Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

For Dianne Stearns, art is as much about teaching as it is about learning.

The Sonora resident and artist has long been teaching classes and workshops in and out of the area to students of all ages. And Stearns says she often learns as much from that process as she has over years of taking classes and workshops of her own.

"The thing that has taught me very well is teaching my students," she said earlier this week.

Stearns will take another step as a teacher, student and artist this fall as an artist in residence for the Stanislaus National Forest's Artist in the Woods program. As a participating artist, she will complete a piece of forest-inspired work and also lead a workshop next weekend.

The program will also allow her to combine art with another love. As a longtime Mother Lode resident and avid horseback rider, Stearns is passionate about the forest where she spends as much time as she can.

"I feel most alive and the most gratitude in the forest," she said.

Stearns was one of two chosen to be artists in residence for the Stanislaus National Forest this year, picked from applicants to create a sense of stewardship for the beauty and cultural resources the forest has to offer.

She will spend time in October at a cabin in the forest while painting a watercolor piece inspired by the landscape, which will eventually be used on marketing materials for the national forest. She will also teach an open workshop through the program on Oct. 13 at Dodge Ridge.

The other 2012 Artist in the Woods, Joshua Cripps, conducted his workshop in September.

An accomplished watercolor painter, engraver, calligrapher and graphic designer, Stearns said her artistic skills didn't show up early. As a young girl, she said, she didn't show particular talent for the visual arts.

But what she says she didn't have in natural talent, she made up in experiences. Stearns grew up with a family that made their own gifts, sewed their own clothes, made their own food and undertook many other creative endeavors.

When she got older, she was in 4-H and took to art and craft activities like leather work, ceramics, lithographs, woodcuts and mural paintings.

"It started at home," she said of her artistic endeavors.

And it blossomed at home, as well. Stearns initially studied and pursued a career as a nurse. But when her son, Forest - now in his 30s - was young, Stearns said she wanted to find a way to work and stay home with him. She said she created three small business outlets in her home, focusing on graphic art, calligraphy and freehand glass engraving.

She has studied as a painter at workshops around the world, working with masters to hone her vibrant, colorful style. But Stearns says much of what she learns as an artist comes from people she is instructing.

She regularly teaches classes, retreats and workshops for all ages, and has a regular position working with youth at an after school program in Jamestown. She also is starting with the new youth art academy organized by the Central Sierra Arts Council.

Art education, she believes, can teach as much about creativity as it about life skills. She pointed to a recent project in the Jamestown program in which students made jewelry, with the process including marketing inventory and sales. The students are selling some of the products, with the proceeds going to charity.

"I totally see them building social skills," she said. "In my class, you're able to create while having discussions."

And for Stearns, herself, education is a constant process that doesn't begin or end in a classroom or with titles like teacher or student.

"I find that as a teacher, the way that I learn very well besides the basic study is if I see my students struggle, they either need a little more practice on that or I didn't explain it correctly. If you're struggling, I didn't teach it well correctly."

Stearns often looks to nature for her own artistic inspiration, so it's no surprise that she is a regular visitor of the Stanislaus National Forest backcountry. A horse owner and rider, she and her husband, Ron, often take pack trips into the wilderness to enjoy the "untouched, primitive" surroundings.

She also works to see that others can enjoy the same. As a member of the Backcountry Horsemen of California, she helps with projects to repair and maintain forest trails that accommodate hikers, riders and mountain bikers.

"It's important we all know this is our forest, it belongs to us," she said.

Though with all of her artistic accomplishments, Stearns said she believes her biggest one isn't on canvas, glass or parchment. Forest himself has become an accomplished artist, and is working for a design firm.

Growing up in an artistic household, it's no surprise he's "dripping with art," she said.

"He's my main masterpiece," she said.

For more information about the Oct. 13 workshop, visit