Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Sense of Place

Have you ever traveled to a place that truly speaks to you, hugging you close like a new romance, begging you not to leave and waiting with open arms for your return? There's something intimate about returning to the same place over and over, building a relationship with one piece of land. Artists do it all the time. We find a spot that calls to us, and we visit it often, sketching and painting the same images in different weather conditions, throughout the seasons and at various times of day. By doing this one begins to take notice of changes in the light, colors, animals populations and plant life. Land ages as we do. New tenants take up residence and some leave forever. By using all your senses and being still, you can hear what the lands has to tell you, taking notice of what it reveals. By recording your impressions in a sketchbook with images and words, you are preserving a piece of history that may one day disappear.

I have two such places that draw me to them on a regular basis, but the most persuasive is Bodie Island. I apologize for once again writing about this spot but it constantly calls to me like a siren at sea. I have walked these roads and trails with my children throughout the years, marveling at the ibis, herons, kingfishers and turtles. We watched deer stepping softly on leaf-padded paths and rabbits slipping through their underbrush tunnels. Now I walk these trails with a close friend or by myself. Memories flood my brain full of quiet wonder, not as bittersweet as you might think, but joyous in all that has been shared with those I love.

For most of this summer, the heat and mosquitoes have kept me from visiting, waiting for the cooler weather to set in and lure me back to my familiar haunt. And so on Friday, even though I should have been locked up in the studio preparing for my shows, I grabbed my sketchbook and paints and spent a few hours on Bodie Island amidst Autumn who is just settling in, unpacking her foliage and donning her glow.

The plants, bushes and trees wore sap green, hooker's green, quinacridone burnt orange and cadmium yellow with a dappling of mixed violets in the shadows. Swipes of alizarin crimson and cobalt blue in the sky above and reflected in the rippled water below completed the scene. A surround-sound of bird calls filled the bushes, honking and squawking, while tiny fish jumped and splashed in the pool at the bottom of the creek. Friendly fishermen ambled down the road, calling out a hello as they headed back to their vehicles with a catch of metallic-scaled trout glinting in the abundant sunshine. But as I suspected, there were changes. The trails were overgrown, hiding the path into the wood. Only one familiar would know the way. And the water has edged up a bit onto the banks, pulling on the hem of the land like a toddler.

It has always been my practice to keep one sketchbook for everything from notes to myself to drawings of cats, bugs, trees, clouds, plants, along with glued in papers and newspaper clippings. But I decided to honor my favorite place with a handcrafted book all its own. I chose a chocolate brown hardcover book from the turn of the century entitled, Textbook of Phonography, stamped in gold lettering with a lovely embossed edging of flowers along the bottom. Since the definition of phonography is, shorthand writing based on sound, it fit the bill, sketching being my shorthand for all the senses.

I don't know how long it will take me to fill this little book but I will use it whenever I wander down to my favorite spot. When it becomes crammed with drawings and musings and not an inch is left to spare, I will lovingly close the cover, place it on my bookshelf and craft another volume, because I will always return to Bodie Island.

"And this our life exempt from public haunt finds its tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it."       -   Shakespeare

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,
Touch that vine and you'll be sick!

No magic beans needed here at The Crooked Little House. If you're looking for a vine to climb up to the giant's castle, you've come to the right place. Imagine taking a wire brush and scrubbing your arms and legs till you remove a layer of skin. Now put on the itchiest wool sweater you can find. That has been my state of existence for the past week, hence the small number of sketches to share, all from a vine I was assured was nothing to fear - Virginia Creepy, I mean Creeper.

My first Autumn back in the 90s at The Crooked Little House was sheer delight, lasting much longer than our brief fall season back in Massachusetts where I came from. My new abode offered me a slide show of unfamiliar plants and animals. Draping my neighbor's trees like Christmas garlands were the most beautiful vines that morphed from green to butterscotch to candy apple red in color, sprouting clusters of large, grape jelly-colored berries on bright, red stems. I asked my neighbor about the vines, and she told me the name of them and said not to worry, they aren't poisonous. And she is right, they don't contain any poison whatsoever. But like Merlin, their power is in the crystals. I just didn't know that yet. So when the vines began to overtake my favorite cherry tree, blanketing the trunk and limbs, I decided enough already and began to yank them down. They came off the branches easily and one tug would release them from the ground, in a harmless sort of way. I mean something vile wouldn't allow itself to be torn up that easily would it?

