Hiking to Paint, Painting to Hike

I am standing in a remote Forest Service parking lot, fiddling with the myriad straps, buckles and zippers on a tiny backpack. There are no other cars in the lot on this gray autumn morning, but I know that by the time I return from my planned, seven-mile trail run the lot could well be full. I like to get out relatively early. On weekdays. Overcast is good. At least the threat of rain is helpful. Maybe it's the off-season. Then there's a chance it will be less busy on the trails. I have the advantage of having Mondays free and I try to book them as 'trail days' here in my backyard, the White Mountain National Forest.

Rebecca M. Fullerton, the artist in her natural habitat. Mount Washington, White Mountains, New Hampshire.

I have only lived in the area since the summer of 2018. Before that I was in Boston, sticking with a job I loved, as Archivist for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), an outdoor recreation and environmental conservation non-profit. The organization decided to move out of its long-time offices in a set of brick rowhouses on Beacon Hill in 2017. In the reshuffling for space at the new location, the Archives, and thus my job, moved to New Hampshire, where AMC runs numerous backcountry lodging and camping facilities like their eight off-the-grid high mountain huts stretching across the White Mountain National Forest. No stranger to these mountains, I worked here as a seasonal employee for AMC back in 2001. I've been hiking here ever since and know these relatively small but rugged mountains well. I'd been dying to get back here. Now it's for keeps.

Through all the years I lived in Boston, and many before, I have been a painter, working first in acrylics as a teenager, in watercolors through most of college, and finally picking up oils in the mid-2000s. In that time, I've transitioned through multiple styles and subjects, from landscape to figurative to surrealistic and back to landscape again. In returning to the land, and the White Mountain themselves, I found a subject that can never be exhausted. The style in which I paint can feel touristic and sunny (all blue skies and pleasant vistas) or deliberately stark, full of sharp rocks and unsettling clouds. The latter is meant to capture the truth of these mountains. They are precipitously steep, with difficult trails, and the highest summit is known for "the worst weather in the world." Fellow hikers understand these paintings, whether they like the depiction of a soggy, rotten day on the trail or not. Perhaps the "bad weather paintings" aren't for everyone, but they show the land as it is.

I like these kinds of days, even if more in theory than in practice. They are part of life in these hills, and you must learn to make something of them. People sometimes ask if I miss the city, having lived there for over sixteen years, but aside from a few restaurants and easy access to the many art museums, I really don't. This rural uncrowdedness, the space, the ability to hop in the car and go without planning some elaborate subway and bus ride on the grimy and reliably unreliable MBTA, feels good to me. Boston felt like a very long bend in the road. I'd never had a vision of myself living in a city of any kind.

And here I am, on a forest road, about to wander out into the woods for several miles. I may not meet any other humans. I might scare up a grouse, red squirrells, deer, moose or even a bear. Hiking up above the trees, I reach my world of inspiration. The sweep of rock and krummholz, the ever-changing sky, the blue mountain ridges repeating into paler oblivion are all collected in my vision and brought into the paintings I make. I love to run trails and hike, and now I've built a life where I need to do so to collect materials to feed my art. Good symbiosis, I'd say.