Sunday 15 June 2014

My tree of life

In the middle of my front lawn grows a beautiful tree: a honey locust that my mom planted 25 or so years ago. She set a trend: soon one neighbour had planted a similar tree, then another, then a few years back municipal workers planted several more to grace our boulevard. Since then, I have often thought our street should be named for them, perhaps something like Honey Locust Lane.

The honey locust trees that line our boulevard.

Our tree has flourished and grown and spread its branches gracefully, and now shelters a good portion of the front lawn. It's positioned where I can observe it from my downstairs studio window or from the picture windows in my upstairs living room, and the tips of its branches nearly touch the glass of my bedroom window. I am intimately acquainted with this tree. In the fall, when a million tiny fallen leaves blow against my front door and somehow find their way inside in their multitudes, there is a brief period of time when I am not enamoured with the tree. Thankfully it is short-lived and I have a good vacuum cleaner. 

At the base of the tree is a clump of snowdrops whose delicate blooms inform me of the arrival of spring. 

The tree's small chartreuse-coloured leaves, when they appear in late spring, offer the most delightful dappled shade - a perfect place for my old dog Riley to while away many an afternoon during the twilight of her life (see my post The Dog Days of Summer). The inviting bench below the tree draws passers-by to stop and visit. Our long-time 90-odd-year-old neighbour would often pause to rest there and chat with Riley. Both he and my old dog departed from this earth earlier this year, within a week or so of each other, but I'm certain both their spirits grace the place still.

The tree is a lively place, often bustling with birds. There are very nearly always chickadees flitting about, and often bushtits too, as well as juncos, various types of sparrows, and occasionally pretty pink finches. They twitter cheerfully to one another as they examine the branches for anything edible and use the tree as a staging area for my adjacent bird feeders. I have observed a chickadee deftly hiding sunflower seeds in crevices of the tree's bark, stashing them away for future times of need, and have seen whole broods of newly-fledged youngsters sheltering comfortably in the tree while their parents ferry snacks to them. 

My artist's eye appreciates the rich blue of a Steller's jay's plumage set against the tree's vivid green leaves in a lively analogous colour scheme, as demonstrated by this rather scruffy looking young bird.

This spring I developed the habit of every so often placing a handful of nuts in the fork of the tree's trunk, much to the appreciation of the crow couple who have been raising a family high in a nearby evergreen. Now, when they see me anywhere near the tree, they come flapping over to check and see what I've left for them.

One evening some weeks ago, when the locust tree's leaves were just beginning to bud, I glanced out my front window to see, remarkably, what I think were a pair of Townsend's warblers just a few feet away. I imagine they were using the tree as a rest-stop on their spring migration.

Another time I witnessed two Pileated woodpeckers sparring on the trunk. They circled the tree for 20 minutes or so, deeply engaged in a contest with rules incomprehensible to their human observer.

The other day, as I gazed appreciatively at the tree from my living room window (for it is at this time of year, when the leaves are fresh and new, that it is at the peak of its beauty) a green heron - the smaller, more reclusive, and much less abundant cousin of the great blues - flew between its branches right before my eyes, leaves rustling softly in its wake. A lively robin often sings its evening and morning arias from a lofty perch at the very top of the tree's branches. I awaken, with pleasure, to this soothing serenade. This morning the steady peeping of a nuthatch served as my alarm clock.

Not only do birds enjoy the tree, other species are drawn to its welcoming branches. It produces clusters of tiny flowers that attract swarms of bees whose hum can be heard inside the house. One spring I observed a stunning swallowtail butterfly camouflaged amongst sheltering foliage, just inches from my window. 

And of course the neighbourhood squirrels make good use of the tree as a vantage point from which to plan their assaults on my bird feeders.

The abundance of activity in the tree provides hours of entertainment for my cats who must content themselves with watching the world from the safety of the indoors. 

