One look at Kristin Hurlin’s Michigan-centered pen-and-ink compositions, and you are transported to not just a place but an experience. Her works whisper of springtime hikes through wildflower meadows, strolls in an earthy-scented, autumn forest or lazy summer afternoons gazing over Lake Michigan dunes.
Hurlin accomplishes this by blending an artist’s interpretive eye with precision drawing skills and infusing it all with highly accurate details from the curve of every leaf to the subtle color variations in each flower petal. As a finishing touch, she borders her drawings with exquisite designs that serve to balance and ground the piece while inviting the viewer to step inside.
Hurlin’s work decorates a white, fairy tale-cottage studio, called Glen Arbor Artisans (glenarborartisans.com), that she and her husband (and furniture maker) Paul May opened in 2015 alongside their home in the small town of Glen Arbor, just beyond Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It is filled with her enchanting pen-and-watercolor botanical landscapes, as well as her meticulously rendered maps of the Great Lakes waterways and an assortment of vividly hued pastels.
“Kristin’s work is totally engaging and charming,” said Sarah Bearup-Neal, gallery manager and communications manager for the Glen Arbor Arts Center just a few blocks away. “On the surface, the obvious technical skill and gift she has just shines through, (but) she doesn’t take dictation from the natural world,” Bearup-Neal said.
“Rather, she looks at it and communicates it in her own original voice, which is completely informed by the fact that she knows the native plants, she’s a friend to the trees and I think it’s her natural habitat to be in the woodland and the dunes.” She added, “It’s a full-body, totally cellular experience for her.”
Painter Beth Bricker agreed, describing Hurlin as “very, very popular.” Bricker runs Lake Street Studios’ Forest Gallery in Glen Arbor. “I happen to be super fond of her maps, which I think are just amazing and quite definitely art, as well as her pastels that she’s been doing for the last 10 years or so — they are such beautiful colors,” she said. “Kristin is very clearly a presence here.”
Life with plants
For Hurlin, the journey to become a northern Michigan artist began as a 2-year-old living in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills. That’s when she first remembers drawing, and she has never stopped. “As a little kid, I found drawing to be a way to inform me about the world, because when you draw something, you have to see how that subject occupies three-dimensional space in order to draft it in two dimensions. And with plants, the way they are constructed is so interesting, so beautiful,” she said.
Her captivation with plants grew stronger when she and her future husband, both 19 at the time, ventured to the Pacific Northwest — he to be a mountaineer and she to study architecture at the University of Idaho. “I went to school in the winter, and we’d spend the summer together backpacking and doing some nontechnical mountain climbing,” she said. During her months in the wilderness, she became intrigued with edible wild plants. “I was and am still fascinated by the way that we as animals are totally dependent on plants for our lives. We have to eat plants — or eat animals that eat plants — to live. They’re the foundation of life on Earth.”
While out West, Hurlin also decided to switch from architecture to art and landed a full-time job in San Francisco drawing designs for T-shirts — but not just any T-shirts. “If you bought a T-shirt from a rock concert from 1979-83, it probably had my art on it. I did stuff for bands like AC/DC, Blue Oyster Cult and Grateful Dead. It was a lot of bloody hands with axes, skeletons and things like that,” she laughed.
In 1983, Hurlin and May made a permanent move from San Francisco to Glen Arbor, and her art and her love of plants took flight. “Because of the location at the 45th parallel combined with the lake-effect climate, we have plants both from the northern boreal forest and the southern mesic forest, so we have a lot of diversity. Plus, we’re surrounded by the national park, so the plants were right in front of me, and I need them to be close so I can study them for my drawings,” she said.
The flora took on an even more meaningful role when she began to study ethnobotany, or the medicinal, spiritual and other traditional uses of wild plants, a topic that still captivates her today. The plant diversity and her growing appreciation for the plant-human connection became fodder for her pen-and-watercolor landscapes, which she describes as composites rather than real-life scenes.
“If I’m doing a drawing of a dunes habitat on a mid-summer day, for instance, I’ll construct the foreground from the flowers that bloom on the sand dunes at that time of year, so perhaps the wood lily, hairy puccoon, dune lily and harebells, and then I’ll put in a background that you might recognize, such as the Manitou Islands,” she said. The results are authentic Up North ecological ensembles that blend a welcome-home sense of comfort with the excitement of new discovery.
Hurlin still spends much of her time on pen-and-watercolor botanical landscapes but has added to her fine-art repertoire since the studio opened in 2015.
One project that has drawn considerable attention is her adult coloring book titled “A Beautiful Place: Michigan Wildflowers at the Sleeping Bear Dunes.” The idea for the coloring book arose when Hurlin realized she had a drawer full of penciled wildflower sketches that she had made over the past 35 years. She thought it was time to put together something to help others learn about the botanical treasures of the region.
After carefully inking the drawings, she had it published as a coloring book. But she wasn’t done with it yet. “I had never actually colored them in myself, so I spent a couple of months coloring in all the pages with colored pencils,” she said. “It took me six to eight hours for each page because I put in undercoats and overcoats, shading and darkening, and they turned out so beautiful that I decided to make a whole line of notecards literally printed from coloring book pages that I tore out and colored in.”
Another big draw is her ink-on-wood creations — ink drawings on boards milled from old-growth white pine trees in her backyard. The trees fell during the severe August 2015 storm that struck the area one day after her studio officially opened.
“I had always wanted to do a life-size, stylized, ink drawing of a sturgeon because they’re such a weird-looking fish, and weird is more interesting to draw. So, I used a 6-foot-by-2-foot board milled from one of the trees and put a sturgeon on it,” she said.
It quickly sold, so she began to ink other stylized fish species onto the boards, but she didn’t veer from botanical subjects for long. “I had taken photographs of all of the old-growth trees in my yard over the years,” she said, “so I have been able to draw and ink silhouettes of the trees on boards made from their own bodies. People really seem to like them.”
Thinking back over her decision to be an artist in northwestern Michigan, Hurlin said she knows she made the right choice. “It’s not easy to make a full-time living as a self-employed artist in Glen Arbor, but Paul and I are still here,” she said. And that’s enough. “Where else could I hop in my car and, in five minutes, be in an absolutely drop-dead beautiful spot where I can just start drawing or pull out the pastels?” she asked. Then with a smile, she added, “In fact, I think I might just head out to do some pastels today.” ≈
By Leslie Mertz – Leslie Mertz is a freelance writer and environmental educator. She lives Up North near a branch of the Au Sable River.
*Photography by Coreene Kreiser