Excerpts from Drive Magazine’s Interview with Liz Nicholas


1. You are a painter. Or do you prefer being called an artist?


I have been calling myself an artist, educator, experimenter, and animal lover for years. What I like to say is that I am most passionate about the scaly, furry, finned, and feathered. Of course, my passion encompasses the welfare and health of the planet and nature. I don't see animals any less important or different from the places in which they live. Not that I don't regard the “two legged” as important. It's just I find the most joy with the animals.


Formally, I received my degree in Fine Arts (Commercial Graphics and Weaving/Textiles), so technically I am an artist. I love multimedia – mixing all art forms to create something unique and one of a kind.


I have had something in my hand all my life. If it wasn’t a pencil or brush, it was something furry or wiggling, much to my mother’s dismay. My two passions have been and remain animals and creating art.


2. What is Art with a Conscience?


When I turned 40, I had a bit of what most would call a mid-life crisis. I call it “my awakening.” I decided to face life head on and do all the things I longed to do but could not find time for. I decided to go skydiving. I bungee jumped off a bridge. I took time to stop and smell the flowers backpacking into the wilderness, and I traveled.


One of my most memorable experiences was my time in Africa. It was in that time I saw so clearly how poverty and unrest and economical and political upheaval impacted children and wild animals. It was the most beautiful time of my life in a very sobering way.


Africa was so diverse – beautiful, wild, and dangerous. I was mesmerized by all of it. I was able to purchase painting supplies, and I sat in places where I found myself surrounded by animals of one kind or another.


It was rare to see domestic dogs as pets there. I loved dogs and missed mine dearly, and I was so lucky to have a small group of them in one compound where I stayed. They constantly got into tiffs with each other because they all were volleying for a spot next to me. They knew I would crack open the macadamia nuts on the ground for them to eat.


On that same plantation, on multiple afternoons as I sat to paint the flowers, many times I would keep company with a stunning little green snake. I told the man who owned the property about it, and he told me that I was having a conversation with a green mamba. I was in total shock, but I was smiling and delighted inside to have had the encounters.


As the days quickly dissolved, more and more animals and I crossed paths. Guinea fowl would come and sit next to me as if they were tame, and birds in the air would fly across my path from all directions as if they were saying, “Notice me.”


I came back to the United States quiet and humbled by my experiences. I can't put into words how I truly felt returning, but one thing was clear. It was time for me to use my own gift to speak for those who cannot. So the creation of my website “Art with a Conscience” came into being – to tell a story, educate people on the plight of a particular animal, or just to give anyone who wandered across it something to think about.


3. Tell me about your paintings. Does each portrait tell a story?


Most of the time the compositions of my paintings are motivated by the real story of the animal being portrayed. I would hear of the plight of a specific species or animal, and their story seemed important, yet so unknown. I felt that by painting them, I could put their story into a visual advertisement.


I think that using a colorful image to tell a story appeals most to children. This draws them in to learn and understand the details of the animal’s situation. Then they ask questions about “why,” giving an adult the opportunity to educate them on how things could be different. If we have the opportunity to show children compassion at an early age – for all creatures and this planet – they become more well-rounded adults. 


The subject of each painting does tell a story. Many times the owner or animal keeper tells me their story, and I have the opportunity to tell the world via the painting and then my website.


I also get the chance to introduce the viewer to the many sanctuaries that care for wildlife. For instance, four of my paintings (“Thomas’ Transformation,” “The Fab Five,” “Four in the Family,” and “Time to Go – Doc’s Story,” respectively) introduce viewers to Hacienda de los Milagros Burro and Horse Sanctuary in Chino, Arizona; the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee; SaveTheHorses.org Equine Rescue Organization; and the Marine Mammal Conservancy.


Highlighting these non-profit organizations and bringing them to light along with all the amazing work they do helps the creatures of this planet that many have forgotten. If I can inspire one person to think about their actions toward nature and change their way into a more conscious way, then I feel good about what I have created.


4. In addition, you are a wildlife rehabilitator. What led you down that road? 


I have been working with wildlife in some capacity for about the last 10 years. My love for animals and wildlife started when I was very little. I remember my mother scolding me for putting a frozen locust in the dryer’s lint catcher to thaw it out. She insisted it was dead. Needless to say, she was very unhappy when she heard it rubbing its legs together singing a song of revival. There were incidents throughout my childhood much like that, with chipmunks, mice, birds, and squirrels. I remember all of them most clearly, and, looking back on that time, I know now it paved the path for the work I do today.


I started formally working with wildlife in a volunteer capacity at a local wildlife center. My role as a nature trail guide evolved into a docent for the center, and then I started teaching a class I created called “Art and Nature” on the weekends.


With my educational experience and after working with two wildlife centers, I decided I wanted to do wildlife rehabilitation on my own. It's not a job for those with weak stomachs or who are not willing to stay along for the ride. Rehabbers tend to displaced, sick, injured, or orphaned wild animals around the clock, sometimes 365 days of the year. Our main goal is to retain them long enough until they regain their health and the skills they require to function normally and live self-sufficiently back in the wild. The definition may seem simple, but there is a staggering amount of work behind those words, especially since most rehabbers I know work jobs full time on top of taking care of their animals.


I became personally licensed in 2007 to rehabilitate small mammals, turtles, and snakes. I have rehabilitated close to a thousand animals during that time. The animals I can tend to include grey and flying squirrels, chipmunks and mice, ground hogs and Virginia opossums (the last two being my favorites).


I have had the pleasure of being called out on rescue missions for other injured species as well; mostly to rescue, triage, and transport them to a vet, local wildlife center, and/or other specially licensed rehabber for that species for ongoing care. (See photo of me with one of www.HawkTalk.org non-releasable owl ambassadors.) I have rescued car-hit owls, gun-shot hawks, geese with arrows through their bodies, foxes in sewers, squirrels in attics, opossums in crawlspaces, mowed-over bunnies, and snakes under buildings, to name a few). I can't count the hundreds of calls from people who were upset because their “cat dragged in something” that was unidentifiable, but still moving.


5. How do you hope to make this planet a better place?


I know with every opportunity I have to speak to someone, be it 10 minutes or one hour, I have the opportunity to enlighten more minds and perhaps save thousands of animals, especially when I have an animal with me.


I will continue to teach special community outreach education programs, coupling with friends, other rehabbers, and wildlife centers. I will also continue creating my own personal education programs that teach children ways to reconnect with nature, protect and restore wildlife habitats, and peacefully coexist in a compassionate and safe honoring way.


Today’s kids spend as many as six hours a day wired to electronic screens instead of playing outside. I believe that today’s overscheduled kids are increasingly plugged in to electronic devices and unplugged from nature. By giving our children a daily “Green Hour” – a bit of time for unstructured play and interaction with the natural world – we can help reverse the nature-child disconnect.


Educators foster awareness, understanding, and wonder. I want to be one of those people changing the world – at least about wildlife – one mind at a time.


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