West Virginia’s mountains and valleys have birthed artists for centuries. There’s just something about this often-forgotten land and its tumultuous stories that move humans to create. Whether it be written words, soothing string music, photographs, or paintings, Appalachia has been an undeniable force throughout art history.
For Rosalie Haizlett and Octavia Spriggs, two native daughters of West Virginia, the state’s wildlands continue to represent a source of endless artistic inspiration. If you’ve visited shops and galleries throughout the Mountain State in the past few years, there’s a good chance you’ve noticed their work. Each featuring a distinct style, their vivid watercolor paintings showcase West Virginia’s iconic landscapes, unique flora and fauna, and even some of her lesser-known natural wonders.
Haizlett’s work highlights the small, delicate details of the natural world—red berries on an ash tree, wispy green stems and lavender blooms, clustered fascicles of sphagnum moss. Her popular watercolor maps and illustrations make you pause and consider the thousands of critters, flowering buds, and microscopic organisms that make up our Appalachian ecosystem.
Spriggs’s paintings spotlight the dramatic feel of a grand landscape—the multilayered ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, a gravelly entrance leading into the colorful canopy of Dolly Sods, or a peaceful view of a Canaan Valley meadow.
With their matching red hair, fair skin, and charming personalities, Haizlett, 26, and Spriggs, 32, could be mistaken for sisters. While they resemble each other, their life stories are as unique as their watercolor styles.
Haizlett grew up on a farm outside of Wheeling, near the Ohio River in the Appalachian foothills. Her parents’ rugged resourcefulness and deep connection to nature influence her art. “My mom gardens and cans what she grows. My dad chops firewood to heat the house all winter,” she says.
Haizlett’s six siblings are all creatives, but she is the sole painter in the family. “I was a quiet kid who liked to hang out in a corner and paint all day,” she says. Her dad, a design and sculpture professor at West Liberty University, was her first mentor. “He was the best possible parent that a little artist could have,” she says, “He would say, ‘If you want this, you can totally make a career out of it.’”
She spent a summer painting in France while in college, where she discovered her love of painting outdoors. After graduating from West Liberty University with a degree in graphic design, she felt pressure to follow the path she imagined for “an art kid,” which, in her mind, was to become a designer, live in a big city, and work a desk job. But that path didn’t feel quite right.
Her career began with artist residencies in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, New River Gorge National River, the Bloom Gallery in Thomas, and the National Audubon Society. In each of these residencies, she was paid to live in and create art at the host location for a designated period of time. Haizlett took her budding career a step further, creating commissioned illustrations for various clients, including KEEN footwear, the Smithsonian, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the “She Explores” podcast.
In 2019, Haizlett organized a watercolor retreat, called “Earthtones,” at her uncle’s idyllic farm in Wellsburg, where she, Spriggs, and another artist taught watercolor techniques. She also teaches classes online, including her “Watercolor in the Woods’’ course on Skillshare.com, which currently has over 20,000 students.
A Love of Landscapes
Spriggs grew up on the West Fork River in Clarksburg. Her dad took photos of the river that hung on the walls of her childhood home, which planted a seed of inspiration. “I felt very connected to living on the river,” she says.
She developed her love of West Virginia’s landscapes in fifth grade. “I carried around one of my dad’s pictures of the West Fork for the entire year and painted it in art class,” she says. “The painting was terrible,” but the memory remains symbolic. “I was attached to painting landscapes then and still am.”
In 2010, Spriggs graduated from West Virginia University (WVU) with a degree in graphic design. “I was always interested in the texture, flowiness, and brush strokes of painting,” she says.
Her first foray into painting started with oils, but she transitioned to watercolor in 2016 after completing a year-long hiking challenge with her husband, during which they drove to a new place every weekend and explored West Virginia like never before. “When I was ready to practice watercolor more seriously, I used photographs of flowers along the trails on all those hikes to start the first paintings I made,” Spriggs says.
One of the first paintings she attempted was “Dolly Sods Bog in Autumn,” featuring windblown spruce trees and a field of white cotton grass atop a mossy wetland. Out of frustration, she gave up on it for a while and focused on flowers. She thought, “If I can paint the flowers, I can work up to the landscapes.”
Along with her watercolor painting, Spriggs is director of communications and marketing for WVU’s College of Creative Arts. Before the pandemic, she did an artist residency at Seneca Rocks, which she recalls as one of the most memorable landscapes from her childhood. She also does commissioned paintings, including a piece for Cacapon State Park, and teaches landscape watercolor classes.
The Window or the Magnification?
For Haizlett and Spriggs, outdoor pursuits refresh them, inspire their paintings, and teach them to pay closer attention to their surroundings. “The more you stare intently where you are, you’ll wonder what lives and grows there,” says Spriggs.
Haizlett’s self-proclaimed “artistic superpower” is noticing and recreating small details and textures. Her 30”x34” painting of turkey tail mushrooms depicts a troop of the fan-shaped fungi with dozens of overlapping shelves and ribbons of color.
Haizlett is perhaps best known for her intricately detailed map paintings. Her rendition of the Monongahela National Forest includes yellow birch trees, brook trout, Spruce Knob, and the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. “I loved the different kinds of moss, how green it was, and navigating the unmarked trails,” she says. “I talk to the locals and the park or forest rangers; I love that part of my research.”
For Spriggs, painting landscapes teaches her to be observant when hiking or backpacking. “The more you observe, the more you see how things truly look, and that translates into your art,” she says. “You can say a flower is red but it has many other colors in it; you can say the sky is blue, but there is variation and nuance. The more you notice, the more colors you bring out.”
Her paintings of Canaan Valley, Lindy Point, Blackwater Falls State Park, and Dolly Sods are magical, delicate depictions of those landscapes. Warm, pastel colors illustrate their serene panoramas, views that are often missed without stopping for a long look. Her paintings, she says, reflect the “wow” moments she experienced when first visiting a place.
Light is one of Spriggs’ secrets to getting a painting right. “Someone could say, ‘It’s just a couple trees’, but if you have special light coming through, it can make a place extraordinary,” she says. Another is learning to depict the flora or fauna of the places she paints, which she does by referencing field guides. Aside from paints, paintbrush, and paper, both women use their “old” iPhones to take pictures for reference images from which to paint. For the tiny details, Haizlett zooms in on her photos to abstract what she sees.
Onward and Outward
Both Haizlett and Spriggs believe art created from nature can help people appreciate the outdoors from new perspectives and inspire them to care about the wild places in their home state. “I hope that my landscapes inspire people who haven’t been there to visit and appreciate them on a deeper level,” says Spriggs. “The more someone connects with the wilderness in West Virginia and beyond, the more they are likely to protect it for generations to come.”
Haizlett also strives to spark creativity in others and help people care about the Earth through her work. “We are living on a gem of a planet,” she says. She recently completed 20 paintings of endangered species in West Virginia, including mussels and crayfish, species not typically thought of as cute or charismatic. “They are in West Virginia and dying out because we aren’t paying attention,” she says.
Through sharing their art and stories of West Virginia, Spriggs and Haizlett interact with thousands of people around the world, many of whom had no previous connection to the state’s natural wonders. They frequently hear from people who want to see the species and spaces in their paintings. “I try to communicate that the forests, parks, and wilderness areas are places to treasure and protect,” says Haizlett. “I hope to encourage folks to get outside and explore these locations mindfully and reverently, making sure to leave them the way they found them so others can enjoy them long into the future.”
Laura Johnston is a conservation and creative professional. She’s thru-hiked the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, and is now exploring West Virginias’s wealth of wild trails.