Wildlife Sanctuary as Creative Refuge

Maker Spotlight: Rachel Pellow, Nature Sculptor & Photographer

Rachel’s body of work reflects her lifestyle. Surrounded by nature, she pulls inspiration (literally) from her land and translates her findings into 3D collage digital photographs. Foraging her way through the creative process, each collage is a unique natural habitat and work of art.

Rachel foraging with her family
Rachel foraging with her family

First off, how do you define your work?

I create fine art digital photography prints of foraged nature sculptures. I started out calling my style of work Natural Reflections but a friend of mine saw my work and started calling it Sacred Symmetry. I use the terms interchangeably now because no one knows what I am talking about anyway. It helps to see it.

How did you get started in this field?

It was an accident really. The first piece I made happened organically and I’m not sure why I did it. I combined my love of hiking, natural history, art, and photography, and I liked how it felt. I repeated the process seven more times and put together my first show in a bar where a friend worked.

Then in 2017, after my daughter was born, my husband and I bought a 180-acre wildlife sanctuary in Ashland, Oregon, and everything fell into place. I make art for myself and for the connection with nature, but now I also have a reason to sell it. All the proceeds from my art go toward habitat restoration and reforestation projects in the wildlife sanctuary. I get to devote my art and my work to conserving and protecting the wild places that inspire it.

What’s your creative process like?

My creative process always starts with a two hour hike. I find a place on the map, or a trail through the sanctuary, and I go out to explore. I’ll take a bucket and some shears and I gather little cuttings of plants and flowers, and mushrooms and bones, just whatever catches my interest.

Then I take my bucket of materials back to my photo studio, sort and ID the materials I’ve gathered, and arrange them into a reflection of how it felt to be out on the trail. When everything is arranged I shoot it with an eye towards how things might look in post-process when I mirror the image. I’ll shoot a bunch of different angles with a few different apertures so I have a variety of images with distinctly different looks.

After that, I do a little touching-up in Lightroom and I mirror the images in Photoshop. One of the images will stand out as the most powerful and true to the original feeling of being out in nature and that’s the one I print as fine art.

What’s your workspace like?

I started out working on my dining room table and a cloffice (my word for my closet-office!), but now I have a lovely barn studio. It’s kind of like a big garage, but in the summer, when the weather is fine, I open the barn doors to the fresh air and I have gorgeous views of the mountains and forests. I keep my collection of bones and insects and pressed flowers in an antique printers cabinet, and I installed a dance pole in the middle of the room for days when I feel inspired to really move.

Rachel's barn studio
Rachel’s barn studio

How does Astropad fit into your practice?

I use Astropad in the final steps of my post processing. I try very hard to keep my shooting surface clean when I am making my arrangements but inevitably there will be little specks of dirt and leaves and spores all over the table. I use Astropad to clean those up in Photoshop. And in a few of my twist reflected images, I hand draw where the image reflects and overlaps. It’s kind of more a tessellation than a flat reflection.

Before I had Astropad, the post-process was my least favorite part. I would rather be out in the sanctuary or giving my daughter attention than be stuck at my desk. Now it’s so fast and easy – there’s really nothing keeping me from getting back outside or back to my family.

Walk us through your daily routine.

I like to wake up an hour or two before anyone else in the house. I make myself a cup of tea. I read my emails and check out what my artist and conservationist friends have been up to on Instagram. Then I make my family a home-cooked breakfast before heading out to the barn to feed the animals.

I have a bunch of animals, but my favorite are the mules. I have three mules – all rescues – who came to me sick or abused. I’ve been earning their trust and training them for riding. My goal is to eventually ride out into the backcountry to see places untouched by humans. When all the daily chores are done, I can consider working on a creative project or a sanctuary project.

Rachel sitting in a cafe enjoying a sweet treat while working on her laptop and tablet.

How do you brainstorm fresh ideas?

If I need a fresh idea, I head to a fresh place for a hike or a ride. Nature is always inspiring, but going to a new place offers a new discovery. Sometimes those discoveries can be very profound; my job is just to get out of the way.

What’s your favorite thing about the work you do?

My daughter just turned 3, and I’ve been selling art to benefit the wildlife sanctuary for a year now. This past summer, I sold enough art to plant 285 trees. We planted them ourselves as a family. Every day for two weeks, my daughter and I headed out with a bucket of ten trees and a shovel. We hiked at a toddler’s pace, and we wouldn’t come back till they were all planted. Some days we went out more than once, but eventually, my husband and our neighbors had to help us. I live for those memories with my daughter and my husband, giving back to the forest that inspires my art.

Eggs in a nests surrounded by flowers and sticks.

What’s your least favorite thing about the work you do?

I hate having to keep my website up to date. I’m doing it myself, and I am not a website designer. At first, I tried hiring a company to do it for me. They were supposed to be really great and have a lot of experience in selling art, but it was worse than doing it myself. So now, I do it, and it’s kind of working, but it could be so much better.

And finally, do you have any inspiring Instagram accounts you recommend checking out?

I’m obsessed with artists that make some really delightfully unique things. There’s @madame_bloomfang, who makes really vivid juicy cat mouths on fluff ball keychains, and @ghostlightgallery makes haunting wooden animal automaton art. Also, @woodlucker makes the most beautiful paper sculptures of botanicals and butterflies.

Follow Rachel on Instagram at @bhaktibee.art and check out her website.