Week 20: The Blue Egg

Robin’s nest in the cherry tree, moments after Mother Bird flew away.

This collage is about hope and possibility– inspired by the robins nesting in my neighborhood, but driven by my feelings about home, motherhood and personal aspirations. I look at the tiny blue egg and it holds all the dreams and possibilities for my own child. My son is my only egg. He hatched into a wonderful boy. Ten more years before he leaves the nest. My task is to love and appreciate every detail of every age, be there for him in every moment, while letting go a little more each year as it passes.

I look at the egg again and it holds all the dreams and possibilities for me and my creative work. Can I hatch my plan to build a full-time creative career? The egg is so fragile. Can I tend to my nest like the mother robin: weaving a miracle out of twigs, lovingly guarding my most precious possession, hatching a dream, pushing it out of the nest, having the faith that it will fly?

Wave Pattern

I began this collage with paper eggs. I decided to use a wave pattern that I designed about a year ago. The wave motif has been an important theme in my paintings for several years, suggesting creative momentum. The meditative quality of the ocean’s powerful and continuous rhythm became a metaphor for creative flow and the practice of art-making.  (Take a look at the Momentum Series on my website to see more of this work.) It felt appropriate to use this pattern for the egg, adding two different layers of meaning. First, it seems to fit the spirit of my young boy- joyful, dynamic, and immersed in the flow of childhood. Secondly, it is a remnant of my early efforts to transition from drawing and painting to learning Illustrator and digital pattern design, as I began to find a new rhythm in my work, and formulate my goal to build a creative career. I saw this collage as an opportunity for me to bring together drawing, painting and pattern in one piece. Ultimately, that is the goal in the life of my work: to integrate my different modes of art and design in a way that can support me financially and fulfill me creatively.

Paper Eggs with Wave Pattern

In the final piece, I chose to include just one egg, centered in a scribbly nest, balanced in the crook of a tree branch, sheltered by leaves. Here is the final work with some close-up images of the details.

Nest, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Nest Detail

Nest Detail

Nest, Detail with Bird

Nesting

The daily activities of creatures in the neighborhood continue to fascinate me. While minivans come and go, children ride their bikes, and lawn mowers buzz around our lots, layers and layers of diverse societies carry out their own rituals.  Recently my husband and I witnessed a tiny ant dragging an old dried up worm up a steep stretch of sidewalk. It was amazing that he could haul this heavy load so many times his own weight. We saw him get stuck in the joint of the sidewalk, cleverly adjust his grip to leverage himself out with his prize, then continue on his way.  A study in strength, ingenuity, and perseverance.

Empty Robin’s Nest

Empty Robin’s Nest

I have been particularly interested in the nesting of the robins.  There are nests in many of the cherry trees that line our streets. Just last week I peeked inside the ones I could discreetly reach with a stretch of my arm and a camera, and discovered that many had single blue eggs. Today I checked two of the nests again and the eggs were gone. This was a bit upsetting since foul play may have been a factor.

Baby robins will stay in the nest for about  two weeks after hatching, so their sudden absence is not a good sign. In another nearby tree, I witnessed two robins frantically driving off a mischievous squirrel with high-pitched chirps and threatening swoops. Do squirrels eat eggs? The nest was too high up for me to see, but I hope their eggs are still safe.

With Mother’s Day just here, and the activities of the robins all around me, I have been moved to contemplate my own nesting behavior.  While I love to travel, I have always strongly identified with the idea of home. I am not the free-spirited type who travels the world with a backpack. I need to build a nest.  I see this nest-building as an extension of my creativity and imagination– an opportunity to create a special place for my family that both shelters and inspires us. My husband feels the same way, and our home has evolved into a reflection of us both over the last four+ years that we have lived here. We intend to stay here for at least the next ten years, and probably longer. This long term commitment to our nest allows us to invest in fully customizing it. Here is a picture of an outdoor space that has become our own backyard “nest.”

Backyard Nest for Humans

Sketchbook page with nests

Week 19: Mockingbirds in the Pear Tree

Assembling the drawings and collage elements

This week’s collage is inspired by the birds of our neighborhood. Once I made a conscious effort to be aware of their presence, I began to notice more and more interesting details about their habits. Each day as I strolled around our yard or walked my dog through the neighborhood, I watched and listened for the birds instead of getting lost in my thoughts. Tiny hummingbirds buzz around the flowers on our deck. Robins nest in the cherry trees along the sidewalks. Mockingbirds chastise the cat from the pear tree. A variety of small songbirds twitter to each other on the rooftops, while hawks glide and circle high above it all.

