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Water(color) warrior

Rooted in nature, alumna's art inspires environmental protection

Fall 2017 | By Meghan Lepisto

Watercolor of Julian Bay
Julian Bay, Stockton Island, Watercolor, 2017. (6 x 14 inches) Painting by Janet Moore.


On a wooden pier or sandy beach, near a crucial wetland, or amongst the rugged cliffs of the Apostle Islands, wherever Janet Moore finds herself painting, she uses water from that locale. A watercolor artist for more than 30 years, when she dabs her brush into local water she feels a deep connection to that setting and to the layers of history contained in its water.

Moore can vividly recall, while on a backcountry excursion, the first time she dunked a jar into Lake Superior to retrieve water for painting.

“I was painting Lake Superior with water that just came out of the lake,” she remembers. “You can’t control things 100 percent with watercolor; it does what it does. And I think that’s what was beautiful about it. There was this aspect of the water speaking in a way.”

The practice has now become more intentional for Moore and something that she has adopted with all of her paintings, taking note of how water in different places exhibits different properties and appreciating the unpredictability of it all.

“To me, it’s a way of communicating with the water,” she says.

For Moore, who earned a bachelor’s degree in art and environmental studies in 2013 and for decades has painted botanical subjects and landscapes, art has always been informed by and directly connected to her experiences with nature – for example, capturing the spirit of a lake as she paints on-site amongst the wind, water and waves.

Water color birch trees
Healing Birch, Watercolor, 2017. (5 x 9 inches) Painting by Janet Moore.


GROWING UP IN COLUMBIA COUNTY, Wisconsin, Moore saw a stark contrast in the ways people interact with the environment. Her childhood home was bordered on one side by a 700-acre state natural area. On the other side of the property, a county landfill contaminated the water table with mercury and volatile organic compounds.

“I was raised with these two really different views of nature – pristine nature, and what can happen if we don’t use our common sense and take care of things,” she says.

Today, based in Bayfield, Wisconsin, along the shores of Lake Superior, Moore sees her mission as that of a water warrior, using the power of art to help preserve this vital natural resource.

"Fresh water is so important
to protect and defend. I see
art as being just another way 
of doing that – kind of a 
backdoor way of speaking
for the place and the water

“Fresh water is so important to protect and defend,” Moore says. “I see art as being just another way of doing that – kind of a backdoor way of speaking for the place and the water.”

Moore recently launched and directs Beyond Words (, a multimedia initiative and series of place-based workshops aimed at illuminating the scenic beauty of Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands, as well as the ecological health and environmental threats of the surrounding watershed, which the region’s tourism and fishing industries, and local people, depend on.

Supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and with participation from the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, National Park Service, Ojibwe cultural experts, scientists and guest artists, the project crosses cultures and generations and offers an indigenous perspective on water rights. Culminating in a public exhibition in Washburn in November, works from a variety of artists and workshop participants will offer viewers a geographic journey through the watershed – its past, present and future, and the traditions of those who call it home.

Janet Moore
Janet Moore

EXPRESSING WHAT SHE SEES AND FEELS in the natural world through art is one of the aspects of her work Moore finds most rewarding, and something that she strives to bring out in others. She has taught a range of art-based environmental education and professional development workshops through the UW-Madison Arboretum’s Earth Partnership for Schools initiative, UW-Stevens Point, the LEAF K-12 School Forestry Program and Northland College.

Geared primarily toward teachers and K-12 students, these in-the-field classes offer participants direct experiences in nature and then allow them to make art based on those observations, for example with illustrated nature journals. Her goal is two-fold: through art, connect people to nature – encouraging them to slow down and look closely – and to their creativity.

“I enjoy when people who do not think of themselves as artists discover their creativity or discover a new way of looking at the world,” Moore says. “This happens so much – people think that they can’t draw or paint or that they’re not creative. I just step over that; we just get out there. Seeing people gain confidence, seeing them get that connection, that’s extremely satisfying.”

Moore says she was called to this path many years ago while accompanying one of her two sons on a fall walk through the woods in his first-grade class.

“I went along as a parent helper and thought, wow, they really need to do more of this – the woods are right next to the school, why can’t we be getting kids out in nature more?” she remembers thinking.

