Week 47: Preparing for Winter

Detail, Preparing for Winter

Detail, Preparing for Winter

As the days get colder, we are pulling the winter coats out of the closet, and lighting the fireplace in the family room. We put on extra layers, make tea or hot chocolate, grab a good book (or the iPad), and warm our feet on the hearth. In the mornings, the dew has turned to ice, and the front lawn sparkles with frost. Holly and I postpone our long walk to later in the day when the sun has taken the chill from the landscape. The cold weather brings a reminder of gratitude for the warmth and shelter we easily take for granted out here in the cozy suburbs.

The leaves have all fallen now, and we see the bare branches of the trees, dotted with leafy bundles of squirrels’ nests. I look out the back windows to the woods behind our house, and with the absence of foliage, I can see deep into the open forest. As the trees and thickets become thinner and more transparent, where are the animals taking shelter? I imagine the bears move back towards the mountains and find their caves, while the rabbits and foxes retreat below ground. The deer move deeper into the woods, seeking wind break and cover from evergreens. The squirrels busily gather acorns, stuffing their cheeks. It’s time to prepare for Winter.

Preparing for Winter, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Preparing for Winter, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Preparing for Winter

Detail, Preparing for Winter

Detail, Preparing for Winter

Detail, Preparing for Winter

Detail, Preparing for Winter

Detail, Preparing for Winter

Detail, Preparing for Winter

Detail, Preparing for Winter

Detail, Preparing for Winter

Detail, Preparing for Winter

Week 46: Thanksgiving

I normally steer clear of symbolic images from popular culture, preferring instead to stay safely wrapped in my own obscure personal iconography. I like my comfortable world of diminutive landscapes, little trees, tiny animals, and falling leaves. I like making small-scale pictures with places to wander and stories to tell. But there is a time and place for creating a bolder, singular statement. I genuinely love holiday traditions, so I decided to take on the challenge of the iconic Thanksgiving turkey. (Christmas Trees, you are next!) I could hear the groans of my inner critic, screaming “Don’t do it! It will be trite! It will be a cliché! It is impossible to pull off!” Smiling to myself, I continued on. Using a combination of collage papers, charcoal, ink pen, colored India Inks, and acrylic paint, I reveled in the rich textures and colors of turkey feathers. I enjoyed each sweep of the charcoal, every small stroke of the pen, the fervent flow of colorful ink, and the tactile release of each blob of paint. I felt gratitude for the opportunity to sit here in my studio and create, choosing curiosity over fear. When I was almost finished decorating every feather, I discovered that my turkey had a message for me. It came first in a whisper, and then in a loud, warbling, joyful voice. So I scribbled this message on a piece of paper and glued it right onto the collage: “Be thankful for your Colorful Life.”

Thanksgiving, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Thanksgiving

Detail, Thanksgiving

Detail, Thanksgiving

Week 45: Homework

Max concentrates on his Math homework.

Max started fourth grade this Fall. A regular part of our nightly ritual is sitting down at the kitchen table together to check over his homework, which hopefully has been completed before dinner. I love listening to him explain his thinking, or thoughtfully articulate a question. I remember the satisfying sensation of simple math, the security of knowing that this type of question has an answer that is either correct or incorrect. No gray areas, no lingering doubts, just the pleasure of watching the solution come to light.

A dramatic discovery is made.

And then there are other types of questions that require words and lengthy explanations. It is fun to participate in this spirit of open curiosity: What causes thunder and lightning? What is a hurricane? Where does rain come from? One evening I pointed out the beautiful moon, and was surprised to hear Max reply, “Mom, that is a waxing crescent.” He went on to explain the relationships between the sun, the earth, and the moon. Recently we studied the Geographical Regions of Virginia, the Weather, and how to write a mathematical equation from a “Number Story” or word problem. With each revelation, I remember when I was nine, and the world was new.

For this collage, I took a new approach, combining my drawings with Max’s drawings. I used fragments from his actual homework papers, including his writing, pictures, and the teacher’s grading notations in red pen. The collage became a nostalgic homage to childhood and school days in the Fall: We learn about the weather as the wind blows and leaves swirl in the front yard. The wild geese fly overhead. A football spirals through the air. The weathervane spins. A sailboat waits to take us away on a life-long adventure in learning, with the sun and the wind and the rain as our companions.

