Earlier this summer, at Firefly Coffeehouse in Oregon, Wisconsin, I discovered a small wicker basket of 5-inch square landscape photographs by Natalie Jo Wright. What struck me about Natalie's images was that many of them are of cloudy skies, fog, and snow-covered earth. I reached out to Natalie and was thrilled when, a few weeks later, we were drinking coffee at her kitchen table on a humid, cloudy day and talking about life in a small town, love, and art. We talked about the qualities that she looks for in all of her art, from her landscape images to her portrait painting.
Although Natalie has lived all over the U.S., her roots are in the Midwest. She grew up in a small town in Illinois and currently lives in Stoughton, Wisconsin with her young son, Oscar. She has degrees from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and the Rhode Island School of Design. She has lived on both coasts, in New York City and Los Angeles, as well as towns and cities in between.
While Natalie photographs a lot of different things, many of her images are starkly beautiful, with bare brown trees and diffused light from a gray sky. It is easy to love a landscape when the sky is blue and it’s 75 degrees and sunny. But to love a landscape under every circumstance struck me as something special. When I asked her about it, she said that what most people would consider bad weather is her favorite. "It's an instant mood," she said. "There’s a lot of depth in a landscape when there’s more of a mood attached. Even painting in my studio I much prefer a gray day or storms or snow. I could probably live in Alaska or Seattle and get a lot of painting done. But I’m a Midwest girl."
For Natalie, photography is meditation, a quality of attention to the present moment. "What I love about the photograph is that I've stopped," she said. "I've made a decision that I'm going to be in that space. I love taking country roads and I'm always looking. I don't think that will ever go away."
Natalie is a lifelong artist and has experimented with many forms, including acting, baking, textile and wallpaper design, jewelry making, and printmaking. Currently, she is painting animal and human portraits. The mood that infuses her photography also shows up in her painting.
"A while ago I did a self-portrait," she said, "and my aunt told me, 'I saw your portrait and I just don’t see your glow and your smile. It doesn’t seem like you. You seem angry.' And I said, 'Well, yeah, there’s a lot to be angry about.'”
"Were you angry at the time?" I asked her.
"I felt much more comfortable painting myself looking stern than smiling or trying to look pretty. I did self-portraits in college, as well, and I always made myself look horrible," she laughed. After the comment from her aunt, Natalie wrote about self-portraits in her journal, which sparked inquiry about selfies and how women should look, which in turn sparked her recent series of human portraits. "I told my friends, 'When I take your photograph I don’t want you to smile and if you want to frown, great.'" Natalie takes a similar approach to her pet portraits. "I want a serious face. There is a mood I’m looking for in the eyes. I will not paint the dog that is smiling with the tongue hanging out. It’s so goofy!"
I love an 80-degree summer day, but I also love rainy days or even a raw, single-digit January morning. As I looked at Natalie's landscape images, I thought about the full spectrum of human emotion, from the feel-good ones (like falling in love or getting good news) to the feel-bad ones (like mourning the death of a loved one or getting fired). I also thought about the span of a human life, from the easy beauty of youth to the more complex beauty of old age. We are capable of such range and diversity, just like weather and the Midwestern landscape.