Poison ivy, oak and sumac all have plant oils that contain a substance called urushiol, and this is what causes the rash and the itching. Virginia Creeper doesn't have that. But what it does contain in its sap are oxalate crystals. And for some individuals like me, the reaction can be much worse than a mere dose of poison ivy. So after a few days of madness, off I went to see Dr. Joe who had had his own encounter with Virginia Creeper. After a round of prednisone, I am still itching though admittedly not as badly as in the beginning. I guess I'll just have to let it run its course since I'm not willing to take any more steroids. With my jungle scratched arms and bloated face, I appear to be an early Halloween decoration.

So now I know what to avoid in my yard. I'll have to work at keeping the vines down to a minimum. When it gets cooler and I can tolerate bundling up, I'll pull out the poison ivy by the rain barrel. I'll cut back the hideous catbriar that that has been trying to get into the windows through the screens. And I'll wage war on the rest of the Virginia Creeper.

Thankfully not all vines are a threat to my well being. I love the honeysuckle that perfumes the air each spring, wafting through the kitchen window in the wee hours of the morning. And I am quite fond of the trumpet vine that covers the pergola, popping out masses of red blossoms luring in hummingbirds, bees and assorted bugs, plus providing shade for a lazy summer afternoon. But keep in mind what the Founder of Cynicism, Diogenes, said. "The vine bears three kinds of grapes: the first of pleasure, the second of intoxication, the third of disgust." Interpret any way you like.

FYI : I have found a great solution for working around these troublesome plants. Take a pair of tube socks and cut off the feet. Pull them up over your arms, from wrists to elbows, then put on gloves. This will assure you total coverage. Now I just need to devise a foolproof way to defrock without touching anything.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

 Did you see that bird call?

I have once again fallen in love. I know, I know, I've said it before, but this time it's different. This new love is at least of my own species. Unfortunately he's no longer available, having passed away in 1967. As Roseann Rosannadanna used to say, "Well Jane, it just goes to show you. It's always something."

For a long time I've been fascinated with trying to paint sounds and smells and air and movement, along with the "essence" of my chosen subject. I do this with squiggles and curved lines for the flight path of insects and wind blowing through the trees, circles and dashes for birds and bug calls, spring-like symbols for bursting blooms, and other mark making including what appear to be auras around trees and animals. I believe that like us, they too put forth an energy field.

I don't usually include this experimentation in my whimsical work, but if you look closely, you might spot a trace of a bird call or a glow coming off a tree limb. It's not that I see sounds or movement the way I see Buddha and Erb. (That's called Synesthesia - a neurological condition in which one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to an involuntary experience in a second cognitive pathway. There are over 60 types of synesthesia involving sounds, colors, numbers, letters, etc.) It's more like I "feel" what a sound would look like if it became visible. And to my surprise I discovered another artist that "sees" what I do. How could I not have known about him?

Which brings me to the topic of today's post, discovering a new love by the name of Charles Burchfield, 1893 - 1967, one of America's premier watercolorists. Most of his work focused on nature with subjects like his garden, snow turning to slush, insect sounds, vibrating stars (similar to Van Gogh), the forest at dusk, the changing of the seasons and atmospheric conditions. In his visionary art he used a personal calligraphy, a type of shorthand of symbolic marks. Some experts hint that he might have had a form of synesthesia. Innovative genius would be how I would describe him no matter where his inspiration came from. But what I love most is that he painted what moved him whether anyone else liked it or understood it. It pleased him and brought him joy. I also believe when an artist becomes this involved with his subject, it can help him understand other areas of his life that he may question. And Burchfield certainly had questions.

Google him, then hit images. See what moved him. You don't have to like his work but you will appreciate the fact he had his own way of seeing the world, and that's what makes an artist stand out from those that just paint certain subjects because they know they will sell. You too just might find you've discovered a new love.

Because of copyright issues I will not reproduce a sample of his work. But here is an image of one of his books. Suggested reading from my library:

Charles Burchfield's Seasons
Heat Waves in a Swamp
The Poetry of Place, Charles Burchfield's Journals

"If you take any activity, any art, any discipline, any skill, take it and push it as far as it will go, push it beyond where it has ever been before, push it to the wildest edge of edges, then you force it into the realm of magic."

                                - Tom Robbins

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Time Is On My Side

When the year begins to wind down and rest its bones, I contemplate aging and the fact that I too, like a wind up clock, am slowing down. I am no longer as flexible as I once was, have a memory that sometimes play tricks on me, and find I need to watch my diet a little more carefully. But it's not all gloom and doom. One thing has improved, my creativity. I find as I age, I let loose a little more, become more curious and take risks, not caring so much about pleasing an audience, finding it's more worthwhile to please myself. To my delight, I find aging to be a rather freeing adventure, and I like who I'm becoming.

