Saturday, 30 May 2020

Creativity in isolation

I've been hunkered down since authorities advised we do so in early March in response to the Covid 19 pandemic. Like many, I've spent more time than usual online reading this and that, and noticing that lots of artists appear to have been taking this time in stride, busily cranking out loads of new work. I have not.

The underlying uneasiness of the pandemic has, I suppose, limited my ability to concentrate fully on my work. It's not that I have stopped - just that it's been difficult to get my shoulder fully to the wheel and be significantly productive, particularly when upcoming exhibitions have been cancelled and life, as we had known it, has been so significantly altered. However, that's not to say I haven't been creative! 

I designed and built an artful vegetable garden in my sunny meadow, inventively re-purposing salvaged and found materials. The project was completed by the delivery of a load of good garden soil where seeds can germinate and roots can take hold, and the purchase of some deer mesh to keep the hungry hoofed marauders at bay.

Cobbling together the gate from bits and pieces of lumber from my scrap pile, some driftwood, and some hardware found in a coffee tin in my shed was a particularly gratifying task. Lily demonstrated the effectiveness of the gate even before the fence was built!

It was also intensely satisfying to dust off an old weather-vane which adorned my childhood home and subsequently traveled with me for the past 35-or-so years without finding a permanent location till now. 

The same can be said for an old wheel-hoe and a few other well-used tools that somehow managed not to be lost during life's travels and have now been brought out of retirement. 

And within a day of installing a funky bird-box on the fence, a house wren couple took up residence.

The garden is a delightful addition to my day. I visit each morning, sometimes with coffee in hand, to see how things are progressing, dropping by again later in the day to weed and water, and I'm already enjoying some fruits of all my labor in the form of lettuce, kale and herbs. It won't belong till there's more to harvest if the garden god(dess) is benevolent. I have hopes for strawberries and blueberries but I know I'll be in stiff competition with the birds. Maybe they'll be generous and leave a few for me.

So while art production is down, there's no shortage of creative energy and life has taken on a gentle rhythm. Veggie production is up and, like the plants in my garden, ideas for new art are taking hold, inspired by moments such as a golden crowned sparrow amid chartreuse leaf-sprouts earlier in the spring...

...or a well-camouflaged bank swallow choosing a nesting cavity...

...or visits from the resident barred owl who has taken to hanging about in the trees around my cottage and observing my activities with apparent interest.

The world may have slowed down for many and virtually ground to a halt for some but nature keeps going, and gardens keep growing, creativity keeps flowing, and my studio awaits.

Two new works - a great horned owl and a barred owl - on my studio window ledge.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

A Bird on the Arm

During past winters I have often written about visits to places where hot, sunny climates provide welcome contrast to the chill, grey dampness of Canadian west coast winters. However this year my travels took me elsewhere: to England - a place where the winter weather mirrors that of home but where family connections provide me with a different kind of warmth.

During my stay I was treated to an other kind of heart-warming experience, one especially tailored to appeal to a bird-loving artist. I visited Icarus Falconry for some up-close-and-very-personal interactions with large birds of prey.

My visit started with a tour of the facility and an informative introduction to the various bird residents. The birds' handlers enthusiastically shared their wealth of knowledge. They are passionate about conservation and are experts in the care, training and handling of owls, falcons, hawks, eagles and vultures.

The first bird to join us in a nearby field was a little American Kestrel named Mojito.

She charmed us as she flitted back and forth between a distant perch and the gauntleted arm (or in one case, phone camera) of visitors. Still a juvenile bird and a novice at her work, she was definitely a crowd-pleaser. I expect she has a long career ahead as an ambassador for her kind and educator in the ways of raptors.

Another bird joined who us was this very athletic Harris' Hawk - a fierce and powerful species of Latin American origin who, like wolves, often hunt strategically in groups. 

It's worth noting that each bird wore a tiny GPS signalling device in case, for some unexpected reason, they desert their handler and make off into the nearby woods. While the obvious bond between handler and bird combined with the careful training each bird receives makes this an unlikely occurrence, this particular Hariss' Hawk is known for his liking for hunting the free-roaming pheasants in the area. 

To my delight, we also made the acquaintance of several species of owls including an African Spotted Owl, fondly known as Spot, who posed beautifully on a nearby fence before executing graceful flights across the field to land on outstretched arms.

Another resident was this huge Milky Eagle Owl - one of the world's largest owl species - named Orion. Also of African origin, his fuzzy eyelids and charming head-bobbing "dance" could deceive one into believing he's not actually a lethal predator.

Upon return to his enclosure after wowing us with his flying skills, he hopped after his human care-giver hollering plaintively for more attention. All of the birds at Icarus Falconry have been bred and raised in captivity and have imprinted indelibly on their humans who treat them as family members.

