Sunday, January 27, 2013

The "Art" of Teaching

I am of the belief that everyone is capable of producing a good sketch or drawing if they just learn a few basic skills and are willing to devote a small amount of time to practice. Nature is the perfect subject, and in many parts of the world, sketching from nature is a staple of a good education, as respected a subject as math or language. Of course you don't have to be able to draw to keep a nature journal, but I think it adds to the enjoyment of the student and makes a sketchbook much more pleasing if you can produce an accurate account of what has been witnessed in nature. Working from a photograph is not the same as working from life. You need to get out there, feel the wind, hear the birds sing, or bring the "out there" inside. I've been keeping nature journals for many years so I'm sharing some pics from older sketchbooks this time. They have brought me enormous joy, educated me, and jogged my memory making them the most important work I've ever done.

I had the pleasure this week of teaching the first session of a three part workshop on keeping a nature journal. When I asked my students what they were hoping to get out of the workshop, responses varied from getting closer to nature, God and spirituality. Every religion agrees we are deeply connected to the earth, yet many of us have forgotten, becoming so wrapped up in technology and the busyness of daily life. This is now called, Nature Deficit Disorder. a problem for children and adults alike. My goal is getting people to remember the joys of spending time outside and recording those feelings. By drawing, you focus and use all your senses, really experiencing the moment at hand. The connection to nature is palpable if you just step outside.

Many of my students fear they can't draw at all or feel they are out of practice and may never get the skills back. Some had the unfortunate experience when they were young of having a teacher who was more concerned with their own ego rather than helping their students learn. I love sharing what I know and once again, in this current class, I found that every single person could indeed produce a lovely sketch, something they can be incredibly proud of. Many already have a unique style all their own and others will develop one. I have to ponder what they would be capable of if they decide to pursue their art, and I think what we would be missing if they chose not to allow us to glimpse the world through their eyes. We are historians, all of us, when we record the world around us. Nature journal entries are valuable for a number of reasons - documenting weather, species activities, places that may disappear in time. The advantage for the artist is learning to see what's really there and being still, meditating and calming the spirit. It's about being in the present moment.

So over the next two weeks I'll be watching these artists grow and give birth to sketches and drawings and writings that celebrate our earth. And they will prompt me to wonder what else I might be capable of if I just try.

"Enlightenment" a Zen Master has said, "is simply this: When I walk, I walk. When I eat, I eat. When I sleep, I sleep."

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Out of the Fog

I find the ocean pleasant enough but my heart lies in the swampy, mucky marsh where unseen things slither and hop and crawl. But this past week produced fog almost every day, and like a classic black and white movie it lured me across the road to breathe the briny air and take a stroll on the sand.

A favorite access dumped me onto the beach, greeted by high tide. Where I usually turn right on the sand, I felt a pull to turn left. There were no treasures in sight, but off in the distance I spied a dark mass near the edge of the water; maybe a piece of driftwood I could haul home if not too heavy. But as I got closer I realized it was a large bird tucked into itself. I didn't want to disturb it but something seemed wrong so I slowly approached expecting it to move away. The bird raised its head but made no effort to get away, and I saw the telltale red eye and the white spots on the dark feathers. It was a loon that had become stranded on the beach, a death sentence from starvation or a roaming animal if I didn't intervene.

Loons spend their whole lives on the water and need a large water runway to become airborne. Their legs are positioned far back on their body making walking difficult and clumsy. Unlike most birds that have hollow bones, many of a loon's bones are solid making them heavy, great for diving and staying submerged. This bird was no doubt exhausted and possibly injured.

My plan of a leisurely walk along the shoreline quickly changed. I took my favorite gray sweater and wrapped it tightly around the bird, encasing its wings and feet so he wouldn't become a problem in my car as I was driving. This bird was long and heavy, 10 or 11 pounds. He was fairly calm, laying his large head along my upper arm like a tired toddler as I walked to the car. Off I went to our wildlife veterinarian on the next island. My little car has hauled pelicans, gannets, turtles, opossum and other island creatures. Now I can add a loon to the list. I keep a large cat carrier, crabber's gloves and a blanket in the car at all times because inevitably my path will intersect with another animal needing assistance.

The vet would check him over for injuries and let him rest and recover before releasing him the next day. Anywhere else, if someone walked into the local veterinarian's office cradling a loon, people would take notice. Not here. It barely ruffled a feather. The tech came over, (the same one that helped me with the opossum last year spring), and took the loon to the back. She returned and handed me my sweater wet with loon poop, reminding me to wash it to get rid of the lice.

So when I have those times that I think I can't take any more hurricanes or tourists or sand spurs, I recall days like this when I held a loon in my arms.

"Life is not made of the number of breaths we take, but of the moments that take our breath away."
                                                                                                       source unknown

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Slow and Steady...

