Saturday, 30 July 2022

Three Hundred and Sixty-five Days

On July 8, 2022 the crew putting the finishing touches on my new house left for the last time. As fate would have it, this was exactly 365 days after the excavator broke ground on July 9, 2021. What a year it has been!

From the dirt and dust and drought of a Gulf Island summer....

Lily snoozing amidst the chaos.

To the fall deluge of rain that started in September and seemed to go on forever... and ever...

To a blast of fridgid mid-winter temperatures well below any seasonal normal....

And, finally, after a long, endlessly wet spring ...  completion!

On the longest day of the year - the first day of summer - the building inspector signed my occupancy permit. How better to celebrate the solstice?! The finishing touches on the house took a bit more time and as of July 8 it was all well-and-truly done.

Gleefully taking down the Building Permit notice.

Living in the little house makes me smile. The stress and the challenges of building it on a small island during a pandemic are now just memories. For a creative person there are few things more satisfying than having the seed of an idea germinate and grow, and to have it mature into into something as big as a house is an artist’s dream come true.

Atop a gentle rise, nestled among tall evergreens, angled to capture the filtered afternoon sun, the house fits beautifully into the landscape. The playful punch of the bright yellow doors adds a whimsical touch in keeping with Yellow Bird Art Studio. I like to describe the style as as West Coast Modern meets Gulf Island Charm.

Looking out from the kitchen windows, there's my vegetable garden in its deer-proof stockade, and over there is my little art studio that pre-dates the house and is complimented by the new building's angles and exterior finishes. It all makes me smile.

The interior space, with its tall ceiling and big windows, feels light and airy. The footprint isn’t large – about 1,000 square feet - but it feels bigger, particularly after spending nearly two crowded years in the small rustic cottage at the back of the property.

Unique interior touches make things interesting. There are hand-made tiles in the kitchen and bathroom  - 700 of them - that I formed and tinted and glazed one-by-one during winter hours spent at Mayne Island Clay Works. The colour scheme in combination with the organic geometry of the shapes is, to my eye, visual poetry.

The tiler's little helper

Topping off the kitchen island is a beautiful slab of re-claimed maple from my childhood stomping grounds in Aldergrove, and it is echoed in the fireplace mantlepiece. Credit for these unique pieces go to Zator’s Woodworking.

And there’s the collection of stuff – the furnishings and art and objects and trinkets – that make up my personal history: a mish-mash of styles and textiles and colours that reflect my life and my taste. 

A favourite is the pair of old William Morris style rocking chairs that came from under my late husband’s family home in Trinidad where they’d been discarded. The stripped layers of green paint revealed rich mahogany, and the chairs are finished with seat cushions adorned in colourful Madras cotton, purchased in a Caribbean market in days long gone by. They evoke fond memories of my former life and the places I was fortunate to experience.

Then there are the curtains that hung in my own family home. Originally from Ikea about 40 years ago, they were recently made long enough for my new windows by having a panel of complimenting fabric sewn in. They’re like old friends and they make the new place feel like home.

It’s not fancy, it’s not big, and it wouldn't be everyone’s dream-come-true, but I couldn’t be happier. Lily and Hugo, and now Casper – our newest team member – all seem to agree.

And now, 365 days later, it’s time to start making art on a smaller scale once again. I’m heading back into my art studio! 

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Admiration for tessellation

What better way to acknowledge International Women's Day than with the story of an amazing woman - unknown to most - whose legacy is quietly playing out on a small island in the Salish Sea. I'm speaking of Marjorie Rice who, against odds stacked firmly against her, quietly made a name for herself in the world of mathematics. 

Marjorie's name is not exactly a household one. Born in the USA in 1923, she received only a basic education and lead a pretty ordinary life as a home-maker and mom of five children. However, even though she had no training or experience in mathematics and geometry, she had an innate talent. After reading a magazine article that piqued her interest, she dabbled and doodled and eventually unravelled the mystery of new ways in which a five-sided shape (a pentagon) could fit together in repeating patterns. Anyone familiar with the work of the well-known Dutch artist  M.C. Escher, famous for the cleverly repeating, interlocking patterns in his art, understands what a tessellation is even if they're not actually familiar with the word.

Developing new pentagonal tessellations might not seem like a huge achievement, but this unassuming housewife did something that had been deemed impossible. In the 1960s had been concluded by experts in the field that there were no more ways to fit pentagon shapes together beyond the patterns that had already been discovered (and it goes without saying these "experts" were men). But plucky Marjorie quietly discovered not one, but four new pentagonal tessellation shapes. Here's one of them:

If you're yawning now, please bear with me and read on. It's going to get more interesting.

Fast forward to 2022 - just shy of 100 years since Marjorie's birth - to a small island in the Salish Sea where a potter enamored with Marjorie's work decides to develop kitchen tiles based on Marjorie's discoveries. Another artist (the one writing this) happens to be building a house, sees the prototype tiles, and is also enamored with both the tile pattern and the empowering story of Marjorie. 