It was all very inspiring and every bird magnificent and compelling in its own way. However for me, the most enthralling moment was this:

Galileo, the great grey owl at Icarus Falconry

Having this magnificent Great Grey Owl land on my arm and perch quietly is an experience I'll never forget. A couple of years ago I commemorated another Great Grey Owl in this drawing "Out of the Shadows":

"Out from the Shadows"

As anyone familiar with my work knows, owls are a favourite subject including recent pieces featuring birds I've sighted closer to home:

"Hiding in Plain Sight"
Barred Owl, Mayne Island

"Short-eared Owl", Boundary Bay

My encounters at Icarus Falconry are likely destined to find their way into future art projects. In the mean time I will, as always, be alert to the presence of wild owls such as this juvenile Barred Owl who spent the afternoon hanging around my Mayne Island cottage one summer day not so long ago.

You can read more about my owl encounters in previous blog posts Year of the Owl and Day of the Owls.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

A bird in the hand...

I've been keeping a low profile for a while, spending a lot of time in my studio, much of that preparing for a solo exhibition at Shavasana Gallery and Café on Mayne Island. A small, cozy venue in a small, rural community, it made a fitting location for a a show focussed on one of my great passions: birds.

One particular wall in the gallery lead me to create a series of 10 small-scale coloured-pencil drawings of feathered creatures to be found on the island or nearby mainland. 

Included in this selection are these:

Dark-eyed Junco
(Horton Bay, Mayne Island)
Marsh Wren
(Reifel Bird Sanctuary, Ladner)

Downy Woodpecker
(Henderson Park, Mayne Island)

I have also been working on a new technique that allows me to create coloured pencil drawings that can be varnished and presented without glass. It's re-invigorated my art practice as I get to know a different way of using a familiar medium, and experience the associated challenges, surprises and successes.

Perched on a low branch (pictured above left), the only reason I noticed a lovely barred owl a few feet away from my path in Bennett Bay was due to the "mobbing" of the songbirds - robins, towhees, and the like - calling out their danger alert and drawing attention the predator in their midst. The raven (above right) was an early-morning companion at Horton Bay beach just after sunrise on summer day.

Rounding out the exhibition are drawings of other local birds:

Summer's End: Bushtit,
(Bennett Bay, Mayne Island)

I Love Vultures: Turkey Vulture
(Horton Bay, Mayne Island)

Each piece represents a personal encounter and the careful composition of the moment based on hurried, and sometimes blurry photographs that help jog my memory in addition to providing insight into the bird's anatomical detail and posture. The bushtit posed with rosehips (above) was observed in a meadow dotted with wild rose bushes on a late summer day, and in a few weeks' time the change in seasons revealed the remains of a sock-like nest dangling from a thorny branch. The turkey vulture (also above) is a juvenile who roosted nightly with his family in a tree beside the beach near my island cottage.

Bushtit nest

There is one exception in the show, and this little drawing is based on photographs of a bird I dearly wish I'd seen: a northern pygmy owl sighted by a friend-of-a-friend who graciously granted permission for me to use his photos as my reference material.

Northern Pygmy Owl,
(Source photograph: Ron Knelsen)

This palm-sized bird with its fierce expression makes a fitting "mascot" for my show. I look forward to a future encounter with a member of his species and to the other encounters with birds of all sorts that will continue to fuel my artistic passion.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Contrasts and Values

It's been an inordinately long time since I last wrote. My excuse? I don't really have one other than I've simply been living life and (dare I admit it?) not been very focussed on art making.

It has, however, been a time of contrast. I have fluctuated between urban life on the mainland and rural life on Mayne Island. I've travelled to the wild west coast of Vancouver Island where storms were the order of the day - including a rare and utterly spectacular mid-winter, middle-of-the-night thunder storm - to sunny Mexico where despite balmy temperatures I heard many complaints about how "cold" it was, and then back home to an unseasonable interlude of what's been affectionately (or not) dubbed "Snowmageddon" here in southwestern BC - a place where the first hint of snowflakes brings panic but inches of the white stuff can mean only that hell has indeed frozen over.

Chesterman Beach, Tofino

On Mayne Island, daffodils were blooming back in January when it seemed spring had come early...

... but this is what they look like now - that is, in spots where the snow didn't bury them completely...

Whatever the country or climate, birds always factor into my experiences. In Mexico most days during my daily beach walks I observed an elegant egret fishing in the surf...

Snowy egret

... and pelicans smoothly soaring just above the waves.

Brown pelicans

And each morning, just outside my balcony, this lively woodpecker made an appearance.

