News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 22, 2013

River of inspiration: Adventurous spirit leads artist to paint sights up, down the Wabash

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Nancy Nichols-Pethick slogged through knee-deep mud in the woods near New Harmony last month. Her quest was to find the ideal view of the Wabash River and sketch the scenery.

In a way, she followed the rugged footsteps of her late father.

“If there was a place that nobody had been, that’s where he was,” she said. “I think I got that from him.”

Their adventurous spirit runs through the project she’s undertaken, as does the Wabash itself.

Throughout autumn, she’s trekking to numerous points along the 475-mile river, propping up her easel on the banks and capturing the vistas in oil paintings and pastel drawings. By the end of her sabbatical this semester from her role as assistant professor of painting at Indiana State University, she’ll have dozens of art pieces depicting the fabled waterway, from New Harmony to its source in Fort Recovery, Ohio — enough, at least, for three different shows planned for this fall, winter and spring.

Some locations, such as Harmonie State Park at New Harmony, require a hike. Sometimes she camps, to seize the artistic opportunity created in the fleeting minutes of a sunrise or sunset. Her car serves as a mobile studio.

Terre Haute’s 2013 Year of the River celebration sparked the idea for her project, but that moment of inspiration happened fast — “totally impulsive,” as she put it. “It just came into my mind to explore the river in so many different places.”

She was no stranger to the outdoors, but rivers didn’t play a big role in her background. Nancy was born in Alaska, where her dad, Bob Nichols, moved as a teenager and spent 27 years, running a dairy farm and raising a family with Nancy’s mom. “He was really one of those people who just wanted to live life on the edge,” she said, smiling. When Nancy was 4, they moved to rural central Maine. (Her mom was a native New Englander.) In either setting, they encountered more lakes than rivers. Nancy’s dad often took the family camping, brought his charcoal pencils and easel, set up at the lakefront and drew.

He, too, was an artist.

“That was something that was always around when I was growing up,” Nancy said.

So, decades later, she seems quite comfortable sitting on her folding stool, perched in front of her easel on the rocky west bank of the Wabash at Clinton, dressed in jeans, a Ramones T-shirt and sandals, transforming the scene into art. Wide-open spaces and interesting geography suit her personality, said Nancy’s husband, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick.

“When she’s out there, she’s working very intuitively,” he said. “And when she’s out there working, she’s as calm and peaceful as she ever is.”

Willing to try again

Indiana landscapes differ from those in the Alaskan frontier or the wooded swamps and ponds of Maine. At Clinton, on a sunny, warm Friday, she painted a steel railroad trestle spanning the Wabash in the distance. By noon, she had worked on the picture for an hour. “And in that time, the light has changed a hundred times,” she explained.

The trestle, with its angles and juxtaposition with the natural elements, caught her interest. “The reflections, the colors and the shadows — they all become a part of the composition,” she said.

The rail bridge was the first man-made subject she’d chosen on her Wabash project. “I’m not necessarily going for the most picturesque view,” Nancy said, “but, as a painting, what it does for me.”

That moment at Clinton, her project, her teaching career might not have happened if she hadn’t given art a second try.

“I failed my first art class,” Nancy said. “I tell my students that any time they get discouraged.” She even left the University of Southern Maine after that setback. She’d started college at an early age, though, right after her junior year of high school, and the time away actually rekindled her passion. “I always loved art, so after a couple years, I loved it again.”

Nancy returned to Southern Maine, and the professor whose class she’d failed became one of her important influences. George Burk’s landscape drawing class turned into a favorite for her. When Burk took the class to sketch outdoor sights, some students would do their best to avoid the heat or the bugs. “They’d be sitting in their cars and complaining,” Nancy, now 44, recalled with a laugh, “and I’d be out there in it, and I just couldn’t get enough of it.”

The Wabash has critters, too. Some cast idyllic images — a beaver, scurrying up the bank at Clinton, or blue heron and egrets soaring over the water.

Other wildlife encounters have been less appealing. She’s dealt with ticks and a dose of poison ivy. Insect bites, the rash, mud — the obstacles haven’t dampened her motivation.

“She’s so passionate about what she’s doing, every day she gets excited to do it all over again,” said Gabrielle Roach, one of Nancy’s ISU students for the past three years and a senior majoring in fine arts.

The adventures also give Nancy, Jonathan and their two young kids plenty to talk about at home. “It’s very much been a part of our household conversation,” Nancy said.

Seeing state up close

She credits her husband, an associate professor of media studies at DePauw University, with shouldering extra tasks on the homefront during her journeys along the Wabash this fall. They came to Indiana in the mid-1990s as Jonathan earned graduate degrees at Indiana University. Nancy earned her master’s of fine arts at Indiana State. Careers in the Hoosier state followed, and she considers Indiana her second home.

Her project tightens that bond.

“I’m getting to know my adopted state, which is really fun to do,” Nancy said.

Many lifelong Hoosiers have not seen their official state river as closely. Tales of the Wabash being rife with trash and polluted water proved exaggerated. “I’ve actually been surprised at how beautiful it is,” Nancy said. “That’s really what I’ve been struck by — the enduring quality of this river.”

To study the Wabash, and portray it with brush and paint on canvas, takes patience and a willingness to cope with nature. The right moment justifies the wait. “I’ve been catching the river at dawn and dusk when the light really does some interesting things,” Nancy said, standing a few feet from the slow-moving current, just down the grassy, steep hill from the fountain in downtown Clinton. “The camping has made that possible.”

Fran Lattanzio, her friend and ISU arts faculty colleague, enjoys the day-after stories when they share coffee in the mornings. “It’s fun to see her energy, enthusiasm and her range of work,” Lattanzio said.

Lattanzio sees this project and the artist as a natural pair, with potential rewards beyond Nancy’s resulting artwork.

“She really is very adventurous, which is something that also benefits her as a teacher,” Lattanzio said, “because it shows students how to get out of their comfort zone.”

Fittingly, Nancy’s description of her riverside painting experiences sound similar to those landscape drawing classes after her return to college back in Maine.

“You’re hearing the bugs and the birds and the fish leaping,” she said, looking out over the river at Clinton. “So I’ve come to appreciate the ancient quality of the river. It seems that it would have some great stories to tell if it could talk.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or