I decided to focus on the mockingbird, one of whom has become somewhat of an overlord of our front yard, perching in the pear tree and announcing its presence with an admonishing “Chuh Chuh Chuh!”  My son named this bird “Chuh” and he became loosely regarded as an extended family member- not quite a pet, but a part of our local clan. Intrigued by this bird, I have enjoyed observing its antics and listening to its rich and varied song. In reading up on the mockingbird, I learned that they tend to be either solitary or in a small family unit, but in my collage I filled the pear tree with a whole chorus of mockingbirds. Maybe this is a picture of many mockingbirds, or maybe it is the same mockingbird, seemingly everywhere at once, which is true to its insistent nature.

After assembling all my drawings of the birds, I scanned the originals and re-sized them in Illustrator. This digital step has become an important part of my process. It allows me to scale down or enlarge the images, flip their orientation, and make multiples. I can also use the digital images later in patterns or illustrations.  I printed this collection of birds onto natural fiber collage paper, tearing out each bird to create a soft-edged shape.  I also used some drawings of the rose bushes from last week to complete the scene of the front yard. (A great example of the advantage of having digital copies of all my drawings saved to print out again later.)

Here is the final piece: a pear tree full of mockingbirds. Olivia, the cat, hides under the rose bush, while Holly, the dog, wags her tail in the front yard. The perspective is a topsy-turvy view from above, perhaps how the mockingbird would see the scene, swooping down from the sky.

Mockingbirds in the Pear Tree, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail

Detail

Detail

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!)

Roses

Shrub Roses in May bloom

My roses are in bloom!  I planted these hearty shrub roses along our front walk about four years ago. They require almost no special care, and provide months of enjoyment, blooming throughout the Spring and Summer and even into the Fall.  At the height of the summer heat, the blooms take a break, then come back again in a fiery flush when the weather cools a bit. In milder years we have had flowers up until Thanksgiving. They require no pruning to flourish, although they grow so vigorously I need to cut them back several times throughout the season to prevent them from closing off the path to the front door! It has been warm and a bit humid the last couple days, which tends to amplify their lovely fragrance. When I come home from a walk, I like to just pause on the path before entering the house, inhale the perfumed air, and look closely at the intricate magenta petals. In these moments, there are no deadlines, no pressing tasks. There are no past regrets, or doubts about the future. Just the blaze of the roses and me. This is the elusive place I sometimes reach when I am drawing or painting, centered in the spacious awareness of the present moment. Sometimes the distractions and anxieties of life seem to barricade me from this place, but then I remember to just open my eyes. Wherever I may be, it is as close as my own front door.

Week 17: Backyard

Collage in process

My usual approach to landscape painting is to create unpopulated scenes, where the viewer may be coaxed to insert him or herself into the experience of the landscape. But last week I had so much fun drawing the Lacrosse Kids that I decided to continue experimenting with combining figures and landscape imagery. While I took plenty of figure drawing classes back in my art school days, I have not included figures in my own work for many years, so this is some new territory. Watching my husband patiently teaching our young son how to garden in the backyard, I was inspired to include them in this week’s collage.  I wanted to capture both my relationship to the place, as well as my relationship to the figures, imbuing each small drawing with a sense of careful attention, whether plant or person. There is an interesting balancing act of tenderness and objectivity when dealing with such dearly loved subjects!

We have created a special place in our backyard, and it is even more special now that my son is contributing to its on-going development. There was a steep slope in the back when we moved here, and over the last several years we have improved the backyard with retaining walls and multi-level garden terraces. Once the last phase of hardscape was completed last summer, we were able to really enjoy the fun part of shaping the space with beautiful trees, shrubs, and flowers. We have put a lot of creativity and love into this place, so of course I have been wanting to paint it.

Here is the finished collage, followed by some close-up images of my favorite details. I allowed most of the ink drawings to visually float on the surface of the collage, rather than embedding them in layers of paint. I wanted to retain the simple and spontaneous character of the ink line, which I think best expresses the subject matter. My approach to the figures is influenced by E.H. Shepard’s illustrations of Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh, a favorite of mine since childhood.

Father and Son in the Garden, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail of Patio, Father and Son in the Garden

Detail of the Black Gum, Father and Son in the Garden

Detail of Max, Father and Son in the Garden

Father and Son in the Garden

Father and Son

This Spring my husband has been teaching my son how to garden. My husband and I have been actively landscaping together for many years and now it is great fun to get our son involved. For us, landscaping is like painting in 3D: it is an opportunity to create a new and imagined world, making creative decisions about the colors, textures, forms and the flow of space in our own way. We put a lot of love into our little patch of suburbia. This of course is one of the big draws of suburban life: the ability to have space around you that you can mold as you wish and call your own.

