Juneau naturalist fuses science and art with Nikiski North Star students

Jazper Coplen presses down heavily with his pencil when he draws.


The dark lines of lead on the fifth-grader’s paper were bold, but not easily erased, so the 10-year-old drew a large x over several false starts before settling on a sketch he liked.

Coplen, along with 21 other students in his class at Nikiski North Star Elementary, spent several class periods with the artist-in-residence Kathy Hocker, a naturalist and illustrator from Juneau.

Hocker began her second session Wednesday with the fifth-graders by introducing them to a table of unusual objects she had for them to practice drawing.

“They’ve done drawings of feathers, we start with feathers because it’s a simple shape, but it’s also got lots of interesting details,” Hocker said.

The students couldn’t stop asking questions as Hocker lifted everything from seed pods and feathers, to jaw bones and skulls from the table while she talked about using observational skills to make inferences about the origins of each object.

Coplen was fascinated by the jaw bones.

“What animal did those come from?” he asked as Hocker patiently explained again that each student should write those questions down in their notebooks.

He persisted, “What is that?”

Finally, when it came time for students to pick and objects they wanted to draw, Coplen settled for taking the skull he’d been pointing too and carrying it carefully back to his table.

Most of the bones disappeared first.

Reese Barndt had a different idea, though, and the 10-year-old headed straight for the seed pods.

“It feels like wood and it feels hard,” she said after she spent several minutes carefully replicating dark jagged lines along the base of the seed. “I wanted to see what it came from and it looked like a flower that was opening and I thought that was pretty cool. I’m glad no one took it.”

As she spoke, Barndt gently rubbed her fingers along the base of the large seed pod.

“It’s a fantastic seed that came from a photograph tree in Hawaii,” she said. “I asked (Hocker) where it came from.”

Coplen was pretty sure he ended up with a cat’s skull.

“You can tell because of how small this structure is,” he said, pointing to the top of the skull.

He pointed to each aspect of the skull and each line he carefully labeled in his sketch pad.

“The ear hole is right here and then here’s some cracks that might have happened when it was alive,” he said. “I started out with the basic eye and this bone going down through the nose. Then I kind of drew this little gripping thing that gets thinner over here ... This is the start of its spine. Right underneath his chin would be his voicebox.”

Hocker spent two weeks at the school, working with kindergarten through sixth grade classes, trying to integrate the science of observation with the art of drawing.

“I’m learning to adapt what I do to the younger grades,” Hocker said. “With the kindergartners, for example, we really focus just on the drawing and looking more than anything else. We do a lot of talking about what (they) see.”

Near the end of the session, each student left their sketchbook open and the class took a miniature art walk comparing objects with drawings.

“I wonder what animal’s jaw this is?” wrote Sam Berry, 10, in his sketchbook. “I wonder why its teeth are so brown?”

Hocker said the students at Nikiski North Star were exceptional observers and she appreciated the barrage of questions even if she couldn’t take the time to answer all of them.

She told the students that when they draw from observation they have a better memory for the object they’re studying.

“It gets into our brain and sits there in a whole different way than if you just look at something,” she said. “So if you want to learn more about something one of the best things you can do is draw it.”


Rashah McChesney can be reached at schools@peninsulaclarion.com