My turquoise panels for a spring show.
I have found that for me, slowing down can be more productive than rushing around trying to do three things at once. I was reminded of this just yesterday as I was revamping my display panels in anticipation of an upcoming show. As I was cutting the panels down, I found myself forcing the saw in an effort to hurry up so I could get on with the fun part of painting. I kept struggling, pushing harder and harder on the saw, meeting with resistance. So I stopped and took a deep breath, realizing there was plenty of time to do all I wanted. I decided to slow down, stop forcing it and let the tool do the work for which it was intended, and the job went much smoother.

Letters awaiting a response.
Even though I use a computer, have a digital camera and a cell phone which I forget to turn on, I find I get the most pleasure out of doing things consciously, slowly and mindfully, savoring the task at hand. Sometimes it means doing things the way they were done years ago before we decided to live our lives in a cyclone. Technology is miraculous and it has literally saved my life as some of you know. But instead of an email, I'd rather hear my son's voice on the telephone, listening to his excitement or frustration and being able to respond with pleasure or comfort. I prefer to hold a letter in my hand, admiring the care it took to craft it with inserts and unique penmanship. January is after all, National Penmanship Month. I don't know a single person that wouldn't enjoy a handwritten letter tucked among the bills and junk mail in their mailbox.

I belong to a group called The Letter Exchange, pen pals like when we were kids. I correspond with people of all ages from all over the country, mostly artists and nature lovers. It's been an interesting way to meet people who value the same things I do. My artist friends and I illustrate our letters and decorate our envelopes. With my naturalist friends I'll share the sighting of the flicker hammering the joints of the mimosa tree looking for a meal and the premature blushing of the bushes, turning pink with hopes of an early spring.

I added a pumpkin seed packet and some sketches.
And to keep life on track, I still prefer to use an old fashioned engagement book which I then alter by adding some of my own collage material and drawings. These datebooks make great sketchbooks since they are already divided into months, urging me to sketch seasonal images in all the space I can find. I love to open it up and see everything laid out in order for the upcoming week. Each book is a complete year of my life, what I did, what was important at the time, where I went and what I saw. I'm hoping my kids will enjoy looking at them in future years.
The bird was already in the book, the rest is my work.

These things may be time consuming but because of that I learn to fully appreciate what they represent. They allow me to contemplate where my time is spent and remember the importance of everyday life, the little moments. But mostly, they keep me in tune with the ever turning, spinning universe we all share.

"There is more to life than increasing its speed."   Ghandi

Sunday, January 6, 2013


I have always preferred my new year to take its first conscious breath quietly, as if waking up from a nap on a cold afternoon rather than with a newborn scream or a bang of fireworks. It has been my custom for as long as I can remember to wander the woods or marsh on the first of 365 new days, a place where I can sense the world in a suspended state, breathing deeply through the ripples in the water and the wind rustling Autumn's leftover leaves.

In the past, when my children were young, we would take a New Year's Day stroll to a beloved haunt from my childhood and theirs called Stanley Park where there were acres of enchanted woods to explore. When we relocated to the Outer Banks in the 90s, our New Year's walk took place on Bodie Island, wandering the trails and contemplating the water in the creeks and sound. But as children tend to do, my boys grew up and chased their own dreams. Three became two, and then there was one. So now I tuck my memories into my field bag along with my sketchbook and pencils, wondering if my children still celebrate the arrival of the new year with nature playing a supporting role.

Bodie Island has always been my "go to" place to welcome in the new year, but with sorely neglected trails, due to lack of funding I'm guessing, making them impassable, I decided to head to a new flirtation, Sandy Run Park. This year the weather has been so unpredictable I didn't wait for New Year's Day but took advantage of a clear afternoon and one son agreeing to accompany me on a short foray on Christmas Eve. And on New Year's Eve I was lured back knowing that New Year's Day would be spitting raindrops.

The empty boardwalk echoed with our footsteps in the winter-whisper quiet. Even the few people we encountered nodded and passed in a hush, lost in their own reflections and hopes. The Yellow Bellied Sliders and Painted Turtles no longer crowded the water near the walkway waiting for handfuls of popcorn or cereal or bread. They have muddied down, spending their days and nights dreaming of spring and turtle love. Hiding places in snags and fallen logs now appear with no illusions, stripped bare and exposed, open to the raw winds now that the surrounding foliage has lost its grip and plunged to the ground. Two pairs of Mallards found safety on the back pond, hiding from the duck hunters that now work the marshes.
I became intrigued by the Bald Cypress knees, more visible in the stagnant water now that the reeds and grasses are past their prime. The knees grow up from the roots of the trees, popping through the murky water like creatures from a Tolkien tale. Some believe these projections help to bring needed oxygen to the root system though there is no concrete evidence of that. More likely is the theory that these knees act as a stabilizer for the tree itself.

I saw very little in the way of feathers, fur or scales besides the ducks and an occasional hawk overhead. But by using all my senses I could detect life all around me. I could feel small creatures watching and waiting for me to pass by, and I heard rustling in the grasses. Enormous circles appeared in the still water where something had splashed, and shadows flitted in and out of the tightly packed trees. Everyone is still here. They are just being quiet and reflective, like me.

"One regret, dear world, that I am determined not to have when I am lying on my deathbed is that I did not kiss you enough."   -   Hafiz