Junior Gardener

I love to watch father and son working together as my husband patiently teaches our boy how to add compost to the hole, loosen the root ball of the plant, make sure it is centered and upright, and carefully tamp the soil around it. Our son gets paid $5 an hour for gardening, which certainly helped spark his interest in this activity. (There are requests for shopping outings to the toy section of Target almost immediately after job completion.) But even so, he gardens with enthusiasm, great care, and no complaining. I am glad we are teaching him to respect, nurture and care for living things and the environment around him. And as he grows, his garden will grow with him, evolving and expanding over time. Gardening is a lot about patience and delayed gratification, a concept that is sometimes challenging for children, but a skill that will serve him well in suburbia and beyond.

Working down the line of a new border bed.

I remember my early exposure to garden work as a child, while visiting my Great-Aunt Ruby in Georgia. She and my uncle had an ambitious plot of summer vegetables, fig trees, pecans and peaches. I was fascinated by the long rows of corn that had grown above my head, the prickly looking okra plants, and the pungent smell of wet earth and tomato plants in the hot summer sun. I felt as if I had been let in on a wonderful secret that only grown-ups knew: that potatoes actually grow under the ground and corn is encased in silky husks; that food is not born in freezer bags and it does not spontaneously spring up in supermarkets.  I look forward to putting in our vegetable garden this year with our son’s help, and sharing more of these revelations. Today he was pulling weeds to prepare the vegetable plot and was surprised to pull up some carrots and beets that must have self-seeded from last year’s crop!  Fresh baby carrots for Max tonight! Maybe he will even try the beets…

Max in the Garden, ink on paper and collage

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

Gardens are Meant to be Shared

Shrub Envy

There is one yard on our street that is my favorite. I always admire it when I walk past with my dog, trying to suppress my shrub-envy. It belongs to a nice retired couple who brought many of their mature trees and shrubs along with them from their farm when they moved here five years ago. As a result, their property has the look of a much more established garden, unusual in our newer neighborhood. There are lush Japanese maples with an amazing variety of fringed textures and colors. A huge thriving Japanese Andromeda blooms by the front door, a plant that is notoriously finicky but richly rewarding with its long spires of white flowers framed in red and green glossy foliage. A very rare weeping juniper anchors the front corner of the house, draping itself in deep green swags. There are raised beds along the side of the house for vegetables and cut flowers, and a handsome Hawthorn that is decorated with red berries in the late Fall. Centered in the front bed is a novel new lilac, grafted onto a standard like a small ornamental tree.

View of My Neighbor's Garden

Recently I happened to be walking by when the older gentleman who created this showplace was out front with some new azalea bushes. I stopped to say hello and took the opportunity to exclaim over his shrubs and let him know how much I enjoyed watching his garden throughout the year. While we had often exchanged greetings and short conversations in passing over the four years we have lived here, I had never really gotten to know him. As soon as I showed an interest in his garden, his face lit up and he began telling me stories about each plant. Fascinated, I learned about his wife’s favorite flower, the climbing Clematis vine “Josephine”, that she purchased at the Somerset Garden Show in England. It’s tendrils were weaving their way through a lattice against the mailbox post, heavy with buds, preparing to display their unusually ruffly double flowers, much showier, he told me, than the regular flat-petaled single varieties.

After we had covered the front yard, I felt bold enough to ask for a full garden tour of his place, something I had wanted to do since we moved here. Without hesitation, he took me all around the house, pointing out his favorite new additions as well as the special trees he had moved from his former property.  He pointed out a pair of enormous evergreens in the backyard that had required heavy machinery to dig five foot holes to accommodate each root ball! Behind the house was a lovely broad patio, a koi pond, and a spectacular blooming vine of yellow jasmine climbing up a lattice against the deck.  The woods out back had been carefully cleared of scrappy underbrush and planted with native understory trees and shrubs: azaleas, rhododendrons, redbud, and dogwoods that blended seamlessly into the natural patterns of the forest beyond.

After the tour, I thanked my host and told him I would keep an eye on the clematis “Josephine” by the mailbox and be sure to enjoy its bloom time. His reply was, “Gardens are meant to be shared. Blow a kiss to it when you walk by– that will help it to grow.”

Gardens are Meant to be Shared, ink on paper

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