This fall, I am once again preparing a show of new work for one of my galleries, taking a bit of a risk this time. Instead of a menagerie of paintings, I'm working with a theme dear to my heart. The title of the show is, Once Upon A Time and will be a selection of paintings based on favorite childhood stories. But of course, they will be done my way, with a twist. And some will be rather dark, therein lies the twist. Stay with me now.

Once again, nature has taught me a lesson, this time on aging. Young trees are flexible, still making decisions about which way to bend, who to be friendly with and who to push out of the way for their own well being. They are self-centered yet pretty to look at with their new bark and shiny leaves. But what makes me stop in my tracks are the older trees with arthritic joints, hunched over from the constant winds, wrinkles and lines scaling up and down their trunks, and dry, brittle limbs with thinning leaves. They have stories to tell, and I am eager to listen.

So when choosing a setting for my version of Little Red Riding Hood, I went to an old tree I've passed by many times at Aviation Park. I always stop to admire its self-confident stance and bold character, but have never done any sketches of it. Though I often take students to this location to sketch, this tree is a bit intimidating for a beginner, puffing its trunk up and foreshortening its limbs in a show-offy kind of way. It could slip into any fairy tale with ease, shielding villains, hosting a musical in its branches, or opening up a tangle of roots for an elf to slip inside. So with a bit of artistic license, I modeled my wolf's setting after this tree.

I've added a couple of pics of some of the other paintings that will be included in the show, just to show you what happens when the field sketching ends and the finished work begins.

Of course there are always exceptions to the rules, thank goodness. My sons, with their youth, are forging their way with so much to offer; one healing the body, the other healing the soul.  And I "met" another exception recently. He'll know who he is if he reads this. This young man has it all, new bark, shiny leaves and stories of his own to tell. How lucky I am to be able to work with this multi-talented man and more importantly, to learn from him. So I guess the lesson is, age really doesn't matter, it's what we do with our time.

"None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm."   -  Thoreau

Sunday, September 2, 2012

It's the Little Things...

As I go about my morning errands or head out to a sketching location, nature always tags along, capturing my attention in a variety of ways, like a stand of trees humming with cicadas, a V of ducks quacking over the bay, or a black swallowtail butterfly skipping over my windshield, catching in the draft before tumbling itself right again to float off in search of whatever he is looking for. I take note of these offerings, writing about them in my sketchbook when I make a stop before I lose the freshness of the feelings they evoke. But I realize I need to pay more attention to the smaller signs of Mother Nature's determination.

As you know by now, I worry about our impact on nature, seeing firsthand the results of pollution, overdevelopment and irresponsibility by humans. Heck, just the sheer number of road kill on my island tells me a lot. I know an opossum that's a victim of a hit and run in the plain light of day, stumbling and falling before dying in my arms while her babies scramble to stay in the pouch, will not impact the species. But it caused a sadness to well up in my heart because we are so desensitized to the suffering of other sentient beings. Thank goodness we have a wonderful veterinarian that takes on the welfare of wildlife and those babies were saved.

But one morning this week, I noticed an exuberance from Mother Nature, a tenaciousness, persistence and steadfastness that renews my hope she will survive despite our best efforts to eradicate all traces of her. This week's sketches are not particularly beautiful nor dramatic. But I do feel they are significant, offering comfort, at least to me, that it's not too late to reach a harmonious balance. Even as I notice plants wedging their way between the cracks in my driveway, I have to marvel at their Olympian feats. Unidentifiable greenery pushes up through the planks of a nearby boardwalk. Emerald leaves decorate the threshold of a friend's garage. At the post office, a greenish, spidery length of flora has made its home dead center in the canary yellow, concrete parking bumper. And at a local establishment, what looks like alien lifeforms draw hieroglyphics across the ceiling. (This is a perfect example of living in the moment, not knowing when you will be swept away with a broom or yanked out by your roots!)

"I believe a blade of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars."     -  Walt Whitman

FYI : Opossums are not mean, vicious animals. I have an elderly one that lives in my yard, rather sweet actually. Occasionally I will find him in the spring, sunbathing on the driveway behind my car, so I'll carefully relocate him. He looks like he's in a stupor because he's cold and needs to warm up. They will hiss and growl, but rarely bite and do not carry rabies. BUT I have experience handling wild animals. If you find any animal in distress, call animal control for help. But please, don't just walk away.