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 33: California Trip Part IV

Up a long winding mountain road above Santa Cruz, and into the forest of redwoods and manzanita, there is a special gathering place for our family: Grandma’s House. Set into a hillside that slopes down to the ancient forest, the house feels inseparable from the land, welcoming the filtered sunlight, fresh air, and quiet presence of the towering trees. Multi-level decks and garden terraces look out into the woods, where some mornings you can watch the fog soften the peaks of the evergreens and roll its billowy blanket across the landscape. There is a blueberry bush loaded with fruit, and beds overflowing with rosemary, thyme, and roses. I delighted in the cool and peaceful mornings here, when we would take our hot coffee mugs outside to the terraces, pick some blueberries for breakfast (with a pinch of rosemary!) and enjoy the view and conversation with a house full of loved ones.

Our time at Grandma’s house was bittersweet on this visit, as we were not sure when we would return to this special place. Grandma is renting the house and moving to Virginia to be with us! We are so excited about this wonderful change for her and our family. We will miss our California retreat, but we hope to one day spend time together there again. In the meantime, we await Grandma’s move in a couple of weeks!

In creating the collage, it was most important for me to capture the atmosphere and sense of place that I feel here.  I chose to leave figures out of the composition, instead suggesting a human presence with the coffee mugs, chairs, and bowl of just-picked blueberries. In this way, the viewer is freer to project oneself into the picture and imagine the special places that they too may share with their families. The foreground plants are cut paper drawings made with pencil, charcoal, India Inks and acrylic paint. The roses are paper cut-outs from one of my digital pattern designs. The trees in the background are painted with acrylics, then collaged over with a wispy transparent paper to create the effect of drifting fog.

Grandma’s House, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Blueberry Bush

Detail, Blueberries for Breakfast

Detail, Garden Path

Detail, Forest and Fog

Week 32: California Trip Part III

Climbing the Drum Bridge

I could not resist doing a collage about the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. It is a magical place with the potential to explore all the themes that I am continually drawn to in my artwork: imaginary landscapes, rich layers and textures, story-telling and narrative, journey and discovery, and the intersection of human artifice with the natural world. As you wander the garden, a series of carefully composed vignettes open before you. Sometimes a view through the trees offers a glimpse of what lies ahead. Other times you reach an elevation and are invited to look back over where you have come. A myriad of visual surprises draws you along the stone paths: sculpted evergreens contrast with feathery maples left to their natural habit, and colorful koi dart through the shimmering ponds while lily pads float serenely on the surface. Fanciful bridges and brightly painted buildings punctuate the natural landscape, while birds and butterflies accompany visitors on their journey.

Our favorite element in the garden is the Drum Bridge. When seen from a distance, its dramatic arch is pleasingly picturesque. As you approach, the scale of it comes into focus, and you see that this is not a bridge for strolling over. It must be climbed– more like a ladder than a bridge! We all had fun scrambling up the steep incline to the top of the arch, where we were rewarded with a fantastic view, looking back over the gardens. Maybe I can try to approach other obstacles in life just like the Drum Bridge: welcoming challenges with an attitude of play, humor, and curiosity.

Japanese Tea Garden, 12 x 12, acrylic collage

Detail, Tea Garden with stone path

Detail, Tea Garden with koi pond

Detail, Tea Garden with pond

Detail, Tea Garden with Buddha

Detail, Tea Garden with Drum Bridge

Detail, Tea Garden with bird

Week 28: Eat Local

Paper elements ready for collaging.

This week’s collage is inspired by our local farmers market. We spent a delightful Saturday morning there browsing the stalls and feasting our eyes on all the different colored tomatoes that are now in season. My father taught me to love tomatoes, and I have great memories of the big juicy specimens we would buy at a roadside stand on the way to our beach house in the summertimes of my childhood. We always enjoyed them simply prepared, just sliced out on a platter with salt, pepper, a sprinkle of fresh herbs and maybe a drizzle of olive oil. My family had such reverence for peak season tomatoes that they could almost be considered the main course, but were usually accompanied by corn on the cob, zucchini and onions, and the fish or crabs that we had caught that day on the Little Choptank River. The taste of a good tomato will always remind me of those happy summer days.

Farmers Market drawings

My process for this collage involved some new ideas and inverted techniques. Normally I draw by hand with ink pens on paper, then scan the drawings into my Mac, and manipulate them in Illustrator. I may re-size the drawings, and multiply the images. The drawings are then printed out onto collage papers with an ink jet printer, torn by hand, and collaged onto a panel in combination with acrylic paint and additional hand-drawn pieces.  This week I scanned only one drawing (the cluster of cherry tomatoes.)  The rest of the tomatoes and the market stalls were all drawn directly into the Mac using my Wacom pen tablet.  It is a little odd to say these are not “hand-drawn,” as I drew them with my hand, while holding a pen… the only difference being that the drawing first shows up on a computer screen instead of on a piece of paper.  I also colored the tomatoes using the pen tablet and digital tools in Illustrator.  The images were then printed out, torn by hand, and collaged onto a panel with acrylic paint. If you looks closely at the market stall drawings, you will see that there are only a few unique drawings. The rest are simply re-sized or reversed versions. When collaged together on the panel and individually colored, you get the impression of a large and varied market scene.

