Artists Gone Wild: Rob Mullen | Canoeroots Magazine | Rapid Media
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Artists Gone Wild: Rob Mullen Photo Linda Besse

The expedition painter

When Rob Mullen flies into Minakokosa Lake late this summer, about 10 miles north of the Kobuk River in northwest Alaska, he’ll have his painting boards and a field kit with acrylic paints, brushes, pens, pencils and pallets. The small supplies backpack will be stowed with his other expedition gear in the canoe. Opportunity is everything for wilderness artists, he says.

“I may not use all of them, but I will do lots of sketches,” says Mullen. The award-winning owner of Paint n’ Paddle Studio in Bolton, Vermont, Mullen is also the executive director of the Wilderness River Expedition Art Fellowship, a non-profit he founded in 2005 to encourage what he calls, “the art of conservation.”

Each summer, Mullen invites a small group of artists to immerse themselves in nature on wilderness paddling journeys. Thirty, including renowned wildlife artist, Robert Bateman, have joined him over the years.

“On tough trips I may not get a lot of work done because I’m exhausted,” Mullen explains. “On a 2013 trip (to Alaska) I got four paintings done the entire time. But if something grabs me and is inspirational, and on solo trips especially, I’ll pull over and paint.”

Mullen’s Alaskan foray this season completes a three-year, 900- mile circumnavigation of the western Brooks Range by canoe with other artists. The route began on the Noatak River in 2012. The group finishes on the Kobuk River this year, having paddled 350 miles to Kotzebue, Alaska, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea. It is Mullen’s 16th art expedition organized to highlight Boreal forest conservation.

“Canoeing and painting are both a way of exploring wilderness,” says Mullen, who spent 16 years in New York City working as a freelance commercial artist before having a change of heart. He left the city in 1994 to return to Vermont, where he grew up.

“I did cigarettes, cosmetics and booze. The work was mind- numbing,” Mullen exclaims. “So, I’d go on big canoe trips. They were my tonic from Manhattan advertising.”

“Doing wilderness art is my way of trying to remind people that we are part of nature. Canoeing has been the heart and soul of my work,” he adds.

It also nearly got him in trouble in 2013 when Mullen was charged by a grizzly bear while on the Reed River in Alaska. The charge forced Mullen to put a warning shot by the bear’s ear. He later painted the scene.

A self-taught artist, Mullen began drawing as a child. He got his college degree in biology, planning to become a biological illustrator, but the money was too good in Manhattan, “A lion’s den of intense pressure,” he calls it.

That ability to produce under pressure aids him as an artist in the bush today. The Alaskan tundra can be a tough place to paint. High winds and rain can be a problem. The bugs, he says, are brutal.

“You can pick a sheltered spot to deal with the wind, and you can get under a tarp in the rain, but bugs are a huge problem,” Mullen says. “They get in your face and then into your paint.” 

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See more of Rob Mullen’s work at paintnpaddlestudio.com. 

Screen_Shot_2015-07-08_at_11.54.42_AM.pngThis article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Canoeroots Magazine in our Artists Gone Wild feature. For more great content, click here and subscribe to Canoeroot’s print and digital editions, or click here to read the current issue.

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