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 bit tricky 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!

Thursday, 4 February 2021

The question of "When?"

It's impossible to exist these days without being acutely aware of the struggles people are experiencing as they cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people appear to be preoccupied with "when" questions: when can they travel, when can they plan vacations, when can they attend events, when can they gather together, when... when... when? We are told there are no clear answers to these questions - not yet, at least.

Artists tend to be solitary sorts of people and true-to-form I have found that staying home hasn't been terribly difficult for me. I can remember when my calendar was always action-packed and every moment of my time accounted for. Now each page is mostly blank. I find I don't really mind. When life eventually resumes a more lively pace, I'll be rested, refreshed and ready for action!

While I sorely miss my friends/family, for the most part I'm reasonably content. That's not to say I don't have the occasional bouts of frustration. However, my mandate is 1) I don't want to get sick, and 2) I abhor the thought of spreading the disease, particularly to someone more vulnerable than I. I'm also not a conspiracy theorist. I observe the numbers of deaths rising world-wide. I trust in science and in the people who have the education and expertise to lead us through these tricky times as safely as possible, imperfect as that leadership may sometimes be. And given the seriousness of the situation - the illness, the loss of life - I feel that the very least I can do is to do my part, and do my best to do it with good grace. When I'm able to see and hug my family/friends, to share a meal with them, to celebate an occasion together, I'll be all-the-more grateful.

My personal survival strategy for these days, weeks and months of mostly-solitary time is this:

  • Get outdoors. Spend time outside each day and go for long walks as often as possible. Breathe the air, observe the birds, and enjoy the physical experience of walking. 

  • Eat well. Prepare fresh, nourishing meals (and limit wine intake to a prudent level).

  • Talk and laugh. Keep in contact with friends and family via whatever electronic means work best. Communicate with at least one human every day and share laughter whenever possible.

  • Pat the dog and the cat. Show appreciation for the four-legged sidekicks and make the most of their constant companionship.

Lily's "when" question is "When will Hugo get out of my bed?!"

I top up these habits with a bit of blessing-counting. Each day I find it's not too difficult to be thankful for some small thing, or sometimes for many. I'm focussed on keeping the glass half-full rather than dwelling on what's missing. 

When the world regains its equilibrium, I hope to carry forward some of these habits.

Not surprising, given my line of work, I'm also committed to doing creative things:

  • Working in my studio. Right now I have a couple of dog portraits on the go and a lengthy list of upcoming projects. 

  • Exploring a new art form. I'm fulfilling my interest in sculptural work by learning about needle felting. Because of my experience with silk painting, it feels natural to experiment with another fibre-based medium. I have a ways to go before I'll feel fluent enough to tackle a significant project but for now I'm having fun fooling around making little birds.



  • Building something. I have ambitions to expand my pandemic-inspired vegetable garden that materialized last spring. My enthusiasm is blossoming as I observe daffodils emerging from the earth, garlic sprouts shooting bravely upwards, and self-seeded cilantro making an appearance. I'm also inspired by the fact that I'm still eating home-grown veggies from my freezer and from my kale patch that has continued producing all through the winter. Soon I hope to be building more beds and erecting additional deer-proof fencing. Recently, when tidying my shed, I discovered an ample supply of hammers inherited from various sources - enough for any carpentry project I could wish to take on (not to mention enough to outfit an army of carpenters should the need ever arise).

I understand each person's circumstances are different and that I'm fortunate to live in a place I love with ample room to roam outdoors. When it's possible to travel once again, I'm confident that I'll always return to this place and be glad to come home. 

I've consciously made an effort to practice living in the moment, given planning ahead these days often ends in disappointment. Living in the moment has got to be one of the most difficult things for humans to do because we tend to constantly project into the future. It's not that I don't have dreams for what's to come but I'm keeping timelines intentionally fuzzy for now. When I'm able to resume making concrete plans I'm confident I'll still remember how. 

As I write this a hummingbird is visiting the feeder outside my window, I can see juncos, sparrows and towhees pecking at seed I scattered this morning, the sun is peeking through the trees, Lily is snoozing in her bed in preparation for our walk, and Hugo is, in the way of cats, somewhere of his own choosing. Across the driveway my studio beckons. Today is much like yesterday, and tomorrow will be much the same. When times change, I suspect I'll remember these days with fondness.

What I wish for everyone during this unusual moment in history is, first and foremost, safety and good health but also that they are able to adopt coping strategies that work for them - strategies infused with grace, caring and thoughtfulness, spiced by dash of optimism and perhaps a pinch of creativity. 

Ultimately, I believe the answer to to the question of "when" can be found in the way we navigate "now". 

Saturday, 28 November 2020

Measuring Success

Written Saturday, November 14, 2020

Art is kind of a strange business. In fact, simply associating the words "art" and "business" is a bit strange in itself. However, for those of us who make art from which we derive some sort of income, business is part of the picture.

The question I want to explore today is how do artists define their success? Coming from the perspective of a working artist, here are some of my observations:

The simple answer for many is that success is measured in terms of sales. While this is a system everyone fundamentally understands, there are some tricky nuances. For example, at art fairs I have observed sales-aggressive artists steamroller over neighbouring artists to attract the attention of potential buyers. In the online setting, some have been known to hijack social media threads to bring attention to themselves. They might choose to only participate in exhibitions or events that have the potential to generate sales. To keep their sales up, they may focus their art on subjects or colours that are in keeping with decorator trends, or they may poach styles, techniques, and/or imagery from other artists. These actions ensure they won't win any popularity contests among their artist colleagues. However, if one uses sales to measure success, they are clear winners.