Immediately, visions of creating a school forest began flooding her head. Working first as a volunteer for the McFarland School District, and then on staff part-time as an outdoor education coordinator – one of just a few such positions in the state of Wisconsin at the time – she forged ahead to build trails through the woods, nurture a school prairie, and create a K-12 education plan, earning several awards along the way.

“It was an awesome experience,” she says. “That job didn’t exist when I got there and I just kept working at it.”

It was while working for the school district that Moore felt drawn to continuing her own education. She had initially attended UW-Madison in the 1980s as a fine arts major, but discontinued her studies soon after, feeling unsure of how a bachelor’s degree would benefit her intended career as an exhibiting artist.

This time, however, Moore clearly saw how returning to UW could help advance her goals and she was motivated to complete her degree.

“Working in the education system, I realized if I didn’t get some letters behind my name, I wouldn’t be able to do some of the things I really wanted to be able to do,” she says. “And I also looked at school as a way of deepening and furthering my knowledge, not just job training or getting qualified to do something.”

Water color ice melt
Unlocking, Watercolor, 2016. (4.5 x 10 inches) Painting by Janet Moore.


REJOINING COLLEGE as a returning adult student brought its share of challenges, but Moore says for her, the experience was greatly outweighed by advantages.

“I jumped back in and I have to say the second time around was just awesome. I had a much better idea of who I was, what I wanted to do in life, and what I wanted to do with my art,” she says. “I really valued the learning community and being part of that more than I would have otherwise, and I saw the need for more formalized education.”

She emphasizes that the real-world experiences she brought to her studies lent valuable perspective and time management skills. In addition, she was inspired to set a positive example for her two sons, then 13 and 18 years old.

“I wanted to be able to show my sons that you can complete things. It’s never too late to decide that you want to do something,” she says.

Moore earned scholarship support from a variety of campus sources, including the Nelson Institute Community Environmental Scholars Program (CESP). As she pursued dual degrees in art and environmental studies, she appreciated the diversity of available coursework and the varying disciplines represented by her CESP classmates, all focused around a central core.

“What we had in common was this interest in the environment, how humans connect with the environment, and how we use that knowledge to use our various gifts,” Moore says.

The experience also offered Moore validation of her artistic pursuits at a time when she yearned for it, citing classes such as Professor Bill Cronon’s exploration of American environmental history as a pivotal moment.

“That was the first time I had seen somebody in a lecture really tie in how the aesthetic response through art is a force for forming our attitudes toward wilderness, and how important that is,” Moore says. “That, to me, was kind of the aha moment. Art can be transformative personally, but at the point I was in my career, I wanted a larger purpose to what I was doing.”

“As an artist, I had always thought ‘Well, how important is that?’ You’re making these pretty things, then people buy them and put them in their house, and after a while that starts to feel a little empty,” she continues. “But then I started to see how the images we make, and what we communicate about nature, touch people on a different level than knowledge alone. I realized that art could be just as valid of a form of activism.”

Moore has since also earned a master’s degree in environmental education from UW-Stevens Point, studying drawing as a learning tool in science. Her master’s research – based on a study of 400 middle school students who took part in a tree identification activity using a conventional dichotomous key (a biological tool to help users identify organisms in the natural world) – measured the effect of either passively looking at images and descriptions of leaf structures and branching activity, or actively observing and drawing these tree elements. Both qualitative and quantitative observations showed that the children who were actively drawing were more engaged and had improved knowledge retention.

“I started to get such a sense of the power of connecting with nature that art can bring,” Moore says. “It’s a tool and a way to engage, and I saw that getting kids and people out in nature was so valuable.”

As Moore continues to merge art, nature and environmental education, she encourages everyone to seek out opportunities to incorporate art into their daily life and to see how art can help foster a deeper appreciation of nature. “Get yourself a sketchbook or journal, carve out 20 minutes, and just start doing it so it becomes a habit, even if you only have time for a quick sketch or a quick writing,” she advises. Or, do like Moore and always carry a sketchbook and a few art supplies in your bag, to be ready for the next signal of artistic inspiration.

And, she stresses, never underestimate your creative power. “For art, you don’t have to try to be fantastic, you can just do it. It has value for so many people.”

To view Moore’s watercolor paintings and workshop schedule, visit her website,

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