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Wildlife manager by day, Ross Hier puts watercolor to paper as wildlife artist

CROOKSTON-Ross Hier's painting reflects his interests, his passion for prairies, wetlands, wildlife, fish and forests.All things nature, in other words.It's what he does-and who he is.He's known it since he was 7 years old."Nature was just-it's j...

The title, "Weather Coming," says it all in this watercolor scene from Crookston nature artist Ross Hier.
The title, "Weather Coming," says it all in this watercolor scene from Crookston nature artist Ross Hier.
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CROOKSTON-Ross Hier's painting reflects his interests, his passion for prairies, wetlands, wildlife, fish and forests.

All things nature, in other words.

It's what he does-and who he is.

He's known it since he was 7 years old.

"Nature was just-it's just such a part of me that my wife sometimes gets upset about my hunting seasons," said Hier, 59, whose passion takes him afield every fall for prairie grouse, waterfowl and sandhill cranes. "But you take that away, I'm not who I am then."

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Area wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Crookston, Hier says his painting is more than a hobby. His watercolors are a way for him to share what he sees in the natural world or, perhaps, give people a chance to reflect on simpler times.

Just like composers have melodies swirling around in their brains, so it is with Hier and his artwork.

"I've always been creative, and I had to have creative outlets," Hier said. "Compositions and ideas are always floating around in my ahead.

"A lot of my artwork often starts with a phrase."

Such was the case a couple of years ago, when Hier did a painting for the North Dakota Chapter of The Wildlife Society. He called the piece "Fortune Tellers" and says the title came before the painting, which shows a monarch butterfly perched on an old buffalo horn and a bumblebee buzzing near a patch of prairie flowers.

The insects, both pollinators, are species in decline.

"Everybody understood what it meant," Hier said. "It could have been prairie canaries or something like that, but these little creatures have the ability to tell us we're screwing things up pretty badly."

Early inspiration

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A native of Jackson, Minn., on the Iowa border, Hier grew up in an era when wetlands in that part of southwest Minnesota still were abundant, when going out and shooting a couple of pheasant roosters after school was part of the fall routine.

Those memories and experiences helped shape his view of the natural world. Today, the places he frequented are gone.

"Two roosters after school, that was just the norm," Hier said. "You'd go walk a ditch, and that's all you had to do. There were 40-acre marshes, and now people wouldn't believe we used to kill ducks there. They were beautiful marshes."

Hier, who served as a judge for the DNR's Minnesota Waterfowl Stamp contest for five years in the early 2000s, says he used to submit artwork for the competition but stopped because of the preference for paintings that look like photographs.

Hier's watercolor pieces have a softer touch that leave more to the imagination.

"I like to be anatomically accurate and somewhat realistic, but I want people to know it's not a photograph, either," Hier said.

Les Kouba, the renowned Minnesota wildlife artist who specialized in waterfowl paintings, was an inspiration, Hier said, a master of watercolor.

"I just couldn't get enough of him when I was a kid," Hier said. "I looked at every book that was published on him, and if you've been out there on a cold, blustery November day hunting scaup, that's how it was-that how it felt."

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The inspiration is apparent in much of Hier's work-especially the watercolor paintings of marsh or waterfowl hunting scenes.

"I love painting wet-on-wet paper," Hier said. "You can paint on dry paper and get very detailed or you can put pigments-washes, they're called-on wet paper, and it's just a surprise every time.

"Once I started painting with watercolors, each one's a learning experience."

Hier has a painting in his living room he calls "The Diver Hunters," which he painted in 1982 in his parents' basement while home from graduate school. A hunter and his dog, their backs to the viewer, watch diver ducks in the marsh. The clouds-gray on top and blue on the bottom-are the picture of cold.

"I remember that painting vividly because I was in the basement painting, and my mom came down and said, 'That must be you because that's your hunting hat,' " Hier recalls. "I said I don't know how to paint anybody else."

Composition is crucial

Painting people, Hier says, isn't his strong point; nor is sketching, which he finds "quite mundane."

"I really do prefer to get pigment on paper," Hier said. "You have to have composition and, I don't know, you can feel good about a painting but you realize it's mostly about the composition.

"Some are just really good and make people's eyes light up. And others, you're just going, 'meh, I didn't quite hit a homerun on that.' "

Humor never hurts, either. Hier's painting, "Noisy Neighbors," depicts two pileated woodpeckers doing what they do while a saw-whet owl tries to catch some shuteye in a small cavity in the same tree.

"Those pileateds are just pounding away," he said.

Hier, who paints in a small upstairs studio in the house he shares with his wife, Leela, says painting is a form of relaxation. He works in spurts. As a DNR manager, spring is prescribed burning season, and Hier does little painting. He'll paint more as summer approaches and usually paints every night during the water.

"You can resurrect whatever season you want in the winter," he said.

Prairie plants and American Indian imagery also are favorites. Whatever he paints, Hier says the idea first has to come together in his head.

"If I'm in kind of a slump, I'll do a marsh scene sunset just to get the juices flowing and colors in my head," Hier said. "I love painting scenes with lots of birds in the air because I remember that as a kid. You still see it sometimes, but it certainly isn't with the frequency we used to see it."

Besides providing a creative outlet, painting could help supplement his retirement income when the day comes, Hier says.

"Mostly, my commissions for my watercolors are basically my fall hunting money, and if I could do that in retirement, save the retirement budget a little bit, that would be fine," Hier said.

"I don't know how good of an artist I am or if I am an artist," he added. "I just like to put stuff on paper."

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