Homework, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Homework

Detail, Homework

Detail, Homework

Detail, Homework

Detail, Homework

Week 44: The Black Gum

Black Gum

I have a favorite tree in our back yard. It was not planted to commemorate a special occasion, or in honor of a family member. It is not an exotic cultivar, or even an especially ornamental flowering species. It is a simple Black Gum with a simple story. Our landscape designer chose the Black Gum for two reasons. It is one of the first trees to change color in the fall– a brilliant red. This seemed reason enough, but there was something else. The Black Gum is characterized by a straight upright trunk, with sturdy branches that grow horizontally outward at right angles. Why might this structural feature be important?  “For a swing,” said the landscape designer.  As soon as this idea was released, it planted itself in my imagination. I had a tree swing when I was a girl. Now I could have another one! How long would it take before the tree was big enough to hold a swing? Ten years, twenty years? Would I watch my little boy grow into a teenager who would swing on that swing, or is it for me… and the grandchildren? Would I still even live here in twenty years? As soon as the tree was planted, it marked a moment in time from which I would measure the passing years. The tree became a slow stop watch. What can I create and accomplish between now and the time when the Black Gum is ready for its swing? The tree is planted at the top of a steep slope, so that when you swing out over the edge of the retaining wall, where the land falls away, you will feel like you are flying. Who will I have become when I sail through the air on that swing?

We planted the Black Gum three years ago. It was very spindly at first, with a sparse dotting of leaves. I fussed over it, diligently watering its roots each week. Tiny green aphids gathered on its fresh new growth in sticky clumps, which I crushed with my fingers every time I walked past, or occasionally sprayed with soap. The second summer the tree began to fill out with a fuller canopy, and the aphids moved on to weaker hosts. It went through curious growth spurts like a gangly child, where the top would shoot straight up a good twelve inches with no side branches, only to burst forth with a big bundle of leaves at its tip, as if it were balancing an outlandish hat on the end of a broomstick. The third summer it grew more handsome and sturdy, with a thick flush of deep green foliage, the glossy leaves turning a spotty red and gold in September. This Fall, Grandma and Max planted daffodil bulbs in the mulch circle around its base. Yellow and white blooms will appear in early Spring. Now I have something to look forward to that is not as far away as the swing. You know you are growing older when a mere five month wait feels like instant gratification.

This collage is about the passing of time, growth, patience, and how a landscape can tell our stories across the past, present, and future.

Black Gum, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Week 43: Walk in the Woods

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Autumn in Virginia is a glorious time to walk in the woods. Walnut Creek Park is our favorite place to go hiking. Just south of town, and less than a half hour’s drive from our house, it is a nearby place that feels a world away. There is a beautiful lake for canoeing or fishing, and miles of wooded trails for hiking or mountain biking. My husband and I started going there together soon after we met. We would always bring our two Labradors, Toby and Maya, who loved running the trails as much as we did. Now 14 years later, we come with our Labradoodle, Holly, and our young son, Max. Life has changed a lot in this time, but Walnut Creek remains the same special place.

We also enjoy bringing visiting family and friends to Walnut Creek. My father-in-law, Papa Deak, and his partner, Papa Paul, were here visiting from California, and it was a perfect “Autumn in Virginia” kind of day to share with them.  The colors were just past their peak, but plenty of reds, oranges and golds still clung to the treetops, and a soft layer of dry leaves covered the paths. The air was cool, the sun was warm, and each step forward brought a gentle crunch through fallen leaves. There is a stillness to the woods that quiets the chatter of my mind, making room for a more essential understanding that emerges in its place: as we move through the colorful canopies of changing light, we are no longer separate from nature, or from each other, but merely different incarnations of one life, one love. Holly romps through the leaves, my boy laughs, I hear the click of Papa’s camera, a bird sings, three generations walk together, all different but the same.

