Obi Kaufmann: Naturalist, Artist, Wanderer

 “In my art and writing about ecology, I am more satisfied with the exploration
of the best, most simple and elegant question than I am with any righteous, vocational answer.” – Obi Kaufmann

Watercolor painting of a Siskiyou Mountain salamander by Obi Kaufmann.

When Obi Kaufmann wanders into the wilderness of California, it is with as little as necessary—but always with his paints and brush and a love of nature. Through illustrated maps, portraits of wildlife and plant life, and landscapes, he brings readers along a journey of exploration and understanding of California’s natural world.  “My books are about California in essence, but the stories are about looking at nature and, more specifically, about me looking at nature. We are a story-telling species. It has been conjectured that the ability to tell a story outside our physical bodies is even more important than bipedalism. Communication through stories and art sets us apart.”

“The State of Water: Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource” (Heyday 2019) is Kaufmann’s second book. His first, “The California Field Atlas,” is a love letter to the state he grew up in and knows well. “The State of Water” tackles a personal understanding of water as the resource that is a defining element of California ecosystems. Water also creates a societal divide as we struggle to protect our native landscapes while trying to meet the agricultural and social demands of a growing population. “I am not trying to convey a story of water policy in California; that is too complex. I am interested in a particular aspect—surface water, use, storage and conveyance.”

Kaufmann particularly finds the economic struggle with water misdirected. “The arrogant idea that a system (water and its use) can keep growing without consequence leads to an ecological revolution. We have been sold this divisive story between urban and rural, northern and southern, blue and red… That dichotomous view is unproductive and is, in fact, destructive.” Kaufmann redirects the story to what he witnesses before him. Then he tells that story to himself and to others through his writing.

Kaufmann has a vocation many would envy. He saunters into beautiful places and observes carefully. He uses watercolors because they are lightweight, portable and “don’t break.” He carries as little as possible, and has an appreciation for the handcrafted, the simply-made, and the use of natural materials: wool, leather and cotton. When asked about his style, like a true native, Kaufmann responds, “Hey, I grew up in Hollywood! California culturally has lots to offer.  The cool factor—right?”

Watercolor painting of protected areas part of the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act (2018) by Obi Kaufmann.

Kaufmann simply looks closely at what exists in order to illustrate the world and celebrate its miraculous beauty. By passing along his direct contact with California’s natural world, seen through the eyes not of a scientist or politician, but as an artist and naturalist, he hopes to save the treasures California holds.

He spoke to a standing room only audience at Northtown Books in Arcata in June, where he also promoted support for the “Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation and Working Forests Act” introduced by Rep. Jared Huffman and Sen. Kamala Harris. After his book tours, Kaufmann will head back into the wilds with his pen and paintbrushes. He has at least four more books in mind.  He excitedly says, “I am going to backpack all of CA south to north—not sticking to the Pacific Crest Trail but crossing the Sierra a number of times for a book that should be published in 2021!”

You can learn more about Obi Kaufmann, his art, books, and style, by checking out his website: