After asking Kathy Hocker if I could interview her for this blog, I realized that writing about her would be a challenge. She has so many talents! How could I do justice to all of them?
Then we did the interview, and I discovered that it would be easy to cover all her talents because she uses them to create the whole of who she is and what she does.
Kathy’s field is science; her college major was forest ecology. During the interview it became clear that she has her feet firmly planted in the natural world. Every one of her varied talents — art, writing, editing, teaching — become tools she uses to enhance her commitment to the observation, study, and understanding of the world we live in. Her singing weaves it all together.
Kathy Hocker was born in Las Cruces, NM in 1968. After three years the family moved to Edinburgh, Texas, at the very southern tip. When Kathy was six, they all moved to Juneau. Kathy has been in Alaska ever since, except for college and a brief time in California.
She went to Harvard, where she majored in forest ecology. She was interested in biology, and hoped to find her niche there. She got a bachelor’s from Harvard (they call it an AB.) She really wasn’t excited about a master’s in science, but she realized that the path that made her happiest was the one that allowed her to share the beauty and poetry of science. She explains as follows:
1. She sees science as a way to understand the world, calling it a natural and elegant function of our psyches. She says that the fundamentals of science flow in our consciousness.
2. It is her belief that science reveals beauty. She says, “Even during field work, you are in the middle of a wonderful opportunity to notice things of beauty. Being in a very careful state of observing leaves you open to seeing, hearing, and experiencing the beauty around us. There is beauty in the fundamental nature of the universe. You can see lovely symmetry, balance, and interconnections between all things.”
In 1992, Kathy went to California, where she taught at an environmental school. Several counties in the state have outdoor facilities with cabins. She worked with students who were all from schools in Shasta County. The program was based in Whiskeytown, California, near Mt. Shasta. Kathy took these fifth and sixth graders on hikes where she would teach them about natural history. She worked with each group of students for one week. There were enough schools in the county to allow her to teach classes for the entire school year.
In the natural history classes, Kathy taught concepts, but, more important, she taught students how to be, out in the natural world: to look and to listen. They did hands-on activities. For example, they would be blindfolded and would go through a section of forest, just using their hands to find the way. Also, each student would learn one thing, such as the name and use of a plant, and on these hikes, would teach the other students what they had learned.
They took night hikes without flashlights. The first order of the night would be to overcome their fears. They would be scared, giggling to cover their nervousness, or very quiet. Some would say, “I can’t do this.” In time they would come to the realization that there was nothing out there to “get” them. They just observed another face of nature. When the hike was finished, they were proud of themselves for their accomplishment.
Commonly, foxes, owls, and bats occupied their night world. Students learned to identify animal sounds. Listening to the owls was a treat. The area was inhabited by great-horned owls and long-eared owls, among others. Grey foxes at night made a bark/screech that was downright spooky at first, until they learned what made the sound.
The only dangerous encounter in the camp was with a rattlesnake that was found in the boys’ bathroom. They removed it with a snake noose — a pole with a loop at the end. The loop was guided around the snake and then pulled tight. The snake could then be lifted and carried someplace far away.
A most important happening occurred while she taught there. She met Cheryl Cook, who is from the San Diego area and who was also teaching there in 1992. Cheryl played guitar and sang, and soon the two started singing together. It didn’t take long for them to gain their first audiences — the students they taught.
When the teaching year was finished, the two returned together to Juneau. Kathy taught Environmental Education in Juneau in the mid-90s, for a program called Discovery Southeast. Through this program, she became the resident naturalist at Mendenhall River School, a position she held until 1996. As naturalist, Kathy had classes of third, fourth, fifth and sixth graders. Each season she would do a unit with each class, which included a couple hours of classroom time and field trips. They studied aquatic animals, insects, birds, animal tracks, and land forms.
In 1994, the couple got an introduction to living in Gustavus by building a cabin. Kathy’s mother and father owned land here, so Kathy and Cheryl built a cabin on their property. The groundwork was laid for their eventual move here.
Even though Kathy’s major was science, she never let go of her desire for an involvement with art. She went to Fish and Game and showed them some of her drawings. They needed some illustrations for a publication and hired her to draw them. At a chance meeting with her middle school art teacher, Kathy mentioned that she had just been working on these drawings. Her teacher mentioned a graduate program in scientific illustration. Kathy applied to the program at the University of California in Santa Cruz. She was accepted, and she and Cheryl moved there. It was a one-year program in Science Communication. She could choose the science writing or the science illustrating track. Though she had trouble choosing, she decided the art program would give her more skills and techniques.
After their return to Juneau, Kathy went back to working at Discovery Southeast. She was still interested in scientific writing. Internship for that program involved working with an interpretive design company known as Sea Reach, Ltd., based in Sheridan, Oregon. She started illustrating for them; then she began writing interpretive materials. Company projects range from making single interpretive signs to creating interpretive plans for parks, national forests, or visitor centers. A lot of thought goes into what you experience in a visitor center. An interpretive plan helps lay out what messages are communicated, and how those messages get communicated in an engaging and concise way. Kathy travels for Sea Reach, maybe 4 times a year, either to their home office in Oregon or to projects already underway. Just recently she went to Valdez to a Chugach National Forest visitor center to start the process of planning, writing, and designing new exhibits.
