by SC Reporter Reese Holiday
In years past, Rachel Pierce would be found working behind a news desk. Now, the TV anchor turned artist can be greeted painting colorful scenes of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge for the 2021’s Artist in Residence program.
The refuge, and the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, chose Pierce to be their second Artist in Residence in May. The program was created in 2019 in the spirit of the refuge’s founder and artist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, the DDWS website states. Darling was known for his conservation cartoons and paintings of nature, something that Pierce also resembles in her many works of Florida’s wildlife.
Pierce added that not only are their styles similar, but their roots in Iowa. Both Darling and Pierce spent time in Iowa for their separate careers, making the move to be the next Artist in Residence more natural for Pierce.
“It just seems like such a natural, serendipitous thing for me to end up painting out there and to be a part of the ‘Ding’ story,” Pierce said.
Pierce’s first project as the Artist in Residence was displaying some of her work at the refuge’s 75th Anniversary in November. In 2021, Pierce will be painting live along Wildlife Drive during the first Tuesday and third Thursday every month from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Jan. 5. She will also hold nature-walk art lessons for the first Friday of every month where the first 10 visitors at the refuge’s Visitor and Education Center flagpole by 10 a.m. will receive a free art journal and pencil.
In these demonstrations and lessons, Pierce said the main focus will be the surrounding nature of the refuge. With her love of Florida’s natural wildlife, she said it won’t be hard to find the subject of her next painting.
“I just absolutely love ‘Ding’,” Pierce said. “I love the plants, I love birds, I love the people they brought in and when they reached out, I thought that it would be a great way for me to connect nature, my love of painting nature and connecting with people.”
Being the 2021 Artist in Residence is not the first time Pierce has had ties with the refuge. In 2015, Pierce arrived in Fort Myers as a veteran broadcast journalist, anchoring NBC2’s morning desk for five years. It was here where she discovered “Ding,” fell in love and wanted to make it shine.
“It first started with me as a TV anchor doing stories [at the refuge] and really bringing some of their programs and some of the events they had to light,” Pierce said. “I just fell in love with ‘Ding’ and I wanted everyone to know about it.”
It’s not just Pierce that has got to know the refuge, however, as their relationship goes both ways. Pierce said that the refuge’s Wildlife Society reached out to her shortly after becoming a fulltime artist to be the next Artist in Residence. Society President Birgie Miller said this had to do with the ever-growing relationship between Pierce and the refuge.
“It is a relationship that she has had with the Refuge and the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society team through the years and her passion for wildlife and protecting places like “Ding” Darling,” Miller said.
Although Pierce spent most of her career as a journalist, she still had a passion for art. With her mother being an artist, that passion started at an early age with a young Pierce face painting at her mother’s exhibits. Eventually, this passion manifested into Pierce donating her work, then selling it, then creating her own business all while working as a journalist.
However, with some persuasion from her husband, Pierce decided to retire from journalism earlier this year, investing her time into her craft. With the success Pierce has received since starting her own business, she said that she has felt more natural and creative putting paint brush to canvas.
“It was hard to leave, but every day that I’m out I just feel like a new person,” Pierce said. “I’m getting to be creative. I get to do what I want. I’m getting all of these amazing opportunities. It’s so crazy how this business has just exploded since leaving the station.”
Pierce’s style consists of colorful oil and acrylic paintings, combining a modern look with Florida’s nature. She recognizes that this is her style, but she also recognizes that art can be expressed in many different mediums. While she’ll be able to share her work as the next Artist in Residence, she acknowledges no matter the skill level, art is about expression.
“You don’t have to be able to draw or paint to be an artist,” Pierce said. “There are so many different ways to express yourself and to be creative. It doesn’t have to be in these very traditional ways that you think of.”