult aspect of wildlife and conservation settings to paint?
RP: I find people to be difficult.
PH: What would you tell a young person wanting to major in and practice with art?
RP: Start networking immediately. I worked at many different agencies and companies as a biotech that later hired me to do artwork. That type of connection building tends to pay off in the long run.
PH: What animal in the wild would you like to see and why?
RP: Helmet Vanga of Madagascar and Blue Crane (most easily seen in South Africa) are high on my bird bucket list.
PH: Thought experiment — If you believed in reincarnation, what animal would you want to come back as and why?
RP: Great Sapphirewing. They live in the beautiful high Andes and spend their days in cool comfort sipping sweet nectar from alpine flowers. Also, they are relatively free of external parasites.
PH: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
RP: A rainbow of different artwork including different styles, more sculpture, paintings on glass, computer-based drawings, 3D murals.
PH: Wildlife illustrations can enhance the visitor experience by “adding an extra dimension.” Can you expound on this?
RP: I feel that one of the reasons art is appealing is that it depicts reality through the filter of another person’s vision.
PH: What’s your dream commission?
RP: A series of books called “The Secret Life of Birds.” Each lavishly illustrates the natural history of a different bird species.
PH: If you Google, “greatest wildlife illustrators,” it’s all men. What is up with that do you think?
RP: Like in many professions, traditional gender roles have a strong historic influence. This will change over time.