When the creative spark goes out, it can be hard to reignite it. That’s what North Carolina artist Heidi Nisbett learned during what she calls her “quarter-life crisis.” After graduating with a degree in painting and printmaking, she found herself moving from one desk job to another. “I really had almost a toxic relationship with art,” she said. “It both felt like something I was pressured to do and there was a part of my identity that I had lost not wanting to do it anymore.” Unsure of how to continue, she stepped away from her long-time passion.
Then Nisbett adopted a hyperactive dog, Junie, and took up hiking to get some of her new pup’s energy out. It didn’t take long for trail time to help fill the creative void. Through her adventures, Nisbett slowly returned to drawing as a method of observation. Compact and easier to carry in her backpack, watercolors became her go-to medium.
Unlike her previous paintings, which tended towards social commentary, experiences drove her newer sketches. It was almost like starting from scratch, exploring different subject matter and easing the pressure she’d felt to create work that spoke to a grander meaning.
In 2018, Nisbett decided to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. The monumental task was something that appealed to her “all-in” personality. “It was really intimidating, and it was something that I felt was so far out of my capability that it was just the passion project that I needed,” Nisbett said. At the last minute, she decided to pack a sketchbook and some paints.
On her very first day, someone gave Nisbett the trail name Picasso after seeing her mix paints. Although she didn’t like the trail name, she adopted it as a motivator during her hike. “If people are going to call me Picasso, I should really live up to that,” she said. Instead of worrying about the results, she found relief in creating for the sake of creating.
While out on the trail, Nisbett did most of her sketching when she got into camp each night, taking a carefree attitude about her subject matter. “I’m going to draw this tree bark because it’s in front of me and I’m too lazy to get up and move to another part of camp where I’d have a better view of something,” she said.
Nisbett noticed that as her miles increased, the frequency of the paintings decreased. Ultimately, she didn’t want it to turn into a chore that she had to complete every day. Allowing herself the freedom to paint and sketch when she felt like it helped reignite the creative spark she’d lost. “When it’s a sketchbook, if that page doesn’t look right, you just turn to the next page,” she said.
After reaching Mt. Katahdin in September of 2018, Nisbett returned to North Carolina with renewed energy to continue painting. She dug into her sketchbook, creating larger works from quick sketches she’d made along her hike.
Most importantly, she allowed herself to create the work she wanted to create, not what society demanded she put out into the world. “Changing my approach and changing what my goals were with creating had a drastic impact on the way that the artwork actually looked,” Nisbett said. While she often employed darker, moodier oils in her pre-A.T. work, Nisbett’s current landscapes feature bright colors and swirling lines to capture movement through dreamy landscapes.
While the paintings are based on her own personal adventures on the A.T. and Blue Ridge Parkway, Nisbett creates with the hope that viewers will find connection through their own experiences on trails. She believes there’s a shared intimacy in finding meaning in something that doesn’t have a concrete interpretation.
Another special place for Nisbett is the Roan Highlands, the mountain range straddling the North Carolina-Tennessee border. It was there on her thru-hike that she trudged through freshly fallen snow after learning her grandfather was sick. Alone, cold, and upset, she struggled physically and emotionally. But it’s also where she led her brother and his friends on a grueling hike, shared the spot with her fiance, and camped with her mother for the first time.
It’s a place that represents coming full circle. “It had been such a raw and negative emotional experience,” Nisbett said. “I was able to go back and see how much I had developed and grown from those negative experiences.”
Today, Nisbett carries her passion for art and hiking into her work. Among other duties at Blue Blaze Brewing Co., she heads up a hiking club and coordinates a speaker series for the Charlotte-based brewery. During the warmer months, she also leads guided trips with Blue Ridge Hiking Company.
She’s gone on to thru-hike other long-distance trails like the Foothills Trail and Superior Hiking Trail, as well as parts of the Mountains-to-Sea and Continental Divide Trails. Along the way, she’s rediscovered the ways in which art can be a powerful common denominator among a community of people.
Cover photo: A page from the sketchbook Nisbett kept on her thru-hike. All imags courtesy of Nisbett