Locals We Love: Painting the Peaks with Natalie Connell

By Stio Mountain on

Over the past eleven years, Natalie Connell has committed herself to the mountain life in Jackson, Wyoming. She spent three years working as a graphic designer at Stio before she transitioned into a full time artist.

Where are you from?

I was born in Tacoma, WA, but lived in twelve other places by the time I graduated from high school. My dad was an Air Force pilot for my whole childhood, so that meant moving every 1-3 years. So, I’m from a lot of places, but call Jackson, Wyoming home now.

How long have you lived in Jackson, Wyoming?

Eleven years - not sure how that happened so fast!

What do you find special about living in Jackson?

I have grown to love living in such close proximity to vast outdoor spaces. Having access to outdoor recreation as a part of my daily life has become extremely valuable to me. And I love being a part of the small mountain town community here. Also, as I bounced around in my youth, I had to make new friends every year growing up. It is only in my adult life that I have really begun to appreciate the longer-term relationships that I’ve developed.

What are some of the greatest challenges you've had to overcome living there?

One of the greatest challenges to living in Jackson is finding a place to live. Even if you find a place, it is likely to be quite expensive. On top of that, there are not a lot of career opportunities here so the job market is largely seasonal, and it can be challenging to make a living. I’ve noticed that the people who end up sticking around are both resilient and creative in how they shape their lifestyle. There have been a couple of times I’ve considered moving on, but the opportunity I needed to keep me here has always come through in the end - frequently as a result of the strong community. Before working for Stio as a graphic designer, I already had one foot out the door. I REALLY wanted to work for an outdoor company and being a designer at Stio was literally the only job of its kind in town. I knew it was a small company so assumed that a job opening would be very unlikely. To my surprise, a couple months later, an ad showed up in the paper for a Graphic Designer at Stio! I was beyond thrilled to get the job and be able to stay in Jackson.

Do you have any childhood memories from the outdoors that have influenced where you are today?

My childhood was actually not very outdoorsy, both due to lack of opportunity and because I was a pretty sick child. I was one of those severe asthma/allergy types and have this memory from third grade where I was looking out the window after school crying as I watched the track club, wanting so badly to be out there, but knowing I couldn’t due to my asthma. After recovering from a spinal fusion in seventh grade, I was completely fed up with sitting on the sidelines. I had heard that running could expand your lung capacity and I wondered if it could help my condition. In the spring of eighth grade, I decided to join the track team. After an excruciating first few weeks where my rescue inhaler was my constant companion, I began to build some cardio strength. I fell in love with running, eventually going on to run cross country in college. My asthma has been very well managed since that first track season, and almost never gives me trouble anymore.

It wasn’t until high school that I got my first opportunities to do adventure sports. I went on a couple hikes with friends that involved some rock scrambling and thought it was the coolest thing ever. That is, until I tried snowboarding for the first time at seventeen. Well, the first two times snowboarding were horrible and painful, but I had already bought a snowboard, so was committed to figuring it out. I believe it was my third time snowboarding on some ice sheet in Western Virginia that I linked my first turn and riding became my all-time favorite activity.

From there I decided to go to college in California. I had never been there before, but it seemed like a fun place to be. The access to snowboarding was closer than anywhere I had lived, and it led to my first camping and rock-climbing experiences. I’d buy the cheap weekend student season passes and arrange my class schedules to have Friday afternoons off so I could head out to ride at the end of each week. Through my college years I fell in love with the outdoors and haven’t looked back since.

How long have you been painting for?

Five years. I have been an artist since I could pick up a pencil, but drawing was always my medium of choice. In 2015, I took a painting class at the local art association and fell in love.

When did you know you wanted to make a career out of painting?

I always knew I wanted to be an artist. When I was three years old, I declared that I would draw a picture every day because in my mind, that was how you became an artist when you grew up. Needless to say, I have stacks of notebooks full of childhood art from years of daily drawings.

