With the new release of the COYOTE THUNDER FIELD BAG, Kámen Road achieved a major goal by completing our first artist collaboration with author Obi Kaufmann, who is also known by his online presence COYOTE THUNDER. Obi Kaufmann’s award winning California Field Atlas (Heyday books, 2017) takes readers through a new envisioning of the golden state’s natural world through hundred of exquisitely rendered maps, essays and wildlife paintings. In this interview, Kámen Road not only asks Obi about the lifestyle that informed the bag, but also the creative life that produced his bestselling book.
KR: How did wildlife painting become your artistic focus?
CT: I went to college in Santa Barbara in the mid-nineties, and although backpacking the deserts and mountains of California had already become part of my core identity, it was really in those years, walking the central coast, that I found a communion, a participation with the natural world that artistic expression offered that I’ve been chasing ever since.
KR: Was there one experience that focused that experience for you?
CT: I remember being very moved by Chumash rock paintings. Across California’s central coast, deep in the Santa Ynez mountains and across the Los Padres forest are thousands of ancient art sites composed by artists of one of indigenous California’s largest cultural areas. Rich, colorful pigments depict what can be described as psychedelic scenes of nature – murals thirty feet long, for example, of condors merging into amphibians under radiant mandalas. I was moved and continue to be moved by the way that these paintings seem to explore an experience of nature, more so than being of nature itself. I carry that line through my work today – that the California Field Atlas is about me perceiving California, more than about just California itself.
KR: How does writing fit into this idea of atonement with the natural world through art? I don't understand it. Can you explain?
CT: I believe that poetry is the highest and best use of language. I always work to merge my visual image with my written image – that is where waking dreams are realized, and true communication begins. I am a story teller and on one level, I need all the tools I can get to tell the stories I want to tell, and on another level, there is really only one story to tell: how do I better tell of my love for the land? I believe that I express my love, I can infect others with this passion. People protect what they love.
Kámen Road: Now that the Coyote Thunder Field Bag is here, let’s talk about how it came into being. To start, how about the simple question, why this bag?
Coyote Thunder: I am a naturalist and a wildlife painter. I need a bag that fulfills a few core functions in a very specific way for the work that I do. I spend a lot of time scrambling through the California chaparral, so I need the toughest bag ever. I am working on my birding skills, so I need a quick draw, latchless bag for my binoculars. There is really a Goldilocks aspect to the size, shape and feel of the thing: not to big, not too small, not too heavy, not too light. We agreed early on that a variation of the classic Postman’s bag was a good direction. Teaming up with Kámen Road, with your additions of the wood joinery and the simple aesthetic made the piece really come together.
KR: We believe in natural materials and this bag really allowed us to find the right vegetable-tanned leather, copper and wood hardware. I am also very proud of our partnership with furniture maker Jeff Goodwin of Kilomade Studios. He took my idea of integrating joinery and created a prototype that worked. I then worked with leather artisan Rex Jerome on testing the prototype through many iterations.
KR: What do you carry for your work?
CT: I am a writer, a walker and a painter. We designed the bag to fit each tool I need: a small canteen, a water flask for my paint, brush, paper, water color paints, binoculars and a field guide. It really is the perfect day pack with a classy-urban vibe that goes from the country to the city with ease, as I do when I present my work. The bag itself has become essential.
KR: Has conservation always been a focus of your work?
CT: It certainly has. Even to this day. I am donating 100% of my proceeds from the Coyote Thunder Field Bag to the Wilderness Society. I want to put my money where my mouth is.
I am so happy with how this bag turned out and I want to not only share my love of this bag but give back to an organization that has done so much to temper my understanding on some very contentious issues. The Wilderness Society had me do an instagram takeover from my handle, @coyotethunder, and I was able to expound on a many subtle points of synergy between their work and my own.
KR: I know that our readers would really like to know how you came to "the love story" that you address in the opening line of your book. Can you let us know from inception to final print, how your award-winning book came to be? Rather than one moment - the milestones along the way that were incredibly important to you.
CT: This was my first work of any substantial consequence and I found the whole process riddled with moments of insight. The editorial process was just as interesting as the content-creation process. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to describe the underlying aspects of California that continue to exist despite human development and extraction. That is why there aren’t any roads in the Atlas. This is a book about how the larger mosaic of elemental forces: earth, air, fire and water create a situation that can express the kind of biodiversity that California does. The first version of the manuscript I turned in was over a thousand pages, whittling it down to its current configuration of about 550 pages made for a superior presentation. Without my editors, the work would have potentially sprawled into an obsolescence of its own weight. Throughout the drafting process, I knew that my voice was going to be the aspect of the work that carried it to success or not. The human-scale approach to a system so complex, rich and deep is what people respond to in this work, and that scale, that voice is expressed best through the notion of love.
KR: You say in the beginning of your book that every feature of the natural world is alive. What do you mean by that?
CT: I see California as a system of networks that behave like any living system does, complete with a geographic physiology in which even abiotic features, like rivers and fire patterns work in regular courses that approach a working definition of what life is. If we assign these feature the quality of life, does that not shift our moral responsibility? I’d like to contribute to the idea that California is not a thing that belongs to us, but we in fact, identify as belonging to it.
KR: You are clearly immersed in an outdoor, nature-based lifestyle. How often do you get outside? Do you spend your life camping and where do you go?
CT: Yeah, I have a couple of notions to guide me in my never ending quest to be outside, enjoying the natural world as much as possible without phones and screens to distract me from my joy. The first is that in the summer time, it is necessary for me to spend more nights without a roof than with one. And the other is that I count as many nights in a row as I can where I can see the bright line of the Milky Way in the sky above my head when I sleep. To do this, you have to get out of the city and away from the highways. There are so many beautiful places to do this. Whether in the pine forests of the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in the north, or near Joshua tree in the south, or maybe in Sierra Valley, where I currently live. I’ll stuff a sleeping bag in a sling bag over my right shoulder and my Coyote Thunder Field Bag over my left and wander into the woods for a night or two. California is replete with perfect places to do this.
KR: What’s next for Obi Kaufmann?
CT: I’ve got a new book coming out every six months for the next two and a half years. It is all part of the idea that I can paint a hundred maps a day of California for the rest of my life and never tell the whole story I want to. California is that big, diverse and enchanting. I will be spending the year 2021 hiking around the whole state on a massive walking book tour. I am inviting guests to join me for different stretches of the trip.
Thank you Obi!
To learn more about his work, you can follow Obi Kaufmann on instagram @coyotethunder and catch up on his essays at www.coyoteandthunder.com and www.californiafieldatlas.com. The COYOTE HTHUNDER FIELD BAG is available on through www.kamenroad.com
Photo credits: Sophie Bergquist and Ron Fernandez Photography