Monday 30 December 2013

Hot and cold

It's now been a couple of weeks since I left the Caribbean and journeyed back home to western Canada. In not much more than the blink of an eye, I went from this:

... to this:

And from this...

... to this:

 My bird-watching subjects have gone from these:

A wind-blown royal tern.

A purple honeycreeper sipping flower nectar.

My coloured pencil rendition of a honeycreeper.

... to these:

A flock of busy bushtits gobbling seed.
A true snowbird! Juncos always held that
title during my childhood.

My coloured pencil rendition of a junco.

And I no longer need to befriend carefree beach dogs ...


... because I've been reunited with my old furry friend - one who would rather be snoozing by the fireplace than out taking her daily constitutional in the snow.

"Can we please go in now?
I have snow stuck between my toes."

It's all a bit of a shock to the system. While it's true there's no place like home and I'm always glad to be back on my own turf no matter where I've been, I found that in the days following my return I was pining for the palm trees, beaches and seemingly carefree climate of the Caribbean. Then, to my shock and sorrow, I learned that tragedy struck there in the form of an out-of-season tropical storm which tore through the region on Christmas Day. The island of Grenada, where I spent such a blissful, relaxing time, was thankfully spared the worst. However, nearby St. Vincent and St. Lucia, both of which I've had the good fortune to visit in the past, as well as Dominica were hard-hit with a total of 18 lives lost at last count and more still missing. Many perished when houses were washed away in rain-induced landslides, others are suffering devastating losses of their homes and livelihoods due to flooding and other storm damage. From thousands of miles away, my heart goes out to those affected and to the families who have lost so much. 

I am reminded that nothing in life should be taken for granted, to be thankful for each day, to appreciate each moment, and to be grateful for my comfortable home and the safe haven of my art studio, even though the location is more northerly than I would, at times, ideally wish for.

Winter is fickle in this part of Canada. The blanket of snow that covered the ground a week ago has disappeared and today, in a sheltered corner of my garden, I discovered this: 

Its blossoms may be scruffy but nonetheless this intrepid little primula holds the promise of spring and the new year that's about to unfold.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

It's a tough life (not!)

For the past couple of weeks I've been fortunate to escape the chilly Canadian west coast winter (in fact I hear it's been downright COLD with below-normal temperatures of -10 C). I'm once again in the southern Caribbean, basking in the steamy, nearly-equatorial heat of Trinidad and taking in the breezy trade winds of neighbouring Grenada. Both islands are equally beautiful in their own right.

Maracas waterfall, Trinidad.
Sunset view from Grand Anse beach, Grenada
In this part of the world, with a fertile combination of volcanic soil, ample rain and no shortage of sunshine, lush plant life abounds, including exotic fruits and gorgeous flowers. 

Cocoa bean pods and the tiny flowers from which they form.

Orchids blooming among coconut husks.

Colourful bougainvillea gracing an old stone wall.
But it's the smaller things - the lively ones - that never fail to capture my attention. There are bright green lizards scaling walls...

... and bats hanging from the rafters of old buildings, napping in the noon-day heat...

... and turtles poking up their noses for a breath of tropical air.

And of course it's the birds that really captivate me. From noisy flocks of orange-winged Amazon parrots perched high in trees just outside my apartment window in Trinidad... drunken hummingbirds sipping carambola (star fruit) nectar... cheeky bananaquits squabbling among the foliage just about everywhere I go. They're as common as sparrows or chickadees back home.

A typical bananaquit with bright yellow breast feathers.
A more unusual jet-black bananaquit, found in Grenada and also neighbouring St. Vincent. 
Among my favourites are the tropical mockingbirds whose warbling song awakens me each morning:

My blog readers will remember that last winter I captured the image of a mockingbird in an urban Trinidad setting in this drawing "Song of the Tropics: Mockingbird".

To my delight, just next door to my apartment in Grenada there's a resident juvenile Yellow Crowned Night Heron who defies his (or her) name and can be seen most mornings hunting for small crabs. He/she is not at all shy about posing for my camera:

One thrilling morning I was able to observe a handsome adult on the same quest for a crab breakfast.
It's hard to imagine that the night herons' range on the Pacific coast of North America extends from the tropics as far north as British Columbia. The Reifel Bird Sanctuary plays host to a handful of Black Crowned Night Herons each fall/winter, although this one that I observed last year appears to be longing for more balmy temperatures while huddled among cold, bare branches:
Below my balcony hummingbirds make regular visits to some pretty pink flowers that grow on a latticed arbour, waging territorial wars with the bananaquits and bees who compete for the flowers' nectar.
While I haven't yet used my time here to make any art, inspiration is everywhere! And although I may not have done much art making over the past couple of weeks, it's never far from my thoughts.

I recently listened to an interview with portrait artist Phil Richards (he was commissioned by the government of Canada to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II) speaking about his life as an artist and his artistic process. I can't remember his exact words, but the gist of something he said truly resonated with me: he described being an artist as being an observer of the world rather than an active participant; that artists always have a certain detachment as we continually contemplate how to depict our vision the world around us on our canvas, or sketchbook, or whatever our chosen medium may be. We're on the outside looking in, so to speak.

