By Meghan E. Gattignolo
Kitty Harvill is a Clarksville treasure. With a grandfather who was a president of Austin Peay State University and an artist mother whose name graces a Museum gallery, Kitty is the latest piece of a hometown family legacy. Much like her beloved mother, Peg Harvill, Kitty expresses herself through a love of painting. However, her artistic journey has taken Kitty into a new territory.
When Kitty’s mother passed away in 2004, Kitty was 46. She was the same age her mother had been when she began her illustrious career as an artist. Kitty had established her own successful career as an artist – still, she felt it was time for a change. She picked up a camera and learned the art of wildlife photography, even shadowing a photographer in Canada for a time. For the next two years of her life, Kitty challenged herself to capture beautiful images of animals in motion.
Kitty relocated to Brazil with her conservationist husband Christoph Hrdina, and that became their home for the majority of the last twenty years. With the Atlantic Forest nearby, Kitty enjoyed a new life as a wildlife photographer. One day, though, she decided to paint one of her photographs.
“For like two hours, I just didn’t stop,” Kitty explained, remembering that first time she transformed one of her photographs into a work of art in pastel. “Then I realized that my new career was not wildlife photography, but wildlife painting.”
Kitty and Christoph lived within the State of Paranà in southern Brazil, near the Atlantic Forest. Shockingly, the Atlantic Forest today is only about 7% of its original size, decimated by people and agriculture. Kitty unknowingly opened a door to raise awareness for this disappearing ecosystem when she painted a lion-faced tamarin as a gift for a friend. The friend was a biologist and the director of the Superagüi National Park, a World Heritage site in part of the Atlantic Forest and the primary habitat of the critically endangered lion-faced tamarin. The friend treasured the painting, but also saw greater possibilities with Kitty’s art. She put Kitty in touch with a biologist who needed cover art for an action plan to save a species of butterflies.
Soon, Kitty was making a name for herself as a wildlife conservation artist. ICMBio, a branch of the Brazilian government involved in nature conservation, eventually commissioned Kitty to paint a total of 12 half-sheet watercolor paintings for cover art for National Action Plans, materials used to promote the conservation efforts of critically endangered species. Informed by biologists, action plans are important because they provide a detailed way forward to save a native species on the verge of extinction. Kitty recently donated nine of these paintings to the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center, which make up a new exhibit opening on May 23.
Her love for conservation didn’t stay in Brazil. In 2016, Kitty and Christoph founded ABUN together. ABUN (Artists & Biologists Unite for Nature) is an organization of artists helping biologists in their efforts to raise awareness about endangered species or endangered ecosystems. The pieces created by these volunteer artists are used for educational and marketing materials. No money is exchanged, and all work is done in the name of conservation and a love of nature. ABUN’s current project is with Dr. Dwayne Estes of the Southeastern Grasslands Institute to raise awareness of the grasslands and prairies disappearing from the southeastern region of the United States. Find out more about ABUN and how you can get involved as an artist here.
Kitty says art brings her “a sense of focus” and a feeling that she’s part of something bigger than herself. While creating art can be a way to express oneself, find solace within, or simply enjoy as a fun pastime, Kitty has discovered a way for her art to be of use to the world, and that’s why – as her eloquent husband Christoph puts it – she’s now painting with purpose.
Check out Kitty Harvill: New to the Collection in the Museum’s Jostens Gallery, opening next week on May 23 and remaining on view through August 27. To further explore Kitty’s work, another exhibit is open to the public at the Wade Bourne Nature Center at Rotary Park, on display now until July 29, celebrating both Kitty’s love of animals and the lush forests of Brazil.
Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters.