Guided by the Details
Mandy Mohler, of Field Guide Designs, creates stunning images by combining ordinary objects in unlikely ways.
“A bottle of Jaeger.
A small cast-iron skillet.
A menagerie of cabin contents ranging from the traditional accoutrements – a handheld radio, mousetraps, a lantern – to the delightfully quirky – an animal’s jaw bone, rolls of film, and a pair of leather suspenders.
These are just a sampling of the items that comprise Kalispell artist Mandy Mohler’s first taxonomy photograph, a visual distillation of the Spruce Park cabin in the Great Bear Wilderness Area. Mohler and a pair of musicians spent a week there as participants in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation’s Artist Wilderness Connection program, making art and forging connections with each other and the natural world around them.
In the scientific realm, taxonomies are naming systems used to classify organisms. But in her art, Mohler takes a visual approach, creating organized assemblies of tools related to individuals and their craft.
Her images are carefully arranged in painstaking detail, using only the most beautiful or interesting elements. “I like to find patterns in things to try and simplify it and make sense of it,” she said. “It’s a way of seeing everything all at once.”
Initially, Mohler was skeptical that viewers would connect with her Spruce Park cabin taxonomy in the same way she did. She wondered: who on Earth would buy pictures of someone else’s tools?
“It turned out that people are really nostalgic,” Mohler acknowledged. “There were people that actually had their own personal experiences with specific objects that were in that forest service cabin.”
They had sipped coffee from that same Conrad Mansion mug or spotted a flashlight that reminded them of one their dad used to own. The items in her taxonomy were more than the things themselves – they were beacons of memory.
What began as a one-off project in the woods morphed into a series. Mohler has since captured the tools of fishermen, ski patrollers, mountain climbers and more. She went on to found Field Guide Designs, an online store where she sells prints of her artwork along with a highly curated assortment of nature-inspired home goods and apparel.
When a local gallery asked Mohler to participate in a joint exhibition focused on the theme of humans and nature, she decided to create more taxonomies. This time, she turned her lens not just on the objects, but also on the people who made their careers in the great outdoors. She shot portraits of the individuals, capturing the tools of their specific trades and ran the two images side-by-side as a diptych. The project forced Mohler, a self-professed introvert, out of her shell.
“I would never shoot the portrait first,” she explained. “I would always spend an hour or two arranging their tools and having them talk to me where I didn’t have to make a lot of eye contact with them.”
She also made a point of documenting her subjects as they were. Rips in clothing or bandaged hands were celebrated, not hidden away.
“That’s the kind of portraiture I like the most. It’s not the Instagram-filtered [kind] … it’s the rugged, raw, real life people with pores,” she said.
In the early days, Mohler’s taxonomy documentation process was more than a little precarious. At one point, a friend had to hold onto her belt loops so she could lean over a collection of tools with her camera. Her methods have evolved with time – now she shoots from scaffolding in her small studio, which is safer, but by no means easy. Just arranging the items in the taxonomy alone can take hours – sometimes an entire day to create a single frame.
“It’s physical,” Mohler said of her work, “It’s hard to do.”
Mohler’s curations have gained national notoriety – Sunset Magazine has featured her twice and Pottery Barn now licenses a selection of her images. When friends travel, they often comment that they’ve come across her work hanging in vacation rentals. Other times, customers will let her know that one of her prints was the perfect gift for their impossible-to-buy-for partner or relative. For that artistic success and connection with her viewers, she feels incredibly fortunate.
“The thing that’s hard about art is you make it for yourself initially,” Mohler said, “and then I think you get lucky if it speaks to other people.”
Mandy Mohler, Photographed by Karen Minton
Photos: Mandy Mohler
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