Drawing Inspiration from Nature

Obi Kaufmann’s illustrations and poetry reflect the full spectrum of California’s wilderness and is dedicated to its preservation.

by Daniel Crockett

for Wildside, The Enchanted Life of Hunters and Gatherers

published by Gestalten Books, 2016

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Obi Kaufmann is a man of many layers and rhythms, closely responding to his surroundings in the natural world. His love of the Californian wild emerges in a passionate series of paintings, illustrations, maps, and poems. A wilderness advocate, Obi has been walking and painting California for his entire life, the songs of the road emerging through his hands. Under the handle Coyote and Thunder, this is now translating into larger projects such as the forthcoming California Field Atlas, Coyote and Thunder (words that Obi has tattooed on his left hand) is his creative outlet.

When asked whether he feels that nature is magic, Obi responds by saying, “I hesitate at all the clumsy words that try to describe the world of phenomena as a world that is in its nature beyond our power to intuit. Words like magic, divinity, and spirit feel like sloppy language. In my art I express how I believe this world is more beautiful, deep, and profound than I could possibly know and the pursuit thereby is endless and infinitely joyful.” This strength of emotion shines brightly in his work through its simplicity and warmth.

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Based out of Oakland, California (“the grittiest and most beautiful little city in America,” according to Obi), he was born in Hollywood and raised in San Francisco’s East Bay. It is California as a whole that moves his heart. “My inspiration was born in all things California, and there it will forever live.” Obi says. “I’ve logged thousands of walking miles across this rolling paradise and can hear its song in every painting, poem, and map I will make.”

Over time, he has become a “willing subject to a lifelong parade of massive, heady doses of all the beauty that the Californian wilderness has to offer.” Now, he is ready to give it all back. This intention is being woven together in a much bigger project called the California Field Atlas, which will be published by Heyday Books in 2017. In Obi’s own words, the project will “transmit this love for the larger story of these spiraling landscapes, my once and future home. I am retreading all those steps: hundreds perhaps thousands of foot miles rendered, mapped, and painted.” In its totality, this labor of love translates into “a compendium of hundreds of hand-painted maps and trail paintings. My mission is to compose what is a love letter to the land of gold, oak, condor and granite.”

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The California Field Atlas is an exhaustive, lyrical ultimate road trip guide. Every inch of the state is detailed and every page drips with soul and color. Like everything Obi does, there is an underlying purpose to uncover an ancient Californian ecology. The project describes his “journey towards understanding California as a single breathing, moving, living system that holds one epic narrative: a thread of natural history bright, poetic, and undeniable.” The considered intensity and lyrical flair with which Obi describes his work reminds us how moved he is by the natural world, in a way that many people no longer comprehend.

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Obi takes his inspiration from a rich tradition of frontier naturalists, David Douglas to John Muir, Wallace Stegner to Gary Snyder, and finally Joan Didion. “I respond to writers and naturalists who endeavor to see things as they are,” Obi says, “and it may be unexpected that I find more inspiration there than I so often do in my fellow painters.” Obi draws from a deep wellspring of sources to inform his work, the common thread of zeal for the California he loves so much. “I find there, a battery inside myself that needs a regular refueling of wilderness and solitude to maintain the me-of-this-world,” he says. “I adore cities and all they offer, but give me those mountains! Let them climb over me as much as I climb over them and I will be an easier man on my return. I need the wide open, diverse forests of the Sierra Nevada, empty with light and shining in granite.”

Obi’s techniques themselves start with his choice of paintbrush: “I get asked a lot what kind of paint I use,” he says, “my response is that it is not about the paint at all. I often use wine, beer, coffee, and lake water. I think about the brush. A quality brush can make smeared dirt look fantastic.” There is no doubt that patience drives him to perfect his art. “I am not a religious man. In fact I don’t do very much with any discipline at all. I have too much Coyote in me. But I do paint every day. I often work even as I am hiking, trying not to trip.” Obi describes his painting as a conversation with himself that never gets tired. But it does not always come easy. He is worried that if he stopes, he will forget how. “It is like I am holding a very long rope,” he says, “and trying to find the end of it, while holding on to it as a life-line, an anchor.” Echoing the fears of artists the world over, he concludes: “The calling is a mixed bag, to be sure.”005

Obi is passionate about wilderness conservation. As he says: “Save the land, save the habitat, and the wild will hold.” He is also excited about the potential for rewilding to restore Californian wildlife: “California, the wilderness state, is the perfect testing ground for this evolving philosophy of how best to maintain the wilderness area we’ve already protected.”

This love of California permeates everything Obi does: “What we have here is a wholly unique place on this earth, and whatever may come, my fate is gladly bound to it. I will always be a wilderness advocate and will work on adding my voice to the collective struggle for its survival, but I’ve found the beauty of it all speaks loud enough for itself to crack even the hardest of hearts.” Thus his direction is confirmed: through the creativity he is gifted with, Obi Kaufmann will inspire others to recognize the California of his dreams.

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The near future will see Obi working with the Human Collective Group in New York City, with Tuleyome in Northern California on a poetry project on the newly designated Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. He is also planning on mapping condors in the mountains of behind Santa Barbara, with long-range plans to watch the flowers emerge in spring in the Joshua Tree National Park with the National Park Service.

He has come to view the state of California as a circle. “I see these sprawling ladscapes as a single, epic narrative that has invented its own way of being a place at all,” he says, “an isolated network that attends to its own sphere with continuing invention regardless of any blueprint that might be given to other, sorrowful places bereft of deserts, mountains, coasts, rivers, glaciers, volcanoes, redwoods, salmon, and condor.” Obi himself is also creating reality, fitting snugly into the wild lands he loves, delighted at never having to stop.

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photography: Heidi Zumbrum, Colin McCarthy

Illustrations: Obi Kaufmann, texts: Elias Carlson