Creator Spotlight: Kadi Franson

The artist, designer, and citizen scientist illustrates the natural world around her and spreads ecological messages from her Bryce Canyon home.
Collaged image with a photo of artist and Noun Project icon designer Kadi Franson posing with her own watercolor paintings of birds and flowers

Kadi Franson is an artist and Noun Project creator addressing ecological resilience and loss during the Anthropocene, the geological era of human impact. Illustration work keeps her buoyant and often advocates for eco-literacy. Additionally, she is a licensed architect in the state of Utah with a special interest in sustainable design, and an educator. She lives in the Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon National Park with her favorite park ranger. She is an amateur naturalist and citizen scientist, and has affectionately dubbed their cabin the “Nuthatch Field Station.” She writes a nature column for her local newspaper, The Insider, called “Notes from the Nuthatch.” You can join her in learning about the natural world on her blog.

Hi Kadi! Tell us a bit about yourself — when did you first become interested in art and design, and how did you get to where you are today?

The path to where I am today is a maze sprinkled with breadcrumbs (or cookie crumbs). I was raised in rural Texas, in a renegade trailer community buried in cedar and mesquite trees off the side of the highway. We burned our trash in barrels and the neighbors made “redneck phone calls” by shooting their guns into the air. We were feral children that spent a lot of time chasing armadillos in the woods.

Vector icon of woman flying on magic carpet to symbolize “creativity” available for download as a transparent PNG from Noun Project
“Creativity” icon.

I was always inclined towards art-making, even as a little girl. I was emancipated at 16 but managed to attend college at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which helped to shape and direct my creativity. I’ve had over fifty jobs, from working nights at a cabinet factory, to pushing people down water slides at a holiday-themed amusement park. Life has been colorful — lots of hats! I ended up moving from Oakland to rural Utah because the universe threw me a real wildcard: I fell in love with a park ranger that I met on the trail.

Tell us about life at the Nuthatch Field Station — what do you do there and what does it mean to be a “citizen scientist”?

The Nuthatch is our cabin — an historic building constructed in the 1930’s in Bryce Canyon National Park. I nicknamed it “The Nuthatch Field Station” as a way of acknowledging the spirit of things, framing intentions for its occupancy, and honoring the nuthatches that are a part of our daily lives here. I had spent some time at a banding station in California when my sister was working as a conservation ecologist and felt very inspired. My field station efforts consist of writing checklists of the birds that I see and submitting them to a global database, finding nesting birds and monitoring them for Nestwatch, chronicling observations of plants and animals by camera, audio recorder, trail cam, and in my field/nature journal, and escorting any encroaching cabin mice back into the forest. I also volunteer with the Resources Division at the park and am on the Search and Rescue team.

A glimpse into Kadi’s nature journal, including an exquisite finding of a Glovers Silk Moth.

Being a citizen scientist is about paying attention and contributing what you learn. Anyone who is curious about the world and willing to honor their sense of wonder by attending to their surroundings can be a citizen scientist. It doesn’t matter where you live. The power of citizen science can be remarkable! The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s is a fantastic example of this — birders from all over the planet contribute data that helps researchers better understand massive phenomena like migration patterns and how climate change is impacting species populations. You can learn more about citizen science projects already underway here.

What are your favorite themes and topics to explore?

Nature, ecology, social and environmental justice, and what it means to live during the Anthropocene (the era of human impact). Also whimsical silliness and flights of fancy.

Some of my illustrations were originally created in a doodle session but later took on a life of their own — for example, the “Women” collection ended up being used in fundraising merchandise for a nonprofit in Vermont called “Story Yoga” that offers yoga teacher training for folks recovering from addiction.

“Self-Restoration Pod,” “Mirroring,” and “Moonbraided” illustrations, which later came to be used as merchandise for Story Yoga.
Collection of illustrative figure drawings of women rendered as vector icons on Noun Project, designed by creator Kadi Franson
“Women” icon collection on Noun Project.

What are the most important ecological messages you want to convey, and how do you use your work to bring them to life visually?

