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 34: Flashlight Tag

Flashlight tag is one of the great joys of summer for the neighborhood kids. Just last weekend, my son hosted a sleep-over with six of his buddies. As soon as the sun went down, flashlight tag was the game of choice! This week I had fun creating a collage that aims to capture the thrill of being a kid let loose on a warm summer evening, sneaking around in the dark, running and hiding, laughing and hollering. The result has a bit of a madcap Scooby-Doo-mystery vibe that I find very amusing.

Flashlight Tag, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Flashlight Tag

Detail, Flashlight Tag

Detail, Flashlight Tag

Detail, Flashlight Tag

Detail, Flashlight Tag

Week 18: The Path of Roses

Roses drawings, scanned and re-scaled on the Mac

Inspired by the blooming roses along my front walkway, my creative process for this piece began with simple ink drawings done from life. Drawing is not just a means to an end, but an activity that opens up opportunities for new understanding through careful observation. I noticed that the blooms on some shrubs have three rows of petals while others have five. I saw exactly how the petals are shaped, and how they whorl together in a spiral. The fuller flowers are more lush and visually exciting, but have almost no fragrance, while the simpler flowers have a gorgeous scent. This was an interesting discovery, considering how often I have walked down the path to my own front door, and just now really noticed these differences. Maybe I did notice all these things when I first planted them, but had since forgotten… Drawing gladly brought it all back to me. The fragrance seems to hang in the air along the passage way between the tall shrubs, so that stopping to sniff an individual flower has become almost unnecessary, especially when one is hurrying along to the next task. One of the goals of this project was to allow my art-making to lead to a more intimate knowledge and appreciation of the simple things around me in my daily life. I have been reminded to stop and smell the roses.

Beginning the collage with ink drawings

After completing a small group of ink drawings, I scanned and vectorized the images in Illustrator using the Live Trace function. I could then re-size each element, scaling them up and down to create a variety of forms for the collage. The re-sized drawings were then printed on Gampi, my favorite natural fiber collage paper.  Here is a photo that shows an original drawing (colored with india ink after scanning), collage pieces printed on Gampi paper and torn into individual shapes, and the collage in process with paper elements and acrylic paint.

Palette for Roses

I mixed up a palette of rich magentas, reds, and purples, complimented by deep earthy greens. I wanted to both capture the intense color of the roses, while also allowing the ink drawings to express the exquisite detail of the flowers in black and white. The color adds the weight of atmosphere and light, while the black ink line tells the story of intimate observation or unfettered imagination. The imagery evolved beyond a literal depiction of my front walk, and became an expanded glimpse of my personal experience in this place. Something magical happens along this path. Everyday reality converges with imaginative leaps: I walk my dog calmly across the street while a riotous rose bush bursts forth, like a scene from Jack and the Beanstalk. A cat crouches in the shadows. I follow a garden path that ends at a front door. But to where does that door lead?  (For insight into the meaning of the secret doorway, please check out my post, The Woods with Secret Doorways.) Here is the finished work with details of my favorite passages:

The Path of Roses, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail of collage in process: Ink drawings with acrylic paint.

Detail with crouching cat.

Detail with Secret Doorway

Detail with the Dog Walker (that’s me and Holly!)

Week 15: My Neighbor’s Garden

This week’s collage was inspired by my neighbor’s garden, a special place that I pass by regularly on my daily walks with my dog, Holly. After several years of admiring this yard from the sidewalk in front of the house, I was lucky enough to get a close-up tour from its generous creator.  I wanted to capture the distinct sense of place this garden has achieved, mediating between the wooded natural landscape around it and the careful orchestration of plants by human hands. There is an emphasis on structure over flowers and frills: evergreens, handsome shrubs and small trees of many colors and textures define the garden. At the same time, there are exquisite blooms thoughtfully placed at specific moments: the clematis “Josephine” entwined on the lattice by the mailbox, and the unusual grafted lilac that displays its fragrant purple flowers in the form of a small ornamental tree, centered in the front yard.