In the late 90s she started teaching drawing as a tool for observing and keeping nature journals. Though she worked mostly with youngsters, she had some adult students as well. Using drawing as a tool to develop powers of observation ties back to her California classes, which focused on how to draw, but also to learn more and connect more with the natural world. Her classes in field sketching in California were her favorites, so she decided she wanted to teach the same thing. Her mission in her classes is to help people understand that you don’t have to feel like an artist. Far more important than what is on the page is what is inside you when you are drawing. Kathy says, “There is a human tendency to categorize things, then feel like we’re done with them. I like to delve deeper and observe what the creature is doing. It is important not to pigeonhole a creature into a quick category, as you might miss some wonderful or important things.”
Kathy used the wren, a special bird to her, to illustrate how quiet observation of a creature’s activity can provide unexpected pleasure. If you sit still and watch, very often the tiny wren will run across your feet. Once Kathy was watching a small bird investigating the snowy landscape nearby. A stick poked up from the snow, and next to it was a little tunnel where the snow had melted away from it. The wren found the tunnel and went down it. Kathy waited for some time for it to reemerge; instead, it popped out of the snow in another place. It had dug its own tunnel through the snow to the surface.
Kathy likes to demonstrate, especially with kids, but also with adults. She says, “Get them involved.” As a standard first lesson, Kathy will draw a feather, then have the students draw one. While she is drawing, she wants them to participate. She will say, “Look at the feather. What do you notice about its shape and color? Plan out where we will start your drawing. What should we draw first?” The group usually says, “Start with the stem.” Kathy teaches them some vocabulary: “The stem of a feather is made up of the rachis and calamus. Look at the rachis,” she will say. “Is it in a straight line?”
“No, the center part is curved.”
“Reach up with your finger and draw that curve in the air.”
Kathy will continue to involve them as she draws. This technique is useful, because it removes their inhibitions. The drawing becomes collaborative. They are now part of the process. Next they draw the feather on their own.
Her work took her to different places in the state. She started in Juneau, beginning with community schools and elementary schools. Finally, she taught courses at the University of Alaska. From there, she was put on the state teaching artist’s roster, the Artist in Residence program. She travels a couple of times a year to a different place in the state for this program. The program gives her the opportunity to see more of Alaska and to experience more of the uniqueness of life here. She has traveled by snow machine, lugging all her art materials, along frozen rivers. She has taken a Yupik steam bath. She has eaten Native foods, such as caribou, herring eggs, and seal oil.
In 2001, Kathy and Cheryl bought a house in Juneau, which they owned until 2015. Cheryl started working summers at Glacier Bay as “Captain Cook,” running the day boat tour to the glaciers. The two were in Gustavus just for the summers for a couple of years; then they sold their house in Juneau and moved to Gustavus in 2015.
In 2001, Kathy ran into a scientist, Mary Willson, whom she had worked for right after college, about 10 years previously. They had not spoken much since that time. In talking about birds, Mary mentioned that she was doing research on American Dippers — the small gray songbirds that nest along fast-moving streams and dive underwater for insects and little fish. Kathy volunteered to help Mary out and ended up in a 10-year collaboration with her, working for her and with her during the study. During the time they worked together, Mary published five scientific papers about dippers with Kathy as co-author, and she and Kathy wrote two books about the birds: “American Dippers” and “The Singer in the Stream.” Mary is now a dear friend.
For Kathy, an added bonus to her work is that much of it is done outside. Working with Mary afforded her some unique adventures. To get a close view of the nests of the dippers they studied, they often had to scramble around in steep stream canyons. Once or twice, Kathy even had to rappel down cliffs or swim through streams.
While looking for dipper nests, Kathy and Mary discovered something quite rarely seen: active nests of marbled murrelets. These small seabirds are well-known to anyone who spends time on the water in Southeast Alaska, but their nesting habits are still somewhat mysterious. They’re known to nest in old growth trees, many miles inland from the ocean — but what Kathy and Mary found were three murrelet nests on the ground, at the tops of waterfalls near Juneau. They returned to the nests periodically to see the chicks as they grew from speckled balls of fuzz to handsome black-and-white juveniles.
A strain of beautiful music weaves its way through all that Kathy does. She has been involved with music since taking piano lessons as a child, but was never very serious about it, until she met Cheryl. When they moved back to Juneau, they joined song circles, and began performing in 1995. Kathy says she learned to harmonize by copying the “Indigo Girls.” She and Cheryl harmonize well together, partly because they have sung together for so long. Kathy says she can (usually) hear the harmonies with Cheryl’s voice easily.