Gila woodpecker (I think)

Since returning to Mayne there has been just one better-weather day that allowed me to get out for a good, long walk. I saw flocks migrating robins congregating in the snow-free areas created by tree cover and weak February sunshine.,,

Robins in a snow-free zone

...mergansers sunning themselves on my own nearby beach...

Common mergansers

...and green-winged teal foraging on that same shoreline.

Green-winged teal

The memory of daily barefoot beach-walks in Mexico offers an amusing contrast to the past few sub-zero days which have required multiple layers of sweaters and wool socks, topped off by a toque whether outdoors or inside my poorly insulated Mayne Island cottage. Instead of relaxing by a swimming pool observing flocks of free-loading grackles, I have spent a significant amount of time attempting to thaw frozen water pipes with a hair dryer, only to be stuck waiting for a plumber to fix the leak that was subsequently revealed - a plumber whose snowed-in van made the wait longer than would normally be expected.

Freeloading grackle eyeing up my lunch

There's nothing like a few days of deprivation to make one appreciate conveniences like running water. In an effort to cope, I channeled my pioneer ancestors, recalled back-country hiking experiences where drinking water was filtered from frog ponds, and I thought long and hard about the fact that running water - a convenience most of us take far too easily for granted - is denied to so many, including a significant number of First Nations communities here in Canada. I recognize that I am very fortunate.

The past few snowed-in days have provided a quiet time to consider contrasts and think about values. I have also developed ideas for new art which will hopefully be the topic of my next blog post in the not-to-distant future as I get refocused and head back to work in the studio.

Till then, I'm hunkered down in my little yellow cottage in the snowy woods, appreciating being able to turn on the tap and see water flow freely, thinking about the contrast summer will bring, how in other parts of the world the sun is shining on birds fishing on a warm, sandy beach, and valuing this quiet time of reflection.

And as for Lily, the snow can't melt soon enough so she can resume her normal ball-playing activities.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Closing one door & opening another

I started writing this while minding at my booth at The Mane Event – an annual equine extravaganza that has been an anchor of my fall show schedule every year for the past decade or more. I was surrounded by my art and working on a little coloured pencil demo project in between conversations with customers and neighbouring vendors. When the day was done I packed up my display for what feels like could be the last time.

My booth at The Mane Event (Chilliwack, 2018)

My demo drawing of my good friend Hugo

Throughout my career as an artist, I’ve been involved with events where participants bring their wares and set up for a few days to engage with the public. I’ve been part of big events and small ones – from back-yard gatherings of a handful of artists and artisans, to nationally renowned festivals that attract vendors and visitors from across the country, to regional trade shows where art is just a small part of what’s featured. I’ve lugged more stuff, travelled more miles, and set up and taken down displays more times than I can even recall.

A key component to participating in this type of event is figuring out a display system. Mine evolved gradually from a humble handful of scruffy home-made easels to my current slickly professional show booth. Many events have taken place outdoors, and so I have transitioned from covering things up with plastic sheets to erecting my sturdy canopy tent and setting up within its cozy space. My “mobile gallery” is now a tidy affair that feels like home in any location.

My "mobile gallery" at the Filberg Festival, 2017

The weather has not always been perfect. Sometimes I’ve been forced to batten down my tent with ropes, shield my art from driving rain, or shelter it from the sun. A time or two I’ve looked on in horror as paintings were blown from easels or drenched by downpours. I’ve driven through storms and endured heat waves. I’ve been hot, cold, dusty and damp, but in equal measure quite often the conditions have been just right – at least that’s what I remember.

And when I reflect on these experiences, I think of the people. I have met countless clients – some who purchase an art card, others who have become collectors of my originals, and still others who have participated in my classes, or commissioned a custom piece of art – as well as artist colleagues, vendors of all sorts of other wares, show organizers, and random passers-by. I’ve had fascinating conversations, been puzzled by weird comments, learned valuable lessons, and made firm friendships. Because art-making is, for me, most often a solitary pastime I will miss these opportunities to connect. However, the lure of spending more time in my studios – particularly my cozy Mayne Island space but also my more urban mainland location – and pursuing the ideas I have for new work is undeniable. 

Inside my South Surrey studio
Inside my Mayne Island studio
Maybe some time in the future I’ll be coaxed out to take part in a street festival, or art pop-up, or trade show, but for now I’m easing the door closed on that chapter of my artistic career and flinging open the door to my studio(s). I’m going to head inside and make art, and that’s where you’ll find me. You’ll also be able to see my work on line, and you’ll find it in galleries, gift shops and other venues.

As I finish writing this, I'm in my snug little Mayne Island studio on Day Three of the island's annual fall Art Studio Tour. I've chatted with visitors, sold a few things, made some new connections, and begun work on a new drawing. So far, so good!