I began this piece by first painting a varied ground onto my panel, allowing the free flow of colors to guide the composition. I then gathered my drawings done earlier in the week, copied them onto translucent Gampi paper with an inkjet printer, and began placing them in the collage. I also brought back some drawings of small dogwood trees from Week 14, since my neighbor uses dogwoods to great effect on the edge of the woods.  One advantage of scanning and copying my drawings is the ability to use them again in new ways, either in hand-made collages or in digital illustrations or patterns.  In addition to using ink drawings as collage elements, I also drew directly on the panel with archival ink pens. More paint was worked in around the drawings to develop the atmosphere and bring out details like the deep pink blooming cherry trees on our street.

I combined aerial map-like views, traditional landscape vistas, and close-ups of interesting details to create an experiential montage of the garden. My layered experience of this place is a combination of all these perspectives. The garden has different meanings for me in different contexts. It has a place in the physical neighborhood as well as in my own memory and imagination. My love for this garden merges with my love for all the gardens of my past, present and future.  Each tree merges with all the trees that grew up through my history: the towering tulip poplars from my childhood home, my grandmother’s elegant red maples, the golden fringed Japanese maple we got as a wedding gift, the weeping cherry we planted when we bought our first house, the patio peach tree from the summer when I was pregnant, and the young Black Gum with its promising horizontal branches that will one day hold a swing for our backyard.  This collage is as much about all these moments as it is about my neighbor’s garden. I am grateful for them all.

Here is the finished work:

My Neighbor's Garden, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Week 14: Cascading Spring

Palette of Spring Greens

I was inspired this week by the flowering dogwood, a symbol of our community that is now in bloom all over town. I was also interested in capturing the range of beautiful Spring greens emerging in the landscape, from lawns and fields to fresh young foliage in the trees. First I mixed up some acrylic paint to lay out the color scheme for this week’s collage. I actually started this piece by jumping right in with the color, without first thinking about the composition or how I would incorporate the collaged paper pieces. I like to switch up my process whenever I feel I have been over-thinking things, to gain a fresh perspective and avoid being too formulaic. I painted a very loose background using the fresh greens and sky blue, then returned to my ink drawings of the dogwood trees and flowers done earlier in the week. Next I copied my drawings onto Japanese Gampi paper, using an ink jet printer.  This allowed me to use the same elements multiple times, in keeping with my interest in pattern and repeating motifs. Gampi is a beautiful lightweight and translucent paper, with natural fibers running through it. I prefer to tear the motifs out rather than using scissors to create a softer edge to the forms. Here is the work in its early stages, with the background painted and collage elements beginning to be placed:

As I worked on the collage, a landscape of cascading dogwoods began to come together. I was interested in creating a layered structure to the work that reflects both the branching pattern of the individual trees as well as the overlapping groupings of trees typically seen in the landscape. As I arranged the paper elements, I added more paint to help merge the trees into the background. I was not aiming to create a realistic scene, but rather a kind of dream-like homage to one of my favorite trees and this special time of year.

Dogwoods, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Dogwoods, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Week 13: Pattern

This week my goal was to integrate my fine art and fledgling design work by creating related patterns in both hand-made and digital media. Using the beautiful blooming cherry trees in our neighborhood for inspiration, I first worked with ink on paper to draw the trees and flowers. The motifs were then scanned into my Mac to color and manipulate in Illustrator later. I created a hand-made collage to play around with the placement of forms and experiment with color, texture, and materials. I then went back to the computer to make a more polished digital design that was put into repeat for fabric applications.

Ink drawings for scanning and collaging

This exercise allowed me to explore different sides of myself and my work, and consider how they might influence and play into each other. I no longer feel the need to choose a side or focus on just one thing.  I will always love the messiness of paint and the unique character of the hand-made object. On the other hand, I am fascinated by the tools that digital technology brings to art, and am eager to embrace them. I don’t quite fit the stereo-type of the free-spirited fine artist. While I may be creative and expressive, I am also detail oriented, careful and precise. I love structuring forms and organizing information. Working both by hand and on the computer allows me to be all these things.  Here are images of both the hand-made collage and the digital designs that came after:

Cherry Trees Pattern, acrylic collage, 12 x 12






Taking inspiration from our neighborhood cherry blossoms, I am using this imagery to develop some patterns. While I normally work digitally for pattern design, I decided to try playing with hand-drawn shapes and collage. I have also scanned my drawings into the computer to be colored and manipulated in Illustrator, but working manually is a great way to experiment with different ideas. The various physical textures and materials of collage, as well as the hand-drawn motifs, may inform the digital work in a new way.  Or maybe the digital work will inform the hand-made work in a new way. I am so interested in bringing the two worlds of fine art and design together, rather than thinking of them as separate creative realms. The world of my work is one world, with different avenues of expression.  Sometimes I feel torn in two, trying to divide my creative time between the wonderfully messy painting studio with its blobs of paint and torn paper, and the tidy desk for my Mac, its screen glowing with clean repeating shapes and digital swatches. The fact is that I love both of these modes, each perhaps a necessary part of expressing who I am and how I see the world.