Farmers Market, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Farmers Market

Detail, Farmers Market

Detail, Farmers Market

Detail, Farmers Market

Farmers Market

Local Produce

This morning my family enjoyed an outing to the City Market, our local downtown farmers market. It was drizzling and unseasonably cool, but so enjoyable nonetheless. I love wandering down the aisles, browsing the bounty of the Shenandoah Valley. There are free range meats and organic eggs, tempting baked goods, fresh coffee, lemonade, local cheeses, jams and preserves, arts and crafts, and of course a rainbow of flowers, fruits, vegetables, and herbs. We brought home a taste of summer: golden tomatoes, slender Japanese eggplants and round yellow squash. I find creative inspiration in their colors and shapes as well as their anticipated flavors.

Here is a sketch inspired by the Farmers Market that combines both hand-drawn elements and digital images created using the “brushes” in Illustrator.  I pulled a color palette from the photograph above to apply color to the sketch.  Some motifs were created by hand using traditional materials, then scanned and digitized. Others were created entirely with digital tools. This was a fun experiment for me. Can you tell which parts of the picture where done by hand and which parts were created in Illustrator? Tomorrow I will print out the sketch onto collage paper, tear it apart, and recombine it with other drawings to create a hand-made collage. I love this kind of mash-up, allowing my work to flow through multiple channels.

Local Tomato Sketch

Week 26: Made in the Shade

Drawing with ink, oil pastel, and charcoal

Seeking relief from the 100 degree temperatures outside, I made a collage this week about shady places around the yard.  Our sun-soaked patio is hot enough to burn your feet, but there are small pools of shade to be found beneath the trees and tall shrubs. The arching stems of the red twigged dogwoods create a shady cave-like retreat, where we discovered a turtle had taken up residence. My aim was to contrast these areas of light and shadow and capture the sense of place of our backyard in the heat of the summer.

Detail of foliage: pencil, charcoal, and india inks

I decided to shake up my process a bit this week and experiment with some different materials. I embellished my usual ink pen drawings with colored india inks as well as oil pastels. I allowed the drawings to remain open, loose and sketchier than usual, just right for a lazy summer afternoon. I also worked out the shady shrubbery with pencil and charcoal, adding watered-down india inks on top for color. I enjoyed the broader strokes and messier outcome of the charcoal drawings, which seemed to work well for this type of subject matter.

Placing torn charcoal and ink drawings onto the panel

Next I tore out sections of the drawings and began placing them on the 12 x 12 panel, which had been prepared with a background of acrylic paints. As I built the collage, additional layers of paper and paint were added, including tiny portraits of my dog Holly and the turtle. The perspective changes across the panel from a bird’s-eye view at the top, to a more intimate view inside the turtle home at the bottom. The final piece depicts our small corner of the world, in the hot sun and the cool shade.

Made in the Shade, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Sun-drenched Patio

Detail, Holly rests in the shade of the maple tree.

Detail, foliage

Detail, Turtle

Heat Wave

Patio on a Very Hot Day

It’s hot here in the Virginia suburbs. Crazy hot. Temperatures have been close to 100 degrees all week. Add to that our characteristic sticky humidity and you get some pretty unpleasant outdoor conditions. Not wanting to be stuck inside all day, Holly and I get up early to do a long morning walk in the coolest part of the day. Even at 7 am, the air is muggy and you can feel the heat pressing down, beginning its upward momentum. In the afternoon, when we are thoroughly chilled down by the air conditioning, we take a short walk around the yard, checking on the parched plants and looking for shady spots to pause. The sun feels nice on my shoulders for a few minutes at a time, but not for long.

Holly finds a shady spot.

The yard is quiet in the heat of the day. The patio is too hot for bare feet, and the container plants are thirsty. Even the sun-loving lizards who like to bask on the stones are nowhere to be found. The birds that were so active this morning have retreated to the treetops. The only movement is the soft whirr of the bees and butterflies over the drying flower heads. There is no breeze. But the maple tree casts a wide shadow on the grass, and the red twig dogwoods create a cool cave beneath their arching branches. We peeked under there once and found a content little box turtle. A ribbon of deep shade runs along the edge of the woods, widening as the day goes on.

Under the Red Twig Dogwoods- a nice spot for a turtle.

My drawings this week are about heat and cool, sun and shade. I like observing the changing light and the shifting shadows around the garden. I like discovering the secret shady places around the yard where animals might find a respite from the heat. We have our wide-brimmed hats and sunbrellas while they have their own leafy canopies and cool enclosures. I feel a solidarity with the turtle, as he finds his shade and I find mine.