In what ways have you felt that you've really stepped into your skin over the past year?

There is a lot of discussion these days about identity and belonging. This has always been a challenging topic for me, as I’ve never felt like I really belonged anywhere. With a Mexican mother and a white Nebraskan father, racially, I’m mixed and have never felt completely at home in either category. I didn’t go to art or design school, so I’ve always felt like an outsider in those circles even though I have made a living in both over the past several years. I love to think and write, but am no expert in either area - what could I possibly have to say that anyone would want to hear? For much of my life, I’ve felt awkward and out of place, beginning to get comfortable just in time for another massive uprooting.

Jackson is the first place I’m beginning to call home and feel a sense of belonging. In the last year or two I’ve begun to see my past experiences as a bridge into new meaning rather than a path to discomfort. I’ve always taken for granted that I know how to break the ice in unfamiliar environments and how to make new friends. As I talk to friends and acquaintances who did receive formal creative training, I’m also starting to value the authenticity that is more easily maintained when you are self-taught. I didn’t learn to snowboard or move through the mountains as a child, which has allowed me to approach both through a cognitive step by step process. And though I am no expert in any area, perhaps that makes me more relatable to some people. Having consistently dealt with challenges in all of these, I’m pretty comfortable talking about any of them and have learned to help others who have dealt with similar challenges.

In addition to that, I’m settling into the racial background I’ve been born into. As a child, I loved being mixed race. I thought it was great that half of my family lived in Mexico and the other half lived in the US. It never struck me that because my skin was darker and two different cultures strongly influenced how I saw the world, that I’d have trouble fitting into the boxes often expected of Americans. Having lived out of the country for my late elementary school years, it came as a shock to me upon returning for middle school and high school how racially charged growing up in the US can be. I certainly wasn’t prepared for it in any way and faced a lot of challenges, and often cruelty, as a result of my ethnicity. However, despite my skin being darker than many of the people around me, I know how to live and move in both predominantly white communities and non-white communities. That doesn’t change that fact that my cultural outlook fits more comfortably in a Latinx context, but I am at a point where I can appreciate my experiences traversing those challenges early on and have learned how to find a place for myself in settings I am not native to. I have begun to see these difficulties as assets, and they have given me the skills necessary to be a bridge for others who are struggling in similar areas. In a time where inclusion and acceptance are such a struggle, maybe I am right where I need to be to help facilitate that much needed change.

What are you doing to give back to your community?

Over the past year I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to a group of middle school girls who are part of an after-school group called GAP (Girls Actively Participating). For the month of February, I spent two evenings a week with this group planning the creation for an 80x4 foot mural for our local bike path highlighting water quality issues in our community. This project came about through Jackson Hole Public Art with the help of Protect Our Waters JH. It was a great opportunity for me to educate myself on what is happening to waterways in the Jackson Hole area as a result of human impact, and how we, as a community, can come together to protect our beautiful water. I really enjoyed leading the group of girls through this project and having the opportunity to empower them to step out of their comfort zone and see that they are capable of accomplishing a huge task.

In early June, I was able to participate in a group conversation with the GAP girls about the racial issues facing our country and community, and to teach them how to boulder. About half of the group is Latina, and many of those girls had not been exposed to any kind of climbing before. It brought me so much joy to watch a bunch of them go from scared to psyched and perhaps have a new passion kindled in them.

Over this last year, I’ve found I really like working with kids and using my skill set to empower them. I’ve started talking with Coombs Outdoors about volunteering with them weekly this winter. Their mission is to empower children and youth to reach their full potential through the life-changing power of outdoor recreation and do it in a way that brings economic and racial equality to the outdoor community. I am really looking forward to working with them and contributing in this way.

Follow Natalie on Instagram at @natalieconnell_art and check out her website at http://www.nataliegconnell.com/ For the remainder of the summer Natalie will be donating 15% of sales from her art to Coombs Outdoors.

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