And so, for the past number of weeks I have been spending time at Mayne Island Clay Works making tiles based on Marjorie's pentagonal discoveries. I've worked under the tutelage of ceramic artist Kim Korol who created the molds, instructed me in the tile-making process, and who has provided gentle guidance throughout. She has taken care of the kiln firing of the tiles in collaboration with her business partner Kristine Webber, another Mayne Island ceramic artist. 

My goal: to manufacture 700 tiles, each one lovingly made by hand in colors of my choosing. 

The story of Mayne Island Clay Works is in itself a story of women. Kim and Kristine have teamed up on a new venture to manufacture clay ollas (pronounced "oyas") - vessels that, once buried in a garden with only the top of the neck protruding, can be filled with water that slowly seeps through the porous walls of the olla underground, ultimately conserving water while serving the moisture needs of surrounding plants. Kim and Kristine are a dynamic duo and it's been a treat to watch them in action while I've been toiling away at tile making.

When the last tile is completed I will miss spending time at the Clay Works but am looking forward to enjoying these hand-made tiles that will adorn my new home. I have to admit I'm also looking forward to spending more time in my own studio once the house building (and tile production) is behind me.

Thank you, Marjorie, for your creativity, mathematical skills and determination that set tile-making wheels in motion decades later here on this small island. I think you'd be delighted to know how your legacy lives on.

Happy International Women's Day all!

Saturday, 26 February 2022

Timing and Luck

It's been said that timing is everything. Good timing or bad timing can be the make-or-break factor in all kinds of endeavors, contributing to heady success or crushing failure. Timing and luck are unquantifiable and intangible but oh-so very helpful when they align in one's favour.

The past couple of years have been tricky, to say the least. For some it's been downright devastating. Most of us could never have envisioned a global pandemic or comprehended its multi-layered impacts on our lives. It has taken place in tandem with weird and often destructive weather - from dangerously suffocating heat, to unprecidented deluges of rain, to what we weather-wimps in southwestern Canada consider to be devastating cold. Record numbers of people have been laid low during wave after pandemic wave of infections, work has been compromised, supply chains have been damaged, and transportation challenged by weather related road closures, covid related shut-downs, and a host of other problems. People have been migrating from city life and establishing themselves in more rural places in record numbers, and I count myself among them. 

What better time, say I, than to do something momentous? Why not take on the life-altering project of building a house!? And for added excitement, build it on a small island - a daunting logistical proposition at the best of times. Just go for it!

And so, for many, many months, my house-building project has been my life. It started as an idea that I put down on paper. 

Then it ever-so-slowly emerged from a gigantic hole in the ground. The day the walls went up was surprisingly emotional. 

The house is now inching towards completion. It has walls, and windows, and doors, and a roof, and I'm already seeing the finished abode in my mind's eye. Inside, it is light and airy thanks to the tall windows that face southwest and lofty ceilings that make the space seem bigger than it truly is. 

In the summer, after a productive day in my art studio, I'll be able to gaze at my vegetable garden from the kitchen window or enjoy some late afternoon sunshine on the deck. In winter, I'll curl up by the fireplace with a good book.

Best of all, it's on that little piece of the Southern Gulf Islands I fell in love with some years ago. The new house is a stone's throw from my studio and it's tucked just in front of the little old yellow cottage where I've been living throughout the building process. Happily, when I evacuate the cottage for the comforts of the new house, that old friend I've called home will live on as expanded studio space.

While my timing for this epic project could have been much better, the many hair-pulling challenges and teeth-gritting frustrations - not to mention the absolute wonder of seeing a fuzzy idea gradually solidify into an actual building - will some day be just memories. And even so, these days when I step out of the cottage and make my way through the mud, past the piles of debris, and step through the door of the as-yet unfinished house, I know how lucky I truly am.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Not just another little brown bird

I have a particular fondness for an unlikely kind of bird ever since I was introduced to the species by a friend who had a pair nesting in her secluded garden. The nest site was the top of a service box on the exterior wall of her house. The nest itself was a simple but artful construction of lichen and moss. The parent birds flitted from perch to perch, quietly keeping a watchful eye on us while we, in turn, observed them respectfully. The sweet little birds I'm talking about are Pacific-slope Flycatchers.

Small, nondescript, brown-ish birds, they're definitely not the rockstars of the forest. They are what one would describe as "understated" as many flycatchers are with the exception of exotic types like the robust, colourful, loud, and in-your-face Kiskadee Flycatchers I got to know when I spent time in Trinidad. 

Like their much bigger and far more boistrous tropical cousins, the distinctive whistle of Pacific-slope Flycatchers makes their presence known. Even those who have never observed them may recognize their voice.

As a self-professed bird nerd, I was wildly excited last spring when a pair of these little darlings decided to use the light fixture above my studio door as their nest site! 

It made getting any work done a challenging for two reasons: 1) I feared disturbing them each time I passed through the door, and 2) the distraction of watching their activities was hard to resist. I could pull up a chair and easily spend hours observing their goings-on.

Thankfully the birds didn't seem bothered by my presence and eventually I was able to control the amount of time I spent gawking at them. The nest got raided once, as evidenced by a piece of broken eggshell I found on the doormat, and I thought they might give up and move to a new location. However the plucky little creatures persevered and eventually a brood of babies hatched, grew and fledged. One morning I discovered they had slipped quietly away into the forest. Life felt a little empty without them. The nest now resides on my studio window ledge.

