Tuesday 30 April 2013

Road trip!

There's nothing like a few days away - particularly when glorious spring weather is combined with a destination like Vancouver Island. Last week I unexpectedly made just such a trip. The reason for my trip was to assist a friend in need but I felt I also benefited from taking myself out of the studio for a breather.

There are places on this planet that seem to nurture us simply by being there, and I find Vancouver Island to be one of them. Even from on board the ferry, one gets the sense of moving into a different place of beauty and serenity.

Behind my friend's home in the quaint town of Port Alberni is a network of trails where walkers and cyclists enjoy the quiet of the forest with its moss laden trees, beaver ponds, carpets of ferns, and, at the moment, an abundance of my favourite spring flowers: trilliums. Roxy, my cocker spaniel buddy whom I blogged about last year (see Portrait of a Best Friend), is staying with me while her family is away travelling. Both she and my old collie Riley accompanied me on this trip, and the three of us enjoyed meandering through these serene trails on several occasions. Apparently black bears and cougars are common visitors to the area, but the only bear we saw on this trip was one that galloped lickity-split across the highway in front of my car, and we did not have any up-close-and-personal encounters with large wild animals while on foot.

Roxy enjoying a walk in the forest.

On the journey home, we paused at Cathedral Grove - a truly magical place. Just steps from the main road, ancient, moss shrouded, old-growth trees tower above some of the biggest, most lush trilliums I've ever seen. Birds flitted about, including delightful Winter Wrens shouting their spring songs from tree stump podiums, and a gorgeous Varied Thrush that paused briefly on a branch. Kestrels called from the tree-tops and an unseen tree frog added an amphibian song. This place is soothing to the soul.

A massive trillium sprouting from the base of a giant tree

A Varied Thrush on a mossy branch
Can you spot the tiny Winter Wren?

Before heading to the ferry terminal, we made a diversion to the town of Crofton to call on another friend. We took the dogs for a stroll on the sea-walk at Crofton Bay where I was hoping I'd see one of my favourite bird species, the Pacific Oyster Catcher. What I did see was this plump otter happily munching on a large fish on the beach just a stone's throw from where we stood. A beautiful pair of Mergansers rested nearby, also observing the feasting otter.

Seafood lunch in Crofton Bay

Merganser couple
A silk painting of mine featuring an Oyster Catcher

Back on the mainland I made one last stop. In the trees growing against some bluffs near the ferry terminal is a heron rookery. The trees were dotted with the shapes of Great Blue Herons flapping to and fro or standing guard over their nests. Spending a few moments observing this natural wonder was a fitting conclusion to my trip.

And now I'm back in my studio, feeling refreshed, renewed and ready for the tasks at hand.

Thursday 18 April 2013

What to do when you're in a slump

For the past few days - well... maybe even weeks - I've been in a kind of a slump. I've been going about my business more-or-less as usual but it's been a bit of a struggle. I head down to my studio each morning, coffee and hand, and settle down for the day. However, somehow the creative juices just aren't flowing.

Wren Fledgling in coloured pencil.
I have not been totally unproductive. I have a couple of commission pieces underway and they're coming along nicely (one of them is a bit out of the ordinary for me and I'll reveal it in a future blog). I also finished off this sweet drawing of a little wren while at an art event recently. It's just that the flow of new ideas, which usually comes easily to me, seems to be clogged.

I've come to the conclusion that I'm in a proverbial "slump" or I have "artists block" or some other euphemistic description for just being a bit out-of-sorts. I've never been one to expect that everything needs to be just-so in order to make art. I have a lot of discipline. I go to the studio. I work. I am diligent, focused and productive. But lately, for some unknown reason, I'm off my game.

I know its necessary at times to simply draw back, walk away, and nurture oneself. However, I'm fighting back. Right now walking away is not what I'd like to be doing - or can afford to be doing - with exhibitions, festivals and other events pending.

So far I have distracted myself from my slump by doing such things as:
  • fiddling around on my computer WAY more than usual
  • sitting in the sunshine (when available), drinking tea
  • sitting looking out the window (at the rain), drinking tea
  • cleaning out closets
  • taking myself and/or my old dog for walks at odd times of day
  • lying on the floor with the old dog and/or the cats (should I mention we've had some long conversations or would that bring my overall mental health into question?)
  • getting together with friends for lunch, or a walk, or coffee (having legitimate human conversations)
  • pottering in the garden
  • reading books (dog lovers who enjoy a good cry should read "The Art of Racing in the Rain")
  • watching nonsense on TV
  • thinking about art-making and new projects, but not acting on the thoughts
  • the list goes on...
High in an evergreen, a watchful barred owl.