In Juneau, they performed at Gold Street Music, an invitational coffeehouse venue founded by a group of Juneau musicians. One of the group was Elva Bontrager, a wonderful music catalyst who brings musicians together and helps them bring out their best. Performers did 20-minute sets. Kathy and Cheryl found the club to be a great musical venue that was available the rest of the year after Folk Fest. They did sing at Folk Fest, but mostly with other people. Now the duet sings on Thursday nights with the library band in Gustavus and at Lou Cacciopo’s “Outpost,” which has a musical night every other week. Lou opened the outpost a couple of years ago — he lengthened his art studio, put in a stage, lights, and a nice sound system, and invited local musicians to perform. Lou’s Outpost is “a non-profit music venue dedicated to building community and providing pioneering musicians with quality stage time in a nurturing atmosphere.” (Watch future blog articles — Lou, an excellent artist in several mediums will be featured in one of them.)
Kathy started playing mandolin in early 2000. Her dad sent her one, as he had started playing fiddle. (Kathy wonders if perhaps he wanted to start a family band.) Both Kathy and Cheryl like to perform, though Kathy feels her voice is not strong enough to sing solo. She’s happy to have Cheryl’s strong voice to sing harmony with. The duo selects songs or types of songs that suit their voices. They have found that there is a particular set of vocal characteristics that blend well. Cheryl has a particularly strong alto, so Kathy sings a high harmony. They feel the message in the lyrics is important, but they also like to mix in funny songs. Kathy and Cheryl have been together and creating their lovely music for 24 years now. Kathy says that their singing together is symbolic: they listen to each other and hold each other up.
Here’s a special treat: a YouTube video made by another local Gustavian, Bill Eichenlaub, of Kathy and Cheryl singing at the Outpost.
Kathy’s art grows from her love of the natural world. She creates cards, mugs, jewelry, sketches or paintings, collaborates with quilter Ellie Sharman of Gustavus, illustrates for children’s books, and writes books. She also designed the wildlife tables in the Alaska State Ferry vessels, and did some of the illustrations. Each ferry has the same tables in their dining area, though the Tustumena has a slightly different species assortment appropriate for Southwestern Alaska.
Kathy’s editing skills grew out of her work with Sea Reach, the company that does the interpretive signs. She had to edit others’ work for the signs, and though not formally trained in editing, she has had quite a bit of experience. She edited my last book and did a fine job. She has also edited books for others in our writer’s group. She feels that while she can be a strong editor (in part due to her experience at Sea Reach where the text gets edited extensively before going on an interpretive sign), she is learning how to balance that with keeping a writer’s unique voice.
For 13 years, Kathy practiced Shotokan (Japanese/Okinawan) karate, which she learned in Juneau. She had an excellent teacher, Diana Stevens, who was the dojo’s chief instructor. Diana won an AWARE “woman of distinction” award in 2011. Kathy advanced in her karate training with a great group of people. Through this teaching / practice she developed more physical strength and flexibility. The practice emphasizes character and integrity.
When they can fit it into their busy schedules, Kathy and Cheryl like to travel. They have been to Hawaii, Europe, South America, Ireland, Holland, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Chile. Their travels have given them some unusual adventures. In Holland, they bicycled through the Dutch polders (low-lying tracts of land enclosed by dikes) watching all kinds of fascinating European birds including kievits (lapwings) and gruttos (redshanks.) Both of these are meadow birds common to that area. In Hawaii while traveling the Kona Coast, they watched an octopus flash-change color and texture, and while travelling to the island of Innisheer, Ireland, they saw a basking shark.
They took a walking tour in the English Lake District, along the Cumbria Way. The weather did not cooperate, but they were there and had to continue onward. They slogged through rain, snow, sleet and wind. They watched newborn lambs cavorting in the inclement weather, full of life and fun in spite of the unpleasant conditions. It made the discomfort of the trail a bit easier to handle.
In Chile, they visited their friend, Mary Willson, at a research station she co-founded. While there, Mary asked Kathy to teach a sketching class to a group of Chilean college students. Although many of the students spoke better English than Kathy spoke Spanish, she decided to give it a go in Spanish. She recalls that they were quite good sports about it; they chuckled sometimes at her stumbles but clearly enjoyed the lesson. She remembers being particularly pleased when she made a joke in Spanish…and they laughed!
In 2012, after spending 20 successful years together, Kathy and Cheryl decided they needed a special celebration. Cheryl was working on a whale-watching boat, and got the use of it for an afternoon. They took 18 friends on the boat with them and took a tour around Lynn Canal in Juneau. The Dall’s porpoises, being social animals, wanted to share the moment, so they joined the party and swam with the boat for a long time. The couple felt that this moment with the porpoises was an anniversary gift from the Universe.
Kathy has a charming blog. Visit it to see more of her drawing. The address is https://alaskasketchbook.wordpress.com. Also on this site is a link to her Etsy store.
Check it out!
Thank you, Kathy and Cheryl, for moving to Gustavus. You make such a great addition to our community!