I often use art, whether within the framework of my contemporary art practice or my illustration practice or other, to try and inspire folks to learn about their bioregion and to bear witness. To acknowledge it all, even if it breaks your heart. Things are happening fast, now. My contemporary art practice serves as a placeholder for conversation, abstract artifacts that lead the way into a space of emotional inquiry, inviting folks to acknowledge and process the feelings that come up while living through this unprecedented time, to act on behalf of what they love. My illustration practice strives to encourage eco-literacy, celebrates nature, and encourages citizen science. My “birds” collection on Noun Project is from the Christmas Bird Count — they were originally drawn to help promote the annual event here at Bryce Canyon.

Illustrations to promote the Audobon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.
Collection of bird icons on Noun Project, taken from a field journal of nature sketches and environmental illustrations from naturalist, artist, graphic designer and citizen scientist Kadi Franson
“Birds” icon collection on Noun Project.

What are your favorite media to work in and why?

Toned paper, a mechanical pencil, micron pens, watercolor, iridescent pigment, white gouache, and porcelain clay. I love pairing tight lines with unruly color splotches, mediums that are luminous and referential of reverence and mystery, like iridescent pigment, and mediums that are ghostly and convey bleached coral and bone, like white gouache. I like the earthiness of toned paper, the silky sensitivity and memory of porcelain clay.

Tattered Chrysalis” painting and detail.

How did you originally discover the Noun Project and why did you decide to contribute some of your illustrations and icons there?

I discovered the Noun Project a long time ago when I was in architecture school — we were constantly scrambling to get presentation boards together and would need a symbol for “neighborhood” or “light bulb.” It was a total lifesaver! I was generating similar content at the time so decided to contribute. I believe that “street light” was the first icon I shared.

What have been your favorite projects to work on, or the ones that have the most meaning for you?

I carry a sweet little pride in illustrating the Bryce Canyon National Park Junior Ranger Field Book. It’s satisfying to be riding my bike around the park and see some visiting kid reclined in a camp chair with a field book in their grubby paws. It was a pleasure to work on it in collaboration with my husband, who is a ranger at the park and designed the learning content. I illustrated it from a place of love for him and love for our surroundings. He is currently animating some of the illustrations for use in K-12 classrooms and the park’s visitor center — I got to do the voice of the hummingbird! Also, we delight in making our visiting friends complete the workbook and then “pledging them in” as Junior Rangers at our cabin.

Kadi’s Illustrations for the Bryce Canyon National Park Junior Ranger Field Book.

What’s one thing you’ve learned from living in Bryce Canyon National Park, and one message you’d want to tell people this Earth Day?

The ponderosa pine forest ecosystem that I live in at Bryce Canyon National Park teaches me to pay attention, invites me into relationship with it, and offers space for sadness, joy, wonder, and inspiration, reminding me that I’m held in deep kinship within a colossal web of life. If I could offer one Earth Day message to someone reading this, I’d encourage them to root in place. To take hold, wherever they are, as best as they can, and to pledge their allegiance. To be brave. To choose joy over despair, and to use whatever influence they may have, even if it’s very small, to act out of care for what they love.

“Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy.”

― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
Icon collection on Noun Project by Kadi Franson. Black and white vector illustrations of birders and bird watchers available for download as png icons with transparent backgrounds.
Top: Afew of the friends Kadi has made in Bryce Canyon. Bottom: Birder icons from Kadi’s ”Birds” Collection.

What’s up next for you?

Well, I just got a spotting scope for my birthday, so I imagine I’ll soon be out creeping along the edge of the prairie dog meadow, getting to work on letting my inner feral child run wild.

“Wherever you are, wherever you go, there are untamed creatures nearby that need your attention. Unplug your modem. Slam shut your self-help books. Quit standing around like a wall trout. Get to work.” 

— Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild.

Explore more of Kadi’s work on her Noun Project profile, and follow along with her adventures on her website and Nuthatch Field Station blog.

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Jeremy Elliott
Jeremy Elliott

Marketing Communications Manager at Noun Project, Designer and Illustrator.

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