I had to ask her to tell me again.
"Really," I asked. “This was done on a computer? With a mouse? You didn't use a graphics tablet or anything like that?"
"No," Donna Schimonitz said. All with a mouse.
This entire stylized image of a heron before a sunset and a river was drawn by painstaking clicking and painstaking dragging and more painstaking clicking, pixel by pixel. Schimonitz also later showed me another portrait of a heron, this one blue and gray, with what she describes as a "looser" look – none of her usual painstaking attention to detail in other work – which is just as captivating.
This bit of computer-and-mouse wizardry, though, is only a small subset of Schimonitz's work. After her day job at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission – where she works as a graphic designer, producing brochures, a kids’ magazine and calendars – Schimonitz mostly works on her acrylic or graphite nature portraits. Although not technically part of her job, her work shares many of the same goals: to document and preserve many caches of beautiful creatures in Nebraska. Especially for kids.
“When you’re young and growing up,” she said, “you may not have the opportunity to grow up on a farm like I have…this exposes [kids] to more than just a remote or their video games. There are interesting things to see outside.”
Growing up on a dairy farm in St. Paul, Neb., Schimonitz described her childhood devoted to a "kinship with nature" and seeing many interesting things outside: following "critter tracks," "watching a chatty wren" and searching for snail shells. She eventually obtained a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design from the University of Nebraska-Kearney.
Her detailed graphite drawings are usually of birds or other small creatures. She showed me one, of a white-breasted nuthatch, with exquisite detail: the bird, like Spiderman, is descending the tree's trunk, body parallel, and yet it is sticking its head out in a feat of animal acrobatics. (Indeed, this is a common white-breasted nuthatch posture during foraging.)
There's another graphite drawing of a plains leopard frog. You may have seen one of these deceased fellows in high school biology, but you were missing out: Schimonitz's art pulls from the life of these frogs that cannot be glimpsed when they are soaked in formaldehyde.
But – and this may be a little of my own bias here – you can tell Schimonitz seems most interested in drawing insects. When her brother was having dinner with her mother one evening, out from the poppies on the dining room table popped a click beetle. After they saved the bug for Schimonitz, she produced an acrylic of the bug in the orange and yellow poppy. To ward off predators, the beetle has faux "eyes" on the back of its shell, and can "click" itself using its shell and make a quick escape – sort of like firing itself out of a cannon.
The click beetle picture began like all the others: Schimonitz sketches first, using models (either reference works or, in the case of the beetle, the real thing) and establishes the best perspective that is pleasing to the eye. Schimonitz usually works at her home in a makeshift studio. Her work has been featured lately at the Stuhr Museum, as a featured artist for the "Wings Over the Platte" exhibition. She has also won multiple awards throughout the Midwest for her nature paintings.
All along, her work evokes more than just a beautiful detail-oriented focus on nature, but instead the broader appreciation of the natural world – the kind instilled in her since her childhood on the farm.
"My subjects have transitioned from cranes to great blue herons, to insects and almost everything in-between,” she wrote in an email to me. “The message is still the same. Initially it is beauty – of scene, animal or moment, their quirks. Then the importance of all the pieces of an ecosystem – the water, the variety of living animals, plants, clean air."
Nowhere is that focus more important than in her picture of another insect, a nearly transparent Salt Creek Tiger Beetle, famous – or perhaps infamous – in the Lincoln community for the efforts put into protecting it. Schimonitz hopes her painting in part functions as an education.
“If you don’t know about it, how are you supposed to care about it?" she said. "If you get educated about it and learn why it is important to a certain ecosystem or a little region and how it ties in with the rest of the state, then you can understand why somebody is enthused about it, and maybe you would be too.”
Schimonitz, who has devoted her life to these endeavors, is certainly enthused, and it's hard for that not to spread to those around her. That her efforts in this area would be through her art was a foregone conclusion.
"If you have a talent like art or playing music," she said, "it’s something you feel you have to do.”