Week 23: The Anniversary Collage

This collage is in celebration of our 11th Wedding Anniversary. I enjoyed the opportunity to pull imagery from many of the previous collages to create a montage of our journey together in life. I used motifs from our garden, home and neighborhood, but also added references from our travels and other important life passages. It is a difficult task to create a visual summary of eleven years of marriage! So rather than being too concerned with hitting every highlight, I allowed a free-association of favorite memories. The sprouts and garden imagery suggest the idea of personal growth and the beautiful rewards of a carefully tended relationship.  I wanted to explore the idea of ‘home’ as being not just one defined place, but an evolving experience that may find its physical reality in our own backyard, or in faraway lands. Home is not a place, but how we feel when we are together, and connected to our most authentic selves. Here is the finished collage, followed by favorite details.

The Anniversary Collage, 12 x 12, acrylic collage

Detail of The Boat, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of the Garden at Home, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of an adventure in Hawaii, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of Max’s Lego Spaceship, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of an adventure in Spain, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of the Big City, The Anniversary Collage

Week 22: In the Vegetable Garden

Assembling the collage materials

This week I created a collage about our newly planted vegetable garden. I didn’t want it to just be a pretty view of the garden, but rather depict the more intimate experience of being in the garden- digging in the dirt, closely observing the plants, or hiding under a squash leaf (if you are a bug or a bunny.)  I began the process with lots of little drawings of all the plants in the garden: tomatoes, peppers, herbs, peas and beans, zucchini squash, marigolds, and sprouting seeds. I scanned the drawings and printed them on Gampi paper, making several copies to yield more plants. Then I tore each drawing out by hand and laid them all out. The panel was prepared with a nice rusty clay dirt color.

Drawings torn from Gampi paper

I painted a few rows of stones that divide the terraces into curving beds, in the spirit of my actual vegetable garden. Then I began laying in the plants. I was interested in playing with scale, so that the foreground plants loom large, and sprouting seeds are sometimes ridiculously gigantic, while other plants settle into the piece with more realistic relationships. I did this to express the garden from different points of view, whether human or critter. The really fun part was to then draw the critters and tuck them in amongst the rows. All the creatures were drawn with ink on thicker paper than the plants, so as to create little pops of visual surprise. Here is the final collage with favorite details:

In the Vegetable Garden, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail: Bunny, sprouts and marigold

Detail: Olivia the Cat

Detail: The Mocking Bird

Detail: Turtle and pea shoots

Vegetable Garden

We planted the vegetable garden! On the south side of the house, we have a gentle slope with curved retaining walls that create a series of three raised beds.  After several years of gardening trial and error, and lots of compost, we are hoping for a bountiful garden this summer! Four varieties of my favorite tomatoes went in: the cherry-sized bright orange ‘Sungold’, the reliable ‘Celebrity’, the compact and delicate ‘Silver Fir Tree’, and the best-tasting ‘Brandywine.’ I also put in three new ones to try: the promising ‘Golden Jubilee’, a squat little ‘Husky Cherry Red’ (the name says it all) and a gangly specimen of ‘Cherokee Purple.’ The tomatoes are joined by three different sweet peppers: ‘Red Beauty’, ‘Golden Summer’, and ‘Carmen’.  The front half of the lower bed is the home of Zucchini ‘Cocozelle’ and a bush cucumber. They look pretty puny all by themselves in that big bed, but these guys require a lot of room to grow and can spill over the bottom wall by mid-summer.  One of my favorite things to grow is beans- I can eat them raw right out of the garden, unless the deer get to them first. We have two trellises of ‘Kentucky Wonder’ pole beans, and a little patch of ‘Sugar Ann’ Snap Peas. The whimsical names of these garden plants makes them seem like a motley crew of endearing family members that I can’t help but want to nurture.

My father generously contributed a carload of additional plants to tuck in among our vegetables after spending a fruitful day at the Herb Festival: Sweet Basil, African Blue Basil, Red Rubin Basil, Lemon Basil, Pineapple Sage, Italian Parsley, Lemon Balm, and Lemon Verbena.  We already have a flourishing patch of perennial herbs including rosemary, tarragon, various thymes, purple and green sage, Greek oregano, Orange Mint, Chocolate Mint, and Pineapple Mint. It’s a menagerie of flavors! We finished it off with an edging of French Marigolds, a splash of Orange Cosmos, Sunflowers against the wall between the trellises, and a row of lavender (also from Dad) along the stairs: French lavender ‘Provence’, Spanish ‘Otto Quast,’ and the English varieties, ‘Munstead’ and ‘Ellagance Sky.’ (That is the actual name, not a misspelling of elegance!)

This is always an exciting time of year, with so much anticipation and high hopes for a successful growing season. I have to remind myself to just enjoy the process, without being too attached to the outcome. The deer will munch, the squash bugs will nibble, and the tomatoes will topple their cages by August. (Every year I tell myself to invest in taller, sturdier ones!)  Maybe this year I will finally thwart the squash vine borer. Maybe this year I will convince my boy to start eating and enjoying some new vegetables. Neither is likely, but it will be fun trying.