In My Backyard

Documenting North Carolina's Diverse Ecology

Kristen Orr and Kate Fleming met working at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, a little over two years ago. Although Kristen has since moved to Boston, the two artists recently jumped at the chance to collaborate. In My Backyard is their visual art project highlighting the diverse ecology of North Carolina. It began as a proposal for a mural for Winston Salem (Kristen’s childhood home) in February, but after another proposal was selected, the two couldn’t shake their idea. With the mentorship of Dr. Peter Weigl at Wake Forest University, they’re pressing onwards.

We had the chance to meet Kristen and Kate at our Calloway Forest Preserve near Southern Pines. Calloway is a longleaf pine forest that was aggressively harvested for pine needles. This, paired with fire suppression, caused much of the open longleaf pine forest to become overgrown, which led to a decline in bobwhite quail and the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. Management efforts have reintroduced fire into this landscape – and we are seeing a healthy forest return.

Kristen and Kate reached out to the Conservancy to learn more about the Sandhills while traveling across the state conducting research for their project. The pair took a week to travel through different ecological systems throughout the state -- they visited sites like Roan Mountain, Linville Gorge and the Uwharries before meeting us at Calloway.

At each place, Kristen and Kate take extensive notes, paint, and sketch. It’s a process that can last the entire day. They take one photo at each place – a selfie, a way of light-heartedly documenting themselves in each place. Beyond that, they try to avoid pictures. "Photos are lazy for us," Kate laughingly told us. Instead, when they see something they want to remember, they take a 10-minute break and sketch it. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how the hours add up! Generally, Kristen likes to focus on the small details in her sketches while Kate uses oil paints to capture the big picture. "We're getting a range of information so that later on we're not like, 'Oh, I wish we would have gotten this.' That way, we have freedom later on to pick a direction," mentioned Kristen.


Their project requires a degree of flexibility – Kristen and Kate ran through a list of car troubles, navigation issues, and bad weather. We feel their pain, like fieldwork, things don't always go as planned. Their unofficial motto quickly became “We’ll figure it out!” Hopes for the project remain open-ended for now, since they’re still in the beginning stages, but Kristen and Kate love the idea of an exhibit including their process work – the sketches, paints, and audio taken at each location – and making prints. The two look forward to seeing where their project takes them, perhaps it’s laying the groundwork for something bigger. "My ultimate goal in life is to road trip around the U.S. and paint," explained Kate.

We’ll be following along with In My Backyard in the coming months. Check out Kristen and Kate’s websites if you’d like to, as well!


Article written by Sydney Bezanson, Philanthropy & Communications Intern



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