On my walks I have acquired some wonderful new reference material such as this barred owl I spotted recently which, at other times, would inspire me to get busy on a new drawing or painting. These days I scarcely take time to peruse what I've gathered.

I have read inspirational books that would, at other times, fill me with ideas and energy but now simply put me to sleep. I've commiserated with artist colleagues who would, at other times, make my creative juices gush but now manage to produce only a meagre drop or two. I feel like I'm marooned in a creative desert in search of an oasis.

So now I've figured out there's one thing I can do that will fit into my slumpy state and benefit me in the long run: I'm tidying up my studio. I'm finding it to be quite a therapeutic exercise and a nice break from working on the commissioned pieces, taking care of the day-to-day activities of running my art business, and simply stewing about being in a slump. And judging by the number of boxes of junk I've hauled out so far, it's a task that is well overdue. I have my fingers crossed that getting my studio neat and organized (although not TOO organized; that could be counter-productive) will improve my frame of mind and set the stage for unleashing the floodgates of a veritable deluge of creativity!

And just in case those clogged floodgates take a little while to clear, cleaning the studio will have the benefit of presenting a tidy workspace for the participants joining me for coloured pencil workshops this weekend. Perhaps it's the energy of a creative group of students - eager to learn and appreciative of my insights - that will give me the kick-start I need to climb out of this creative slump and get on with things. 

Or maybe I'll just look out the window some more and drink another cup of tea, resigned to my fate, taking heart in the words of some wise person who once said, "This too shall pass". I wonder if he/she was an artist too.

Saturday 6 April 2013

A Cougar's Tale

I recently completed a new piece of art - a coloured pencil drawing that's just a little bit of a departure for me. While cats have always been part of my repertoire, this kind of cat has not! Here's just a piece of it:

You'll have to keep reading to see the whole drawing, but I urge you not to rush straight to the end because there's an interesting story behind this piece of art that I think is worth telling. The tale of this drawing is actually the culmination of three separate stories  woven together.

Story #1: A few years ago it came to my attention via a local newspaper article that a pair of cougars were living in and/or around one of my favourite haunts - a park just a few miles from home where I like to take long, rambling walks in the forest. I was enthralled by the idea! It's not the kind wilderness area where I would have expected to find these large wild cats but it's a 1,300+ acre, mainly undeveloped park, there's a lot of bush, and the park is surrounded by farms and green belts that would provide a buffer zone of relatively low human population density. There are also lots of deer, rabbits and other wild prey which would give the cougars an ample food supply. For several years now I have lived with the faint hope - more of a dream - that one day during my park ramblings I might glimpse one of these elusive felines. So far that has not happened.

Story #2: Speaking of park ramblings, there's a certain area in that favourite park of mine that's just a little bit magical. You could say that about several parts of this park if you're a nature lover like me, but one area takes on a particular kind of magic in late spring/early summer. It's a place where the tiger lilies bloom and the forest is dotted with their bright yellow-orange blossoms. They rise above the ferns, salal, and other vegetation to put on an exquisite display. My collection of reference photos includes numerous shots I've taken of these glorious-but-delicate flowers. I file the photos away, adding a few more each year, figuring one day I'd find a way to use them.

Story #3: Five thousand miles away in a small Caribbean country lives a Canadian cougar. I happened to make his acquaintance during my recent winter sojourn there. I'm told he was brought into the country as an illegal pet, confiscated from a suburban home by the authorities, and he ended up in the local zoo. While zoos are not ideal places for wild animals, I understand this big fellow was born and raised in captivity, and when I saw him he looked pretty comfortable in his spacious, leafy enclosure. He was certainly active the day I was there and I was able to spend a long time observing him, taking some great photos as he moved about, lapped water from his pond, or simply lounged in the shade. I stopped photographing when he was fed an entire horse leg for lunch. That was just a little bit too graphic for me.

After my day at the zoo and the unexpected bonus of seeing this lively cougar, the pieces started to fit together. I realized that I had all the reference material I needed to bring to life my personal vision of the cougars who live in my favourite park. I could see them in my mind's eye, pacing silently through the forest. And what better setting for a big cat than among tiger lilies! It was an "ah-ha!" moment and this was the result:

So it came about that a dream, a little magic, and a chance encounter in a far-off land culminated serendipitously in a piece of art featuring a majestic feline among glorious wildflowers in a place I love. It captures the contrast between power and delicacy, intensity and serenity, and the diverse harmony of nature. I call it "Forest Wildcats". 

I would never have imagined that a Canadian cougar living out his days on a tropical island would be the catalyst (pun intended) for this piece of art. Such is the random way in which things work out some times.

This drawing will be on display as part of an exhibition of work by the Fraser Valley Chapter of the Federation of Canadian artists at the Semiahmoo Arts Centre, White Rock, BC, May 3-31, 2013.