First Friday Santa Cruz

Megan Gnekow: Wildlife Conservation Through Art

Megan Gnekow: Wildlife Conservation Through Art

Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History 

As a scientific illustrator inspired by her home state, Megan Gnekow’s watercolors and drawings star the diversity of plants and wildlife here in California. She’s spent weeks closely observing the habits of hummingbirds, monitoring the nests of peregrine falcons, and watching the migration of butterflies, all with pen or brush in hand. 

Gnekow’s pieces are reminders that a hummingbird in flight, or the sharp curve of an eagle’s bill, deserve our full attention. They’re reminders to slow down, pause, and closely observe the intricate lives of the plants and animals all around us. Gnekow creates art because it brings her joy, but also to educate and connect people to nature. “I hope that my work is inspiring people to better understand the creatures that we share our world with,” she says. 

Combining a love for the arts and sciences

Gnekow’s path to scientific illustration was as meandering as a watershed. Gnekow’s father was a bird hunter so she learned from an early age how to identify different bird species. This early introduction to wildlife gave Gnekow a deep love and appreciation for the natural world, especially birds. Her first drawing was of a duck and by age 12, she had decided to be a scientist when she grew up. She explored the sciences and education in college but then changed course and majored in art. 

When she graduated from Portland State University with her BS in art, she faced the big life question: ‘Now what am I going to do?’ It was Gnekow’s mom who nudged her back towards the sciences. “My mom planted the seed for science illustration,” recalls Gnekow. “I ignored it for awhile, but I realized I had an interest in both science and art, so it was a good combination of those two things for me.”

In 2009 Gnekow graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a graduate certificate in scientific illustration and now has a career making science more accessible to the general public through her art. “It’s really important to me that my work is really accessible because a lot of times scientific research feels very mysterious or exclusive,” says Gnekow. “I like having the opportunity to have an audience that is broader than the scientific community.” 

Turning scientific observation into art

Although technically an artist by trade, Gnekow spends the majority of her time observing and researching before she completes a piece of work. She also spends much of her time in the field. “Mostly I’m doing quick, rough sketches, and also taking notes about where I am, what I’m seeing, and what kinds of relationships I’m noticing,” says Gnekow. “I’m making notes of research questions for later and noting the dynamics and habitat in the ecosystem.” 

Gnekow spends a lot of her time learning about different habitats through her art. As an artist in residency with the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, Gnekow spent several months observing and researching the unique habitats and dynamics found in both the aquatic and terrestrial environments of the slough. From this residency, Gnekow produced several mandala watercolors illustrating the complex food webs found in the reserve.   

She also did a series of illustrations for the national park service comparing the physiology of California condors, turkey vultures, ravens, and golden eagles. Her lifelike watercolors show the birds’ wingspans, talons, and bills side by side. When in the illustration program at UCSC, one of her internships was with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She created an identification guide for North American Hummingbirds that they now use for their feeder watch program. “I painted hummingbirds for 16 weeks,” says Gnekow. “It was a dream.” 

Her next big piece will highlight the snowy plover recovery and conservation work being done in dune ecosystems along Monterey Bay, including right here in Santa Cruz at Seabright State Beach. 

Although Gnekow could take photos of the snowy plovers nesting in the dunes or the otters feasting on crabs in the slough, drawing, she says, forces you to be more attuned to the world around you. “By drawing you really have to pay attention. There may be fine details that you miss in a photograph,” Gnekow explains. “The drawing requires you to slow down in a way that I think we especially need more of now.”

For those interested in taking their own art outdoors, Gnekow recommends assembling a simple field kit. Her kit includes only the basics: Canson paper in neutral colors like gray and tan (easier on the eyes than white in the bright sun), a DIY watercolor kit in an Altoids tin (squeeze some tubes of watercolor paint into the tin, let it dry, and add water once in the field), 1-2 ink pens, a few pencils, a waterbrush, small notebook, and an old sock tied around your wrist to clean your brush.

Inspiring conservation through understanding 

Gnekow is equally passionate about the arts and sciences, specifically wildlife conservation. With every piece of art she creates, there’s a greater purpose behind the pleasing aesthetics.

“What I’m really interested in are relationships and helping highlight and draw attention to conservation,” she says. “A lot of my work is focused on endangered species or species of special concern. Protecting those things is not just about ensuring reproductive success. It’s about making sure the creatures have everything they need to thrive. I hope that my work is really helping people understand those contexts and making that knowledge accessible.”

You can view Megan Gnekow’s work on her website and purchase prints, original pieces, cards and more on her Etsy store. Gnekow’s most recent show was part of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History’s annual Art of Nature exhibit which she’s been a part of since 2010. You can also meet Gnekow and see her work in person at Open Studios in South County this Fall. 

Molly Ressler is a writer and content marketing consultant based in Santa Cruz. She lives with her husband and pup in Seabright and loves sharing her community’s vibrant culture through her writing.