Red Foliage Textures

For the Autumn collages, I began experimenting with different ways to create textures and patterns to represent the colorful foliage. I first tried this a few weeks ago in the Sunday Drive collage. Using charcoal and colored India inks, I filled up sheets of paper with leaf patterns that were then used to cut out shapes of tree canopies and individual leaves. I tried out different color combinations, as well as small and large scale patterns to develop a sense of distance and space. Once I had a good variety of pattern sheets to choose from, I was able to assemble the tree imagery in combination with the other small drawings and painted motifs. In this week’s work, I included a small illustration of my family ahead on the trail, my boy in a familiar gesture with his Dad, Holly following close behind.

We had a wonderful visit with Papa Deak and Papa Paul. They have always expressed an interest in my artwork, and continually offer their support and encouragement as I move along my creative path. They have also taken the time to read every single post of my blog and respond to each in the comments section. I am so appreciative of this! It was a lot of fun to show them the collages in person for the first time, after sharing them on the computer screen all year. I feel very blessed to have such loving and supportive people in my family. Thank you Papa Deak and Papa Paul!

Walk in the Woods, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Detail, Walk in the Woods

Week 42: Out-of-Town Visitors

We recently had some out-of-town visitors in the neighborhood. They mostly kept to themselves, but the over-turned garbage cans and toppled bird feeders betrayed their presence. I personally have not been a witness to their pre-dawn activities, although the dense woods behind my house may have been playing host. The Neighborhood Association emailed us all some common sense instructions: “Remove food sources and the bears will leave the area.” Some residents worriedly inquired, “Do bears attack people?” and “Should they be trapped and removed?” One morning, my dog picked up a half-eaten piece of pizza that had tumbled from an over-turned garbage can, a food source apparently rejected by our discerning guests. They must have been disappointed by all the Dominoes boxes and convenience foods. Maybe bears don’t really like the suburbs. We think they have moved on.

Out-of-town Visitors, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Out-of-Town Visitors

Detail, Out-of-Town Visitors

Detail, Out-of-Town Visitors

Detail, Out-of-Town Visitors

Week 41: Sunday Drive

The Blue Ridge in the Fall

On Sunday my husband suggested that we take a drive up to the mountains to enjoy the Fall colors. This is our favorite time of year, and it always seems to pass too quickly. The leaves had been rapidly deepening their Fall hues throughout the week, and we knew that this was the day to put any nagging chores aside, and surrender the afternoon to the joys of family time and natural beauty. My husband and I, our boy, and our dog, all piled into the car, and headed West. We stopped at our favorite country lunch spot, Greenwood Gourmet Grocery, and enjoyed an outdoor picnic of sandwiches and local apples, surrounded by displays of heirloom pumpkins, gourds, hay bales and cornstalks. This certainly got us in the mood, and soon we were driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway. As the panorama of mountains and forests opened up to us, it was hard to believe we were only thirty minutes from our suburban home. Shady tunnels of trees gave way to spectacular vistas overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. The mountainsides displayed their richly textured tapestries of orange, red, and gold. All my urgent To Do Lists and unfinished projects dropped away from my consciousness, and I had only the colors, the landscape, and the company of the people I love.

On the way home, my nine year old son got fidgety in the back seat and asked if he could play on my iPhone. I encouraged him a couple times to just enjoy looking out the window, before finally declaring, “This is a No Technology Zone!” Right on cue, Siri spoke up through my iPhone, her soothing electronic voice confidently instructing, “In 2 miles, turn right onto Rockfish Gap Turnpike.” Giggles broke out in the back seat. OK, so there is an exception for GPS!

Sunday Drive, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Sunday Drive

Detail, Sunday Drive

Detail, Sunday Drive

Detail, Sunday Drive

Week 40: Wild Geese

Every Autumn I hear the musical honking of the wild geese, as they pass through Virginia on their way south for the winter. The sound always stirs something in me, like the changing golden light of shorter days and the burnt orange and red of falling leaves in October. The call of the geese weaves itself seamlessly into the fabric of Fall, my favorite time of year. The sound brings back memories from my childhood, when my father taught me to observe and listen to the natural world. We teased apart the honks and warbles of waterfowl and shore birds, and looked for the identifying white patch on the face of the Canada Goose. Our family liked to visit a nature preserve on the eastern shore of Maryland, Blackwater Refuge, where we climbed the observation tower to look out over the ochre landscape of cattails and marsh grasses, the wild geese calling to each other, flying in their characteristic “V” formation. My young mind thrilled at this sight. “How do they choose the leader? How do they know which direction to fly? How far is their journey?”