Strategically positioned cat perches provide them with excellent viewing platforms. When birdwatching proves to be too exhausting, they simply nap there with the tree providing a colourful backdrop. 

This particular tree gives me great pleasure each and every day. It is a unending source of artistic inspiration right in my own front yard, and I have learned that I don't have to travel far to observe wild creatures going about their daily lives. It has also taught me how significant one tree can be to a community. It enriches the lives of many - human and animal alike - providing shelter, a place of refuge, a quiet resting spot, a source of food, or simply a feast for the eyes. It also makes me realize just how much each and every tree counts.

There's a saying that goes something like, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago." If my mom were around today, I'd thank her for her foresight. 


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Monday 9 June 2014

What's in a name?

For most visual artists, the final act of creating a piece of art is to sign their name to it. I got to thinking about this topic when I recently had the good fortune of viewing an exhibition of art by Miro at the Seattle Art Museum. I was completely engaged by his exuberant paintings and wildly creative sculptures. His profound enjoyment of art making was obvious, and it pleased me to know that right up until his death at the age of 90 he continued to create. Looking closely at his paintings, I noticed his signature. It embodied his distinctive style as emphatically as any of his artworks. It was positioned inconspicuously, but it was just as much an integral part of each painting as were the strokes of his brush.

This took me back to an art critique I attended years ago for a juried exhibition. The jury members invited artists who had submitted work to attend a session where they would discuss the selection process. The one thing I remember about what the jury had to say is this: they had seen several pieces of art that had been basically "ruined" by poorly executed signatures! They said the signature must be part of the artwork - unobtrusive yet intentional and never dominant or distracting. As a young artist with little experience, I was shocked to learn that a signature could potentially make or break a piece of art. I looked at my oil pastel drawing which had not been chosen for the show (I'll refrain from using the harsher word "rejected") and, with new eyes, viewed with horror my signature which I had clumsily scrawled across the lower right corner in large, black, block letters. Ooops!

Then and there I set about revising my approach. I worked on developing a way of signing my work that would be distinctly mine. I actually practiced what my signature would look like (and distinctly remember doing so during a math class in college; needless to say, math is not my strength). The result is this: my maker's mark that I have been using ever since:

It might look like nothing much, and it certainly lacks the style and flourish of Miro, but it's always consistent: uniquely formed capital letters strung together in a distinctive way that says "this is who I am."

I am also consistent about where I place my signature: normally in the lower right-hand corner of the artwork, leaving a bit of breathing space between the right and bottom edges, but sometimes switching it to the left it benefits the composition of the artwork. It's always written parallel to the bottom edge of the artwork. I make sure it's small and unobtrusive but I sign it deftly and with purpose.

You can barely make out my signature in the
lower right corner of this silk painting
"Blue Headed Parrots". (The watermark
in the left corner is applied only to photos
of art that I'm publishing on the Internet.)

My signature is on the left in this drawing, 
providing balance to the bird's intense gaze.

These days when I look at a piece of art, I nearly always notice the signature. What does the signature reflect about the character of the artist, about their professionalism, about their level of confidence? I find that I can usually deduce something. After all, how an artist signs their work reflects who they are. Each and every mark made on the surface of a piece of art counts.

Of course no rules are carved in stone, particularly in the art world! Some artists only sign their work on the back of the art, some like to break with tradition and put their signature on its side or at an angle (something that long-ago jury said was a poor option), others don't sign their work at all - a choice that puzzles me a bit. For me, my signature is the grand finalé of the art making process; it's that moment when I say, "this is finished" and "this is my work". On the back I write the title, the year and I sign it again. I've watched enough episodes of Antiques Roadshow to know that when a drawing or painting of mine shows up there 200 years from now, that information could be helpful!

The topic of signatures might seem totally trivial. On the scale of possible topics, it most definitely is! But my point is that even if we're not big-name artists, we can approach our work as if we are and make sure our art speaks to who we are, right down to the final, small detail of how we sign our names.