Four Ways to Combine Art and Conservation in Your Career


Throughout history, many of the world’s greatest works of art have arisen out of a contemplation of nature: just think of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which within its five movements captures everything from a burbling brook to a storm to a country celebration. A love of nature naturally awakens artistic impulses, and for that reason, it’s no surprise that many future conservationists also feel drawn to pursuing careers in the arts. Tension arises, however, when they feel that they have to choose between the two.

But what if that weren’t the case? What if you didn’t have to choose between a life devoted to conservation and one to devoted to art? Here’s the good news: you don’t! And to prove it, today we’re exploring four careers that allow you to combine the two.

1. Graphic Designer

Graphic designers create visual concepts, either by hand or by computer, that both inspire and inform. “Through graphic design, I create relatable, dynamic materials that tell the story of how young people can begin the path of becoming conservation leaders,” says Julia Eva Bacon, graphic designer right here at the Student Conservation Association. According to Bacon, the artist’s journey is dictated by the why – the reason she makes the art she does. “In my case, animals and their plight against habitat loss, trophy hunting, and climate change will always drive me to create art that elevates and gives voice to the animal kingdom.”

(Oil on board artwork by Julia Bacon.)

2. Art Director

Art directors are responsible for the visual style of an organization’s content, be it print, audio, or video. They also frequently collaborate with, and/or manage, a staff of artists, writers, editors, photographers, designers, educators, and more.

“I get to use a variety of mediums – everything from photography to web design, to video projections on government buildings,” says Josette Matoto, the art director at Friends of the Earth, an enviro-justice non-profit based in Washington, DC. “My artistic interests have always been broad, so it’s nice not to have to limit them.”

In order to land her job, Matoto first did her homework. “When I didn’t hear back a week after submitting my application, I sent an email to my would-be boss and commented on the design of a report they’d recently released on their website, noting that I’d love to chat more about it in person. This helped me cut through the noise, and I got the interview!”

3. Photographer

Nature photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston once opened people’s eyes to the beauty of America’s natural parks. Nowadays, photography is arguably more important than ever before in conservation, helping to educate citizens about a natural world in peril.

“I get to travel to our regional centers and photograph their programmatic work,” says photographer Kaila Drayton, operations manager for the National Wildlife Federation. “We use the photos on blogs, grant proposals, newsletters, and donor solicitations. Last fall I traveled to Texas to photograph endangered whooping cranes along the Gulf Coast. This fall, I’ll go to Florida to photograph how weather patterns are affecting wildlife in the Everglades.”

(Photographer Kaila Drayton during a National Geographic expedition to Alaska.)

When it comes to finding a job, Drayton suggests that job-hunters think big. “If you’re only looking at job descriptions that include your interest in art, you’re going to really limit your job pool,” she notes. “I recommend focusing on organizations that you feel could benefit from your art and apply to jobs that fit your experience level and skill set. As you grow in that position, be your own advocate and create your own opportunities!”

4. Illustrator

Illustrators bring to life everything from books to magazines to newspapers to advertisements. Their work can be an effective way to communicate complex ideas, processes, and concepts to readers.

Scientific illustrator Joel Floyd reinforces Drayton’s advice about being proactive. “If you have a job that involves conservation and have developed good artistic skills – in scientific illustration for example – you can often find opportunities to incorporate that into your work and it will be appreciated by the management,” he says. Floyd also recommends becoming involved with the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI) to learn skills, take advantage of the comradery, and meet like-minded people doing art in the service of conservation.

Stay Inspired

Society tends to box us into specific passions, talents, and occupations, but it doesn’t need to be that way. It’s possible to combine a love of art with a passion for nature and conservation – and to make a career doing so. To read stories of art or find out more about becoming an artist-in-residence at national parks, click here.

Looking to start your career in conservation? Be sure to browse open SCA internships at national parks, forests, and refuges!