Even though I'm here in this lush, gorgeous part of the world, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin and the grit of sand between my toes as cool blue waves lap at my ankles, lulled by the rhythm of the surf, the warbling of mockingbirds, and perhaps the notes of lively human music drifting in from a distance, my mind is often completely absorbed by the interplay of colour, light and form. I'm captivated by the antics of seabirds diving for fish, lizards scampering among the undergrowth, or beach dogs dozing in the shade. I can get completely caught up observing something as ordinary as a preening pigeon perched on a telephone wire while others in my party enjoy drinks and lunch in a local waterfront bar.

On an ongoing basis, potential compositions are mentally constructed, reframed, edited and assessed; some are found wanting and are discarded but the sound ideas are filed away for future reference. And sometimes some scrawled notes and a quick sketch, backed up by a string of photos, ensure the idea remains solid.

I don't feel that being an observer of the world means the experiences life has to offer are any less rich, or enjoyable, or that I don't fully appreciate them. However, it does mean that I'm always, always, always "working".

Such is my life as an artist - and a lucky one, at that!

Sunday 24 November 2013

A house is hardly a home...

... without a dog in it. There's an empty mat in front of the fireplace...

A water bowl with a film of ice under a favourite tree...

And a certain young cat has made himself at home in what was formerly a big round D-O-G bed!
This bed is just right!

 My house feels very empty at the moment. There are no chilly walks, no longing looks of "where's my dinner", no deep sighs of contentment as just the right position is found for tired old bones. And there's no big furry body to step over, sprawled in the middle of the room. It's very odd. My life has revolved around my collie and her needs for so long, it's entirely strange without her!
But never fear, it's only temporary! (You were worried, weren't you?) Riley has gone to stay with our friend Jean and her own canine crew while I sneak in a little holiday. In fact, I suspect Riley's having a mini-vacation of her own. She'll be back soon but if you want to see what she's up to in the mean time, check out Jean's blog: "My Life with the Critters".

I'm OK! I'm having my own holiday here on Vancouver Island.
Photo courtesy Jean Ballard.

A coloured pencil sketch of my girl from a few years back.
As visitors to my studio know, she's a favourite subject of mine!
While Riley's enjoying the brisk winter days, I'm headed for sunshine. Further details will be forthcoming!

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Workshops, workshops, workshops!

Over time, October and November have evolved into annual teaching months for me, and this year has been no exception. I've run workshops on coloured pencil and on silk painting for small, enthusiastic groups who come to my studio eager to learn.

I've held coloured pencil "boot camp" days that focus on exercise after exercise, giving participants a chance to find out just what they and their pencils are capable of. We've drawn fruit and in some workshops we've drawn birds. Other participants have drawn dogs, horses and even a cowboy.

I've also held how-to workshops for silk painting where participants learn the ins and outs of working with this engaging but challenging medium. There have been luscious water lilies, lively birds, colourful crustaceans, pumpkins, flowers and other interesting and unique paintings produced over the past few weeks, as well as a few very beautiful silk scarves. I strive to help people learn and to have fun while doing so. I am always delighted to see what they are able to achieve with my assistance, and just how differently each and every one of them sees and interprets the world.

Earlier this month I hit the road with my vehicle packed with art supplies and hand-outs. I spent several days with an art group on Vancouver Island, first teaching them about coloured pencil and then winding up with a day of silk painting. This charming group of women meets weekly to paint together, support one another's artistic endeavours, and organize exhibition opportunities. Occasionally they bring in an instructor from "outside" so they can learn together, and that's where I came in.

We did a day of coloured pencil boot camp that left their heads spinning, their eyes blurry and their wrists tired. We shaded, we burnished, we blended, we hatched and cross-hatched and we covered a LOT of material. Then we put those new-found skills to use making one of my favourite workshop subjects, this spotted towhee.

Of course there's always one "keener" in the crowd, and in this case she went home and worked on developing a background for her bird, which she brought to show to the group the next day.

The day of silk painting was just as enjoyable. After an introduction and demo, ideas began to flow as members of the group embarked on planning and creating their own pieces.

Horses emerged, as did exotic fish, lively landscapes, bright flowers, beaches littered with shells and starfish, and yes, there were more water lilies, each unique and different from any other.


I immensely enjoyed working with the group, and I must have done something right because they want me to come back. And soon!

My studio helpers.
Now I'm back in the studio with my silk steamer running, processing all the silk projects to fix the dyes (a step that's required to make the dyes permanent) while mentally processing my experiences of the past few weeks. I'm not exactly alone as have a couple of helpers here in the studio making sure I get things right, but they're pretty quiet so I'm enjoying this chance to reflect on the past few weeks, the students I've met, and the work they've produced.

Since I started teaching workshops I've learned my own valuable lessons, foremost among them that teaching art is a wonderful way to analyse my own process. After all, to coherently speak about how I make art and to instruct others, I first have had to figure out just what it is I'm doing! This self-analysis has, I think, benefitted me immensely. And I have found that I love sharing what I know. The "ah-ha" moments I've witnessed in students are priceless!

In another day or so all the steaming will be completed. Each piece will be picked up or mailed to its owner and this year's cycle of workshops will be officially complete. But soon I'll be planning for my spring session and looking forward to meeting eager new learners as well as re-connecting with familiar faces who keep coming back for more.

It's all part of the mosaic that makes up my life as an artist.