When a Call to Artists came out early this year from the Art Bird Card project inviting artists to illustrate a bird identification card as part of a fundraiser for the Rocky Point Bird Observatory, I was delighted to see the Pacific-slope Flycatcher on the list. I knew this species would not be the first choice for most artists, or even second or third choice, but I put my hand up right away. The result is this little drawing.

It is one of 35 species included in Set 2 of the bird identification Nature Cards which will be available later this spring. Last year I illustrated a card for Set 1, and that time it was indeed the rockstar of the forest: the flashy, noisy and exotic-looking Piliated Woodpecker.

This is another species that regularly visits my property. A team of them is currently dedicated to using their drilling power to sculpt a dead cedar snag near the road. 

While Piliated Woodpeckers are year-round residents, Pacific-slope Flycatchers are spring/summer visitors who stay only long enough to nest, rear babies, and enjoy the seasonal bounty of insects before migrating south to warmer winter climates. It's early April as I write this, and I'm already listening for the distinctive whistle that will herald their arrival. And I have my fingers crossed a nest will once again be built where I can observe their comings and goings.

If you're interested in the Nature Cards produced by the Art Bird Card project, visit the Rocky Point Bird Observatory website. To learn more about the Pacific-slope Flycatcher, here's a good link to visit where you can also hear their distinctive whistle.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

The Three Cs (Plus Three More)

From time to time I have the pleasure of being called upon to adjuticate artworks for juried exhibitions. The experience of reviewing the art that's been submitted never fails to get me thinking about just how important art fundamentals are to the execution of successful art pieces. While on one of my rambling walks recently I came up with with a formula I'm calling "The Three Cs."

1. Composition  No matter what medium or style, the underlying "bone structure" of any piece of art is its composition. Balance, symmetry and movement are all words used to describe it. Rules of thirds, rules of odds, and other rules apply. Some artists have an instinctive knack for composition and are driven by intuition while others approach it in a meticulously calculated way. No matter how an artist reaches his/her compositional decisions, it's well worth the effort of careful consideration. An artist may have perfected their techniques in every other way but if the composition is lacking, the work suffers. Confident artists will sometimes intentionally break compositional rules, but to do that successfully the artist is usually making a deliberate choice.

2. Colour  The use of colour is another fundamental consideration. The choice not to use colour makes its own statement, but when colour is applied it can be easy to see which artists have given it careful thought. The use of complimentary colours is a sure-fire way to energize, while a more analagous palette can tone things down. High key or low key, hot or cool, intense or muted, colour is very much the language spoken by artists. Those who are most fluent have studied its nuances and harnessed its power.

3. Creativity  Whatever, the style, medium, subject or approach, artists must be creative and strive to be unique. Finding one's artistic "voice" can be a difficult task, increasingly so thanks to the sharing of so many digital images and ideas online. It requires the ability to ignore a lot of external forces, including the images that pop up on Social Media and that instructor whose work we are so tempted to emulate. When we stop looking at others, we are more likely to find ourselves.

When teaching, I often use this drawing of mine as an example of The Three Cs: 

  • This composition is not conventional. The placement of the bird's eye satisfies the rule of thirds but having his beak point straight into the corner would typically be a no-no. However, I deliberately broke that compositional rule to create energy and tension. 
  • I used complimentary colours (red and green) to energize the drawing. I developed naturally occuring shades of green by blending blues, yellows and other colours including red. It's also worth noting that black is never just black - it is the presence of all colours. For the bird's feathers I worked in blues, purples and reds to create rich black tones.
  • Lastly, this is one ugly duck but I chose not to concern myself about creating a pretty picture. Instead I celebrated his unique appearance. 

While I believe The Three Cs cover the fundamentals, there are a couple of additional Cs that are also worth acknowledging:

4. Concentration  The fabled 10,000 hours of practice, practice, practice - in the studio, or back bedroom, or kitchen table, or garden shed, or wherever it is we make art - is key to becoming accomplished. When we persevere to find time, to focus, and to keep producing, it shows!

5. Courage  Being an artist takes bravery in so many ways! Artists infuse their innermost-selves into the art they make and then expose it to public scrutiny. They also tend to lead unconventional lives. "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." (Ralph Waldo Emerson) 

And there's one last practical C...

6. Camera  Know how to use one - properly! Understanding how to light artwork is a key aspect for successfully photograping it, whether we're using an expensive high-resolution camera or just a smartphone. We also need to know how to process digital photos so the original art is represented as closely as possible and the file has the correct technical specifications. 
I would add, for those who use photography as reference material for the art they make, that it's very, very tempting to use other people's photos, or public domain photos available online, or even to break copyright laws and swipe an online image. Resist those temptations! The effort of building our own libraries of reference photos will ensure our art speaks from our own experiences, not someone else's. Ultimately it will help with the tricky task of finding our own artistic voice. 

And now I'm off to the studio on this cool, rainy early-spring day to see how I can effectively apply these principles. Happy art making all!