TERRE HAUTE —
The best views of the Wabash come with wet, muddy feet.
Free flowing and untamed, the river’s banks often test human visitors. Rocks, trees and grassy weeds line its shores for most of its 474 miles. Parks and public access points in several towns give people a more comfortable peek at the murky stream. Its most scenic vistas, though, can’t be seen from a highway, parking lot or picnic table. The Wabash looks its finest at water’s edge, where nature rules and man’s domain lies over the bank, out of sight.
Nancy Nichols-Pethick set up her easel there, atop uneven stones, mossy dirt and marshy weeds.
Thank goodness she did, capturing the visuals on canvas with oil paintings and pastel drawings at various riverside locations while exploring the Wabash last year from Huntington in northern Indiana to New Harmony near its southern confluence with the Ohio River. Too few Hoosiers ever witness the Wabash from such a perspective. Nichols-Pethick’s artwork gives them a chance to see what they’ve missed.
“In most places, you have this beautiful river flowing and all this wildlife, and you wish more people would be enjoying it,” she said.
Those who dropped in at the Turman Art Gallery on the Indiana State University campus earlier this month got a glimpse of such images. The gallery exhibited nearly 30 of her Wabash River pieces, collectively entitled “Notes on a River.” They’ll go on display again March 3-21 at Marian University in Indianapolis, with a reception 4 to 6 p.m. March 6. The pictures emanated from Huntington, Delphi, Americus, Tecumseh, Clinton, Terre Haute, Hutsonville, Merom and Harmonie State Park at New Harmony.
She painted and drew quickly, preserving a brief moment. The sunlight and reflections changed by the minute. She created artistic snapshots, sometimes camping to motor her “mobile studio” — a Chrysler minivan — to a destination just in time to catch a sunset or sunrise. She started in the days of heat and lush foilage of August and by October and November, the falling leaves exposed the vastness of the valley.
In autumn, “it was really overcast and really foggy,” Nichols-Pethick recalled. “You can go back to the same place again and again and again, and it’s never the same.”
Nichols-Pethick toured the Wabash as her sabbatical project during the fall semester at ISU, where she teaches painting as an assistant professor of art. The local community’s 2013 Year of the River celebration sparked her idea. Born in Alaska and raised in rural Maine, she experienced the wilderness on family camping trips. Her dad was an outdoorsman and an artist, who drew the woods and lakefronts using charcoal pencils and an easel.
Thirty years later, Nancy was doing the same thing on the banks of the Wabash in her adopted state of Indiana, where she and her husband have lived since the mid-1990s, eventually raising their two young kids here. Some lifelong Hoosiers expressed surprise when Nichols-Pethick described various places along the river she chose to depict on canvas.
“The people who grew up near it, their reaction was, ‘Why would you want to paint that?’” she recalled, “and I think it goes back to the fact that we have this wonderful natural resource and we aren’t really taking advantage of it.”
That said, Nichols-Pethick realizes, in some ways, the Wabash benefits from being overlooked by man. Unlike other rivers that accommodate commercial shipping and barges, the unnavigable Wabash flows with little human interference. Its only dam lies near Huntington. From there, it meanders for 411 miles, unrestricted. Maintaining “a balance” between making the river more accessible to more people, and protecting its wild freedom, matters greatly to her.
The 44-year-old artist walked — or, more accurately, hiked — that thin line to craft her pictures. She hunted the undeveloped stretches of the Wabash and stuck to those.
“It’s hard to get the view I really enjoy — the natural, untouched beauty,” she said.
Just a few miles from the dam at Roush Lake, the river gets back to its natural self at Huntington’s Forks of the Wabash Historical Park. The Wabash and Little Wabash rivers converge there, blending two tints of water in eye-catching fashion. It became one of Nichols-Pethick’s favorite spots during her journey.
The stream ran shallow there. She ventured out on some rocks. The Wabash stretched out ahead.
“I enjoyed getting that long view of the river,” she said. “I know it a lot better than when I started, but I know there’s more I can still see.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.