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!

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Slippery as silk

Those familiar with the art I make know I work in two quite diverse media: I make detailed drawings in coloured pencil and also lively paintings on silk. My subject matter is consistently animals and birds, but what I produce in coloured pencil is stylistically different from my silk paintings. New viewers sometimes think two different artists are involved. 

Coloured pencil has been a favourite of mine since those long-ago days when they were a staple in every public school classroom in Canada. If you are of my vintage, you will remember the Laurentian brand of pencil crayon that was on our supply lists every fall. I never outgrew them, I just discovered better brands, learned new techniques, and kept going. They've been a staple of my art-making practice my entire life.

For that reason silk painting still feels like the new kid on the block in my studio. However, when chatting about my art the other day I came to the shocking realization that as of 2018 I've been working with silk for 30 years! Time, like silk, is a slippery thing. Not only am I older than I care to think about, I'm a veritable veteran when it comes to silk painting!

I became interested in silk painting while I was working in a small art gallery doing custom picture framing, soon after graduating from art school. Several silk pieces came across my table and I was fascinated - captivated by the vivid colours, the luminous nature of the fabric, and the freshness of the designs. I found a one-day workshop on the topic and immediately enrolled so I could find out first-hand what it was all about.

The workshop introduced me to the serti method of silk painting - one that involves drawing outlines with "resist" (a liquid, wax-based product) to define shapes, and then the colour comes from water-based dyes that are applied by brush. It appealed to me on several levels: 1) it involved drawing, and drawing is my "thing"; 2) the colours were luscious and vivid beyond anything I'd experienced with other media; and 3) the dyes flowed gorgeously and somewhat unpredictably through the silk, forcing me to loosen up and providing an excellent contrast to my detailed coloured pencil drawings. After spending just one day learning about silk painting, I was hooked!

It's not the simplest medium to master. There are a number of steps and significant technical challenges. Since this was back in the days before Google, I read books, experimented, and made mistakes. I've heard it takes 10,000 hours to master a new skill. I'd add that it takes an equally great number of mistakes. I certainly made my share but eventually I figured it out.

Since then I've made countless paintings and from the get-go they were well received. This painting called I've Never Seen a Purple Horse was one of my first back in 1988.

The original hangs on my wall and I continue to sell prints of this popular image. It was even featured in US Equestrian magazine profiling artists with unique approaches to depicting the equine form.

I've created some ionic pieces that many will recognize....

Walking the Dog - October

Waiting for Walk Time

I've had the good fortune of having created paintings that won awards, including these two...
The Transients: Snow Geese
Envison Masters Award, Oil & Water 2014, South Delta Artist's Guild

First Prize (water media), Arts 2011, Surrey Art Gallery

Some of them have travelled the world to buyers in far-away places...

Quiet Reflection: Sandhill Crane
resides in in Malta
Treasure of Nariva
(Blue & Gold Macaws)

resides in Trinidad
I've taught workshops to eager learners wanting to give silk painting a try, and have had students join me from across Canada and as far away as Brazil!

I illustrated a children's book with silk-painted images...

And I've created some very personal works, such as these...

Three Red RaincoatsMy dogs Riley and Ginger Snap, both gone now,
with their buddy Roxy who remains alive and well.

Couch PotatoMy cat Jasper, now deceased.

The Talisman
(Read its story by clicking here.)

It's been a thirty-year labour of love - a journey that's involved countless hours of creative exploration and generated emotions ranging from elation to crushing disappointment, as is the way with any artistic endeavour.

These days I find myself focussing mainly on my coloured pencils. However, I know the lure of shimmering silk and vibrant, flowing colour will, at some point, cause me to break out my supplies and turn my studio over to silk painting once again. I will lose track of the minutes and hours while exploring its colourful, slippery universe. 

Perhaps I'll even lose track of another decade or two!