Nora Sherwood worked in tech for much of her career, making maps that helped planners decide where to put the next McDonald’s restaurant and where to draw lines for voting districts. Her career was going well but turning 50 was a kind of wake-up call.
“You know, life is long, and you need a few chapters,” quips Sherwood.
By the time she was 18, Sherwood had already experienced many chapters. Her father’s career in the U.S. diplomatic service meant she grew up in Sweden, Finland, Colombia, Chile, Spain and The Philippines. But planning the next one presented a few challenges.
“I thought and thought and thought about what I would like to do and the thing that I kept coming back to, was a class that I took in high school, and it was a zoology class.”
Sherwood admits to being one of the “weirdos” that enjoyed dissecting animals and seeing all the detailed systems inside them. She also always enjoyed antique botanical artwork. Now at mid-life, she was craving a deeper connection with the natural world. Was there a way to combine all those passions? Sherwood decided to give it try.
She moved to Seattle to enroll in a University of Washington’s nine-month natural science illustration program.
“I quickly realized that I was not going to be successful, because I’m not an artist. Or I wasn’t an artist. I guess I am an artist now,” Sherwood laughs.
To make up for her lack of artistic grounding, Sherwood also enrolled in drawing and color theory classes at Gage Academy.
“I basically doubled up on my program. That was very difficult at my age, to try to learn something new. I worked my tail off,” she remembers. “But I really believe in the 10,000-hour concept. It’s not talent. It’s hard work and a deep desire to learn how to do it.”
A few hundred hours into her new pursuit, Sherwood had a breakthrough.
“Your brain likes to take over and say, ‘This is what that thing looks like, so draw this.’ But your eyeballs are seeing something different. I can literally remember the moment when I was able to get my brain to quiet and just really connect with my eyeballs, and actually draw what I saw.”
The assignment was to make a detailed drawing of a chocolate chip sea star.
“I was focusing on the light receptors on the tips of the arms of the sea star,” she recalls. “So I was looking at that sea star arm, and I was trying to draw it, trying to draw it, and all of the sudden it’s like, ‘Oh! I have to draw it like I’m seeing!’”
Now more than four years after graduating from the program, Sherwood spends her time surrounded with colored pencils, watercolors and ink. Every walk in the woods or along the beach near her home in Lincoln City connects her with the Pacific wrens, sea lions and giant salamanders that populate her artwork. Sherwood also teaches workshops in botanical and science illustration at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.
“I learned how to draw, and it hurt, but I did it. So if I can do it, other people can do it.”