• August 2010

Seeing nature through the eyes of film producer and author Kathleen Jo Ryan

By Susan Utell
Writer, film editor

There’s something magical about watching award-winning photographer Kathleen Jo Ryan at work.

Although she’s also won many awards for her books and videos, when there is a camera in her hand — and she is sitting stiller than still studying the landscape of the west, waiting for the perfect shot — there is a sense of peace and harmony that permeates the air. It engulfs everything in sight and absorbs those around her into the majesty of the landscape.

As her friend, and the film editor hired to work on her latest video, I can never get enough of it — or Kathleen. She is truly an inspiration.

I have no doubt that it is this magic that translates into the pages of her books. For more than two decades, she has intrigued nature lovers worldwide selling more than 125,000 books and videos — including Irish Traditions, Ranching Traditions: Living Legacy of the American West, and the companion video, Ranching with Charlie Daniels.

Other popular titles include: Writing Down the River: Into the Heart of the Grand Canyon, Deep in the Heart of Texas: Texas Ranchers in Their Own Words,
and Texas Cattle Barons: Their Families, Land, and Legacy. Click here to learn more.

“I was taught at a very young age that you can do whatever you want to, but you have to make it happen — not just talk about it,” she says. At the heart of her work, she is committed to showing that substance and truth are more powerful than myth.

Right to Risk

Kathleen is no stranger to risk. In fact, she takes creative and personal risks daily.

But to her, what she risks as an artist and businesswoman pales in comparison to the people for whom she has become an advocate for those who live with disabilities.

Back in 2006, she and her brother, John Ryan, produced the film, Right to Risk, which chronicles a 15-day, 225-mile white water rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.

The boats carried eight people with varying levels of physical disabilities — one was blind, another had Multiple Sclerosis, and there was a woman scientist who is quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair.

The film became a teaching tool and a film about overcoming the prejudice that restricts the life choices of the 54 million disabled people in our society.

“I didn’t know there were rules about what I could or couldn’t do and I believe that everyone should have the same opportunities to choose what they want to do with their life,” she shares. “My goal was simply to change common perceptions of disability. Most people consistently and dramatically underestimate virtually every measure of competence, productivity, and quality of life for those with disabilities. All that does is serve to reduce their opportunities. I wanted to change that.”

At the Film’s Core

It’s hard to miss the fact that this beautiful journey is about empowerment. As the adventurers ride along the serene landscape of Big Horn sheep, flowing waters, and ancient cliffs, you see them growing in confidence and comfort.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, of course, and the perception of that reality is what Kathleen says she found most interesting about the audience’s reaction.

“The disabled crowd would cheer and the non-disabled would struggle with the day-to-day normalcy of the trip,” she says. “My goal was to tell the life side of the story. We have become a nation of voyeurs that expect sensationalism, and that offends me. I wanted everyone to see these people as individuals. I think that we accomplished that mission.”

View a clip of film here.

Touching a Nerve

Kathleen’s work all seems to inspire others to go beyond what is comfortable and strive to be better.

In fact, Writing Down the River: Into the Heart of the Grand Canyon, inspired four women writers — veteran journalist Linda Ellerbee, novelist Denise Chávez, naturalist Ruth Kirk and writer and painter Barbara Thomas — to raft together down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. See info on that here.

“We met our fears head-on and renewed and re-examined our relationships with nature,” Ellerbee says, noting the program was inspired by Kathleen Jo Ryan’s award-winning book, Writing Down the River: Into the Heart of the Grand Canyon, a collection of Ryan’s photographs and essays by 15 distinguished female writers, including the four featured in this film.

Back to Basics: Embodying the Virtues of the 4-H Club — Head, Heart, Hands, and Health

Today, Kathleen lives on an island northwest of Seattle, WA, but as a young girl grew up on acres of land in Northern California. It was her avid involvement in the 4-H Club, however, that helped her develop life-skills, and also built her personal value system.

“The Junior Leadership 4-H program is exquisite because you are rewarded in direct proportion to your efforts,” says Kathleen, who took home honors as a 4-H Sacramento County All-Star, and second runner-up in the California State Citizenship program — prestigious accomplishments for the young woman who went on to hold executive positions, including years spent as the membership director for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau.

While city life excited her, she was compelled to return to the landscape and people of the American West. “I knew I wanted to make a difference and take my art to the next level,” she says. “It wasn’t easy at first, because in photography and videography there is a tendency to get in your own way and try to control things too much. Eventually, though, I learned to become purely an interpreter.”

Next Up: The American Trilogy

Kathleen’s next endeavor is to tell the story of the American West.

She has told part of this story in her stunning pictorial books, Ranching Traditions, and the companion video Ranching with Charlie Daniels. Ditto for Texas Cattle Barons, and companion book Deep in the Heart of Texas.

This time around, Kathleen is producing a trilogy about the women and men who run the ranches and landscape.

“Ranching families have a commitment to improve life not only for themselves and their family, but also for their communities, local and global,” she says, pointing to
Renie Smith, who runs the Cottonwood Guest Ranch with her husband Horace.

A spry and graceful woman in her 80s, Renie arrived at the ranch as a bride over 60 years ago. Today she says: “In this type of life it would be too harsh without softness, that feminine softness. Women are nurturers, and women create beauty. Not that men don’t, but on a ranch most women try to surround their families with a sense of beauty. Because this is our spiritual home.”

“Our purpose isn’t just to be retired folks and go south. Our purpose is to make this a more beautiful spot. And that is just as much our purpose now as it was sixty years ago. We’re still building and still planning.”

Kathleen found those words to be the inspirational purpose of the film. “It will reflect the invincible spirit of these ranchers, reflect an enduring optimism for the future,” she says. “I think we can all use a little dose of that.”

Stay tuned for that film series and book in 2011.

About Susan Utell

Susan Utell has worked in all aspects of the broadcast industry — including editorial experience cutting news and programming for San Francisco network affiliates KPIX, KQED and KGO.

Her advertising agency editorial experience began with a four-year employment at the Bay Area’s first full-fledged post-production facility, One Pass Film & Video. There, Susan worked with advertising agencies; JWTNYC/Chicago; McCann-Erickson; Foot, Cone & Belding; Riney & Associates; Y & R; Goodby, Silverstein and Partners; and Goldberg, Moser, O’Neill.

During her decades long freelance career, Susan has worked on documentaries for the History Channel, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, and PBS. She has an offline editing suite and painting studio in Sausalito, California.

For more information, visit www.susanutell.com.

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