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In a lot of ways, Justin Gibbens’ work goes well beyond being a creative outlet into a near spiritual concept. For the past 35-40 years, he’s been honing the skill he so embraces with all his heart, because it clears his head, should evil come knocking at his door.

Painting is as much a part of who he is as what he does, and when he doesn’t do it for awhile, his spirit becomes restless. The funk, as he calls it.

Gibbens is trained in both scientific illustration and traditional Chinese painting, which comes into play in his zoological drawings. He received his bachelor of arts in painting and drawing from Central Washington University in 1998, then added a Scientific Illustration Certificate from University of Washington in 2003. His work is collected by individuals and institutions throughout the Pacific Northwest, including Washington Arts Consortium, Grinnell College, Microsoft and the Tacoma Art Museum.

But it’s his latest endeavor that has taken his spirit to a new frontier. It wasn’t evil that came knocking on his door on a solitary road in Thorp, but opportunity in form of award-winning author David Guterson.

Guterson is best known for his award-winning debut novel, “Snow Falling on Cedars,” which won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award. It sold more than 4 million copies and was adapted as a major motion picture. He was in the process of formulating another book idea and exploring the idea of showcasing Gibbens’ illustrations as part of the deal.

“David sent me an email about interest in my work. He was a little vague and coy about it,” said Gibbens, who was the recipient of a 2006 Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award and the 2008 Artist Trust Fellowship Award. “He said he would be on a road trip to Central Washington and wanted to stop by the house. Then he said he wanted to bring by some books.

“And I’m thinking, ‘Who is this weird art stalker, who wants to unload his unpublished books?’”

But a quick Google search of David Guterson put it all in perspective, and he realized it truly was the opportunity of a lifetime that was knocking on his door.

“He showed up and took a look at my art work, but he still hadn’t told me his intentions. It wasn’t until I was escorting him to the door when he said, ‘I have a project. I need an illustrator, and I think you might be the person,’” Gibbens said. “The last thing he said was when my publisher calls, act surprised.

“I think he just wanted to find out who I was before he made a decision. During the course or our conversation, I shared my sense of naturalism, interest in wildlife, that I’d spent a lot of time hiking in the woods.”

That informal meeting of kindred spirits in a small art studio in Thorp blossomed into something bigger and a book called “Turn Around Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest,” by David Guterson with illustrations by Justin Gibbens.

In the liner notes, turn around time from an outdoor perspective is the point on a walk where you have to turn back in order to have enough time to return to camp. Guterson used the phrase as a metaphor to mean the middle of our lives, and his new narrative poem explores the idea through a lyrical journey along a trail, much like those in Washington’s mountain ranges he used to hike in while growing up.

The 144-page, hardcover “Turn Around Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest,” used 30 of Gibbens’ illustrations.

“David and the editor gave me quite a bit of creative freedom, the challenge was shaping the illustration to the imagery of the text,” Gibbens said. “In some ways, I might have liked a little more direction. But I was very happy with the final outcome.”

Premeditative thought is as much a part of his creative process as the drawing and the ink itself. He does some preliminary sketches, then hones it to come up with the concept.

From the sketch he does an overlay with tracing paper where he can make corrections. The design and ideas are worked out on the tracing paper before it goes on a projector, which allows him to adjust the size to its working formula.

“I need to know exactly where the lines are going to be,” said Gibbens, who lives in Thorp with his wife, Renee Adams. “There isn’t a lot of freehand movement on the final composition at this point. I need to be pretty precise.

“Once I get the lines down, then it becomes a glorified paint-by-numbers and I just fill in the detail.”

He hopes his collaboration of illustrations with the written word of Guterson creates the spirit of the forest and things worth preserving here in the Pacific Northwest.

Rodney Harwood: award-winning journalist and columnist. Lover of golf and the written word. I can be reached at


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