Here are some of my ink drawings, intended for pattern motifs. For use in collages, I like to actually tear the paper rather than cutting out the shapes with scissors. This creates a nice soft edge and a more organic form that blends onto the background surface when glued with acrylic gels. For use in digital work, the motifs can be scanned and converted into vector images while still retaining a hand-drawn feel.

Next I painted a background color onto my panel and began playing with the arrangement of shapes. More color was added with scribbly pastels, colored pencils and thinned acrylics.

While I am determined to explore the intersection of fine art, illustration and design, this kind of integration in my work (and in my identity as an artist) is not an easy one.  Back in art school, we were “painter’s painters” and the word “illustrative” was considered an insult. It was implied that illustration was perilously dependent on words, didn’t speak for itself, was limited in meaning and profundity, or was corrupted by commercial purposes. I see now how narrow that perspective is, based on ego, fear, and a lack of imagination, more than any real critical evaluation.

I will always be the person who will match the sofa fabric to the artwork, rather than the other way around, but have grown to love and appreciate the incredible breadth of creative work out there in design and decorative arts.  While drawing and painting will always be my foundation, my goal is to expand my creative work to include illustration, fabric and surface design.  I want my imagery to find new homes out in the world, reaching a larger audience than is possible when limited to a white wall in a fine art gallery. Can I make a very personal handmade artwork, lift and scan a motif from that piece, and rework it into a design that might aspire to wind up in a picture book, a piece of fabric, or a shower curtain at Target? Does that cheapen the original artwork? Or does it just spread the love? I prefer the more expansive approach. I want to stop being afraid of labels, and just make the things I like to make.  Integration will require the honesty and courage to embrace all sides of myself and my work with an open mind and a generous heart.

Week 12: Be Here Now

We had a hard rain last night.  This morning I anxiously walked up the street to see the cherry trees again and knew what I would find: all the petals had fallen. And so it ends, at least until next year.  My father once told me that the one thing you can always count on in life is change. Time rolls onward, and there is always something slipping away, while something else takes its place.  I only had one week to enjoy the cherry blossoms, but I walked under them twice a day, photographed them, drew the clustered trees and the individual flowers, scanned the drawings into my Mac to create a floral pattern design, and finally painted them today.  This year I did more than notice them in passing. So now I will let them go, knowing there are Dogwoods to look forward to…

This week I really wanted to paint, so I mixed up some juicy pinks, reds and oranges. I was also inspired by the fresh Spring green that is coming out everywhere in the neighborhood, on lawns and in the new leaves. I did a simple landscape painting of the cherry tree-lined street, then added collage elements into the blooming canopy.  I was most interested in the billowing texture of the flowery boughs, and how the shapes of the trees frame the pieces of street and lawn behind them.  While the trees are painted thickly with heavy gel medium, the background is painted very thinly, collapsing the distance into flat shapes that fit in and around the trees like a jigsaw puzzle.

Cherry Trees, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

I also took on the Rainbow Challenge from my last post. I wrote, “Why is it that the representation of a rainbow has become such a cliché, synonymous with Care Bears, unicorns and everything trite?  When seen in real life, there is nothing more grand, more magical, more intensely pure.  Would it even be possible to put a rainbow in my artwork without being either ironic, sarcastic, comical, or naive? I might try that.”

Since I did, in fact, see a real rainbow in the neighborhood this week, I felt I had full rights to include it in the painting. Does it look silly or trite, or ruin the whole piece? I am smiling and thinking to myself, “Does it matter?”  All things are transient: the cherry blossoms, the rainbow, this painting, my life. Rather than worry about embarrassment, or anticipate the end, let me just be here now.