Some artists are award oriented, measuring success by the display of certificates on their wall. Seems like a simple system but once again, it's not without pitfalls. I have observed artists exhibiting the same work over and over again in different shows - sometimes for years - repeatedly earning accolades. They may not be producing much new work and/or they may be so focussed on winning that they are inhibited from exploring daring new artistic possibilities. They may also inadvertently limit their scope by only participating in settings that hand out honours and thus miss out on other types of opportunities. However, judging by their accumulation of award certificates, they are clear winners.

Some define success by bestowing their wisdom on others either through formal teaching or by sharing information by some other means (such as a blog 😉). Others may define success through their own accumulation of education, the names of the illustrious artist-instructors with whom they've studied, or perhaps the credentials they have earned. Learning, whether approached as teacher or student is fundamentally important to us all, so why wouldn't it be a measure of success to be an applauded instructor or, for that matter, to be on the receiving end of wisdom from an esteemed art maker? While some can balance teaching and learning, the lines can become blurred to the point where the artist may ask themselves "Am I more teacher than artist?" or "Am I developing my own original artistic voice or am I a disciple of some other artist?" 

And then there are others who measure success by the satisfaction they get from making art, the fulfillment of that inner urge to create and set free the artistic voice within them. The simple (or highly complex) act of making art is their measure of success. 

I maintain there is no a clear way for artists to truly define success. I've been at it for a good, long while and I've produced some art that's been profoundly satisfying (not to mention some I've enjoyed shredding). Making art hasn't made me monetarily rich but I've earned a decent income. I've shown work all over in a wide range of settings with diverse bunches of art-makers. I've been fortunate to win some awards here and there along the way. I've known the joy of teaching and of reveling in those "ah-ha" moments when a student perfects a skill or grasps a tricky concept. I've had some formal art education, earned some credentials, and learned techniques and tips from inspiring individuals. Each of these experiences has offered some sense of achievement but none completely define me or my art, both of which will always be works in progress. Nor do these experiences offer a yardstick by which to measure the success of what I do. In my mind, success as an artist is not tangible. It has more to do with an inner sense of satisfaction.

Today, during the Mayne Island Fall 2020 Studio Tour, on a cold, damp November day in the midst of a global pandemic, I opened my little art studio. 

I donned my mask, sanitized my hands, bundled up, and from a spot just outside my studio (it's too small inside to allow proper social distancing) I welcomed a steady trickle of visitors. Some were aspiring artists interested in learning, some were shopping, some said they were impressed by my art, some simply chatted, some said very little, and others I'm quite certain had come just to look at my artfully built studio. I sold a few things and I had some excellent conversations with new acquaintances and familiar friends alike about art, island life, and other topics. In between, while warming up indoors, I attended to email and did a bit of bookkeeping. I also observed the goings-on of birds - pine siskins in the trees above the studio, juncos in the birdbath, hummingbirds at the feeder - as I took time out for a cup of tea. 

After closing the studio and before November's early darkness set in I entertained Lily with some ball-throwing. All in all was a very satisfying day.

And that's how this particular artist measures success.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Sometimes it takes a pandemic...

We've all heard the saying that "change is the only thing constant in life". Change has certainly been my seemingly permanent sidekick for quite some time now. It has ebbed and flowed around me like the sea, and in the past few months the tides of change rose high as I pulled up stakes and moved house...again. But unlike the last momentous upheaval just a few years ago, this time I have, for want of a better word, "consolidated". As of September 1st, 2020, I became a full-time Gulf Islander. My nifty live/work townhome on the mainland now belongs to someone else.

A glimpse into my mainland studio.

There's nothing like a global pandemic to help one come to terms with priorities. I have loved my little place on Mayne Island, with its dilapidated cottage and rustic amenities, its towering evergreens and sunny meadow, since first I laid eyes on the little piece of paradise six years ago. The intervening time has seen much change for me but the little cottage has remained a constant factor, as has my dog Lily and her cat friend Hugo. I made gradual improvements to the comfort level of the cottage, had a little studio built, got involved in the island's arts community, and over time I found myself spending more and more and more time tucked away in my place among the trees just a stone's throw from a pretty beach. Consequently I spent less and less time in the "real world" of the mainland. Many people I got to know on the island didn't even realize I wasn't a full-timer. Ties with the mainland slowly unraveled.

When the pandemic came along I was at my island cottage so I stayed put. I planted a garden - a sure sign of commitment! 

I also did a lot of existential thinking, asking myself questions about where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I realized the answer was right in front of me or, rather, below my feet. I felt the winds of change begin to blow - at first a gentle breeze before gradually gaining force.

And so, over the summer, when the pandemic abated slightly, I sold my townhouse. Then I hustled and I bustled, and I packed up its contents and consolidated my life into one location. 

Inside my mainland home before...

... and after, when only a ball remained.

My little cottage is now crammed full of a LOT of stuff but it feels good to have everything in one place. I don't much miss mainland life, nor the duality of maintaining two homes. Fortunately the things I do miss, my exceptionally wonderful friends, are only a call or an email or a ferry ride away. 

The moving truck unloads, bathed in sunshine!

The changes won't stop now. I have a spot picked out among the trees where I plan to build a snug little house that I will be able to call home for the foreseeable future, a place I will age into - hopefully with grace and contentment. And I'm confident the process of building a house on this little island will be another story worth telling! 

But for now the dilapidated cottage is home, the small-but-mighty Yellow Bird Art Studio is my workplace where, after a year of many distractions and not much artistic output, I look forward to spending lots of productive time while Lily reigns supreme over the outdoors keeping wayward squirrels and ravens at bay, and Hugo watches benignly from his catio. 

We are all happy here.

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.