Thirty something years later, I hear the sound of the geese flying overhead, and remember that feeling of wonder and curiosity. Our neighborhood sits up high on a ridge, a small network of quiet tree-lined streets, cul-de-sacs, and well-tended lawns.  There is a spot where the entry road climbs the steep hill to our houses, cutting open a clearing that reveals a long view to a wilder place. There are layers of open field, farm, and woodland, the Rivanna River winding its way in between. As the leaves fall, we can see a widening band of the distant Blue Ridge Mountains. The Canada Geese congregate in the field at the bottom of our hill. Sometimes I see their tiny black shapes rising up in a graceful “V” through the clearing, other times they fly directly over our rooftops, calling loudly. I think of my son, who is inside playing on his iPad, and I remind myself, “Teach him to listen for the wild geese. Don’t forget.”

Wild Geese, acrylic collage 12 x 12

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Week 38: Holly’s Escape

Our corner of suburbia is perched on a high hill overlooking woods, farmland, grassy expanses, and a distant sliver of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On my daily walk with our dog, Holly, we enjoy this view from the safe confines of our quiet cul-de-sacs and “no-thru” streets. Despite the fact that we are only five minutes away from Target, Wal-Mart, and Lowes, the drive home might leave one with a pleasant, if perhaps fleeting, feeling of a pastoral escape. The half mile section of country road that connects our neighborhood to the main highway may present a deer crossing, a glimpse of the Rivanna River through the woods, or an open field with a pond. I experience these things from inside a moving car, and depending on the day, they may quickly bounce off my consciousness like a commercial on the television, or slowly seep in like a long, beautiful poem.

One day the front door was left ajar as children ran in and out of the house, and Holly escaped. This is normally no cause for alarm. She will sprint a few laps around the adjacent yards, then come running back to me as soon as I can say, “Come get your treat!” But on this day, Holly had bigger plans. Maybe it was the band of six little boys chasing her down the street and over the hill. Or maybe she just kept running and running and it felt so good she didn’t want to stop. She ran past the last house on the cul-de-sac, through their big back yard, all the way down the high hill to the road, crossed a treacherous stretch of traffic, scooted under a fence, and burst onto the open field and out to the pond. Our boy ran home crying to me, “Holly crossed the big road!” In a moment of panic, my husband and I grabbed the leash, jumped into the car, and drove down the hill, crossed the road, and pulled up along the fence in front of the field. There she was, sniffing around the pond, happy and free.  I was so glad to see her alive, I forgot how mad I was. Part of me even envied her a bit… what was it like to run beyond the familiar boundaries of your world, and feel the exhilaration of escape?

Holly’s Escape, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Holly sleeping

Detail, Map of the Suburbs

Detail, Holly’s Escape

Detail, Holly’s Escape

Week 37: Family Table

Our family loves to gather around a table. Cooking beautiful food and sitting down to enjoy a leisurely meal is one of our favorite ways to spend time together and mark special occasions. We recently hosted a seafood feast, served outdoors in our backyard, in honor of Grandma (my fabulous break-every-mold mother-in-law) who just moved here to Virginia all the way from California. The meal featured grilled shrimp and calamari, homemade aioli, clams with fennel and pomegranate, seasonal salads, a whole grouper baked in rock salt, and of course, some great wines. I wish I could take credit for the cooking, but it was master-minded by two dear friends who are so much like family that they can take over my kitchen as if it were their own!  Uncle Rick was another special guest, really the hero of the day, who had driven Grandma (his sister) across the entire country with all her stuff in a Penske moving van, delivering her safely to her new home. There was a lot to celebrate. Having Grandma here to share in our lives is a wonderful new era for our family.  Loved ones gathered around a festive table on a beautiful crisp Fall day makes for one great party.

Family Table, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Family Table

Detail, Family Table

Detail, Family Table

Detail, Family Table

Detail, Family Table

Detail, Family Table