Author-Artist Obi Kaufmann Explores the Coasts of California

Dan Sealy, Northcoast Environmental Center 

Trinidad Beach by Obi Kaufmann.

Picking up a book by artist and naturalist Obi Kaufmann feels very personal. The books are more compact than typical hardbound books, heftier than classic paperback books, and are rugged with a durable, flexible paper cover that easily fits into a knapsack and can take a few mishaps. But the real difference is revealed when you open page after page of Kaufmann’s lavish watercolors of plants, wildlife, landscapes and processes that define Obi’s California. His just-launched The Coasts of California shares these elements along with the signature Obi Kaufmann watercolor atlas maps and a system of symbols and keys he created to draw the readers’ eye to points of particular note. These are not road maps to get you to a town or trailhead. The maps are invitations to dive into the glory of the California places where you can learn about and feel nature firsthand. Kaufmann says he is “inviting you to learn about nature with me. The book is truly about how one artist sees the world. I want to break out of the journalistic and artistic silos of thought and expression.”

Humboldt Bay Eulachon watercolor by Obi Kaufmann.

Kaufmann says, “Getting the science right is about trust.” In honor of that goal, the book’s seemingly endless footnotes and references can lead the devoted reader to sources of current scientific information and theories that could cover a college degree in California Natural History. The counterpoint to those science facts and theories are the personal messages in Kaufmann’s calligraphy, philosophical messages from the heart. The hundreds of pages of original watercolors capture the plants, animals and landscapes of his home state and reveal his books as an ode to his beloved California. Kaufmann invites the reader to enter the beautiful worlds of California through his very personal perspective. His hope is to inspire us to love it as he does, and work to protect it as he does. Holding a book by Kaufmann is holding a love poem to California and all its natural wonder. 

After Kaufmann’s first book, The California Field Atlas, gained popularity, Heyday publishers asked him to write more books. This led to books such as The Forests of California including a perspective of our own redwood forests. With The Coasts of California, he has tackled one of the defining elements of the state. He captures not only a tangle of marine, shore and estuary ecological elements, but just as importantly, the state’s legendary beauty. Yes, “Coasts” plural. Kaufmann is clear to remind the reader that California’s 1,200 mile-long western boundary is not a single coast. Anyone who has sauntered the warm sands of Torrey Pines State Beach in southern California, sailed the San Francisco Bay, scrambled through rocky tidepools and cliffs of Trinidad, explored the Channel Islands (Obi refers to the islands as America’s Galapagos for their highly evolved ecosystem and inhabitants) will understand this is a mosaic, not a monolith, of landscapes. 

In Chapter 07, Kaufmann describes the on-going efforts to complete the Coastal Trail from Oregon to Mexico. As a personal aside he makes reference to “…the ashes of my life…” When asked what the “ashes” refer to, he explains that, like many a life-traveler, his life has taken him from manager of a lumberyard to tattoo artist, to gallery artist and finally to the harmony among professions he now practices: naturalist, artist, scientist and philosopher. Now he has an avocation that has finally combined all his loves and provides his sustenance. Growing up in California with an astrophysicist father and clinical psychologist mother, his inquiring mind revealed to him, “Science is a basket that can hold all our philosophies.” Their encouragement gave him the freedom to get his naturalist feet wet by exploring nearby Mount Diablo. He studied both biology and art at the University of California, Santa Barbara. That combination of inquisitiveness, education and love of nature lead him on this journey which he shares with his reader. 

Talking with Obi Kaufmann is to realize he is also a philosopher and eco-thinker. His messages are as varied and dynamic as the state he loves. 

What is the importance of the remnants of California’s original landscapes, plants and animals?  How do these components and ecosystems enrich culture and inspire art?  What are the strong underlying hydrological, meteorological and geological forces that create and change what we experience? All get the Obi – eye. Digging deep into the science, hiking the land, feeling the elements firsthand inspires pen and paintbrush. Obi wants to inspire us to be optimistic, not fatalistic about the world we find ourselves in. Stories of recovery are all around us if we open our eyes. He believes we can, indeed, reverse course and save what we have inherited. “The decisions we humans are making will surely determine the quality of the human residency on this planet.” His view is a perspective driven by a belief in the power of nature, and a passion for hope. “Hope is a dangerous thing, but it is entirely possible for us to leave the landscape a more resilient and more biodiverse place.”

Naturalist, writer and illustrator, Obi Kaufman. September 8, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Throw Kaufmann’s The Coasts of California in your knapsack. Let it gather the wear and tear of a wanderer’s guide. Take it on your next outing along the western edge; not to find the road to a destination or key out the name of a plant, but to sit in that coastal landscape, breathe in its sweet smell, listen to those current-driven waves and let his book and the place teach us.