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Museum brat finds niche in nature: growing up around art and nature shaped this naturalist's future.

For over 40 years, artist, educator, and naturalist Larry Eifert has been a "working artist of nature." He has published nature guidebooks for national parks, such as Badlands National Park in South Dakota and Big Bend National Park in Texas. His interpretive panels, which have received top awards from the National Association of Interpretation, can be found in dozens of national and state parks and nature centers, including works for the Muir Woods National Monument in California, and at Lake Tahoe. His massive murals grace the entrance to Joshua Tree National Monument and a restaurant in the Denver International Airport. In fact, there is no artist with more works in America's National Parks, refuges and preserves than Larry Eifert.

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One of Larry's paintings, commissioned by the Crater Lakes Institute to illustrate the complex high elevation whitebark pine ecosystem, was donated by the artist for use in a feature in American Forests magazine as part of our Spring 2010 special report on that imperiled species.

Larry is currently at work on a project highlighting the bristlecone pine ecosystem, which is also facing serious new threats to its existence. He hopes to increase public awareness of the many threats challenging our natural environment, and encourages people to take action against these threats. "To learn about and to paint nature is the single most important and continuing passion I have," he says.

"I was exposed to nature and a pencil before I could walk," recalls Larry. An only child, he spent many afternoons at the Illinois State Museum, often traipsing after his father, Herman, who served as the museum's education curator, guiding children through the multitude of exhibits on Illinois' natural and cultural history. Herman held degrees in both ecology and English, a rarity in the early 1940s.

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Larry's mother, Virginia, also worked at the museum, where her stories, photographs, and artwork were published in the museum's magazine. Virginia could also be found traveling thousands of miles on river workboats, or hiking through national parks and forests conducting research for an upcoming book. Larry often accompanied his mother on these trips, which fostered an unyielding admiration for nature. Virginia's lifelong dedication to nature had a strong influence on the budding conservation community and on the young Larry.

His artistic process uses what he learned from his adventures with his mother, and from time in the museum as a child. This, combined with his lack of formal training, is what Larry believes has ensured his success. "It's always been the most important reason people like my work--that it doesn't look like cookie-cutter art school stuff. It's because I've developed my own style, found my own path, and learned how to go about with this on-the-ground field work that I've done pretty well."

As a young adult, Larry moved to Canada, taking with him the knowledge he gained from his parents and the museum staff that had (unwittingly) laid the groundwork for what would become his livelihood and lifelong passion. In the small town of Waubaushene, Ontario, Larry's drawing skills flourished. Here he "learned to be an artist," and opened his first retail art gallery in 1968. After a few years living in a town where sledding to the post office and selling fire-smoked moose clothing were the norm, Larry decided it was time for a change.

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In 1972 he moved to Ferndale, California "in search of rainy forests and windswept beaches." The northern California town, situated among the redwoods and boasting mountain peaks soaring above ragged shorelines, provided amazing scenery and lucid light, ideal for drawing and painting. Larry's success soared after he opened his second shop, the Eifert Gallery in Ferndale, and he soon broadened his artistic vision and audience.

After being mentored by the late Robert Belous of the National Park Service, Larry set his sights on parks, refuges, and non-profit groups. Belous explained to Larry that his art would reach out far more effectively to the conservation community if he kept it at the parks rather than taking it back to the galleries. Armed with sketches and a new direction. Larry marched into the offices of park officials, and soon received commissions for large mural projects and interpretive panel installations. Redwood National Park commissioned Larry's first large mural project, which featured many of the same natural elements that lured him to northern California years before.

Following in his mother's footsteps, Larry visits each site before drawing it, getting a real-life sense of the environment. He spends hours exploring the area, taking notes on each species, sketching and taking photographs along the way. Photos can be extremely useful in the planning process, capturing a specific moment in time to use as a reference later on. He also seeks out veteran park officials, hoping they will share their intimate knowledge of and experiences with the local plants and animals. When they realize Larry shares their passion for nature and its complexity, the park experts quickly open up.

Larry is not alone on these scouting adventures. His wife, Nancy, an accomplished photographer whose passion for nature mirrors his own, accompanies him on treks through forests and cross-country road trips, and even helps create the art. When he was commissioned to paint a second large mural at the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, he was given just 17 days to complete it. Many artists would panic, but not the Eiferts. Together Larry and Nancy completed the 14.5- by 90-foot mural, which still stands at the park's entrance today. The complex mural features the animals and plants found in the park's 49 Palms Oasis, complete with labels for each species. Besides being a talented artist, Nancy is also Larry's "rock." She maintains the business, photographs sites, and licenses his work. "Without her, we wouldn't be doing any of this," says Larry.

For the last 15 years, Larry and Nancy have been living in Port Townsend, Washington, where they continue to explore and expand their passion for nature. The area allows the Eiferts to hike one of their favorite trails in the nearby Olympic National Park.

"It's not just a job or painting to me," Larry says. "It's an ongoing, everyday task of learning about nature and portraying it."

See Larry's work or sign up for his blog at www.eifert-art.com.

Michelle Johnson is an intern in American Forests' communications department.
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Title Annotation:EARTHKEEPERS; Larry Eifert
Author:Johnson, Michelle
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Words:1063
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