Sunday 17 December 2017

Year of the Owl

2017 has been, for me, a year of transformation. I decided it would be a time to let go of a lot of obligations and nurture my art-making self. I have travelled, I have experienced the joy of spending as much time at my Mayne Island refuge as I possibly could, I have had the deep satisfaction of seeing a small art studio erected there, and I have remembered how to laugh and to find joy every day. And I have been making art!

My unofficial guide through this transformative year has been that elusive species of bird: the owl.

It started in January when I visited the Northern Spotted Owl breeding facility in Langley, BC - a rare opportunity to view a species that's nearly vanished from my home region where it was once abundant. I wrote about that experience earlier in the year in my post Predator vs Alien.

Later in January, while spending a couple of blissful weeks on the island of Maui, I caught a glimpse of a Hawaiian short-eared owl. It was a brief sighting (too quick for a photo) that happened while I was wandering around one of Maui’s state parks. On an island where the native species of birds are edging towards extinction for a variety of reasons, this felt like a rare gift.

In my mind, seeing an owl somehow always feels like a special privilege, one that some people never experience. This year the barred owls of Mayne Island seemed bent on being my companions. They regularly showed themselves to me on my walks and swooped through the trees around my cottage. 

Their calls often echoed through the woods around my little island home – most memorably on a full-moon night in August. One October day a gorgeous specimen landed on the road right in front of me and stared straight into my eyes before silently rising back into the air and disappearing into the woods. 

Even in the wooded ravine adjacent to my urban townhome on the mainland, the owls came to me. Not just the familiar barred owls but a glorious juvenile great horned owl. For several weeks over the summer he/she was there, seemingly waiting for me when I went for my morning walk with my dog Lily. As the summer waned he/she quietly departed but I still scan the trees in hopes of another sighting.

These wild moments aside, it was a different owl experience that has found its way into my art. At England’s Whipsnade Zoo I attended a presentation about birds. Several species took turns flying freely in the open air before returning to their handlers on command, including a familiar bald eagle, a band of African hawks, couple of raucous parrots, and some vividly coloured macaws that generated wistful memories of past travels in South America. And then .... there it was: a great grey owl, massive and magnificent.

Seeing this wondrous bird reminded me of a rare sighting many years before when, on horseback, I wandered into a grove of huge trees occupied by a pair of large owls (most likely great horned owls but in my mind's eye I picture great greys). It was a moment I’ll never forget in a place that’s long since been cleared for a housing development. I was inspired to create this coloured pencil drawing I call "Out From the Shadows":

Owls are thought to represent anything from omens of death, to indicators of change, to symbols of feminine strength. However I like what poet Mary Oliver says – that they conjure thoughts of “pleasure, good luck and a happy life”.

Monday 16 October 2017

Rural Routes

Earlier this year I had the privilege of spending some time in the United Kingdom. I visited family in England, spent a couple of days in Scotland, and generally enjoyed as much as possible of what there was to see and do.

A huge highlight was a week of long-distance walking along the Hampshire coast on England's southern shore (I touched on this adventure in an earlier post "Where Does the Time Go"). I was able to not only enjoy wild coastal environments and urban cities, but also some rural countryside.

As always, wherever I go my experiences and the creatures I meet along the way provide inspiration for the art I create.

A brood of sunbathing piglets became the incentive to create a colourful silk painting...


A herd of curious heifers provided me with inspiration for another...

And a handsome gypsy pony posed for another painting in my series of silk horse "portraits"...

There are many other moments from my UK trip that may, at some point, provide artistic fuel. However for now, working on these three new paintings has been a satisfying experience. Not only was I able to re-live those moments in the English countryside, it took me on another journey back down memory lane to my own rural roots growing up on the family farm in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. I find it fascinating how new experiences often parallel the old, and fresh memories connect us with our past.

And now... I'm heading back into the studio to see what lies ahead!

Thursday 5 October 2017

The Balancing Act

Art is, for me, a pretty serious endeavour. It's not only my passion, it's my vocation. It's how I express myself and it's also how I pay my bills. Finding a balance between "art as work" and "art as a pleasurable activity" can, at times, be a challenge. One thing I have learned is that when I get too serious - about what's going on in my life or about my art itself - my creativity suffers.

Over time I have developed a few strategies to help maintain my creative equilibrium. One is weekly life drawing sessions where my focus is simply on the act of drawing. I can easily lose myself figuring out how to capture the essence of that day's model, and what I produce is for nobody but me. I can experiment, play, goof off or get serious about it - whatever feels right for the day or the moment. No pressure, no fuss - it's about me, the model, and my drawing materials. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes it's not, but it's always a welcome break.

Another strategy is getting outdoors into a natural space. I do this every single day, even if it's only for a little while. Being out in the air, walking among trees or by the water, listening to birds, feeling the crunch of leaves or grit of sand under my feet is soothing to my soul. It lifts my spirit and helps my mind find a peaceful place where thoughts can drift and sometimes solutions can be found for problems that seemed unsolvable indoors. When I'm on the mainland I head into the ravine across the street where during my wanderings I might be lucky enough to have a close encounter with a woodland resident like this great horned owl:

When I'm at my Mayne Island studio, all I have to do is open the door and the forest air pours in. It never fails to make me feel good.

Every so often, I also like to take part in a class or workshop where I can learn something new or tap into a different part of my creativity. I recently had the infinite pleasure of taking a multi-day workshop that focussed on nothing but simply being creative. It drew me into a world where art making was about looking inward for guidance, looking outward for inspiration, and creating art in an experimental, playful way without any expectations. We conjured up words, we tinkered with found materials (in my case some pigeon feathers), we collaged, we made prints of various types, we stencilled, we drew, we painted, and we did visioning exercises. I came away feeling refreshed, re-energized, and ready for action. I also have a few new ideas percolating for creative strategies to work into my life and art practice.

Today I'm back in my mainland studio with art projects on the go, paperwork to attend to, and this blog to write. Yesterday was my weekly life drawing session, and in a little while I will head out into the ravine for some time among the trees and a chance to soak up some fall sunshine. I'm also counting the days until my return to my island sanctuary.
Finding balance is a tricky thing - a continual creative work-in-progress in and of itself.

Saturday 9 September 2017

Creativity + Girl Power = Limitless Possibilities

I’ve spoken before about how creativity takes many forms. In my world I tend to think primarily about the drawings and paintings I make, but obviously there are all kinds of creative folks making sculptures, or textiles, or music, or maybe they’re dancing, or writing, or engaging in any of a whole long list of artistic pursuits. There are also the kinds of creative activities that are worked into day-to-day life like gardening, or cooking, or carpentry – the list is truly endless when we think about how we use our minds to problem-solve as we make and do things.

Recently I’ve had the assistance of some very able-bodied women in what some would consider unconventional creative pursuits that have left me feeling empowered and impressed at what “girls” can do when we put our minds and bodies into a project.

Bring together three women on a sunny summer morning and there’s no telling what might happen! We can take a load of split rails and a pile of blocks, and create the most artfully made, well-engineered split rail fence imaginable! This one now adorns the front of my property on Mayne Island:

It brings me joy every time I look at it, and the locals seem to appreciate it too.

On another sunny summer weekend, bring together two women with a reasonable knowledge of power tools, a load of lumber, a bit of know-how, some determination, and an all-important helping of creativity, and the results can be nothing short of amazing!

The rickety, rotting front porch of my Mayne Island cottage, with a dilapidated set of stairs fit only for mountain goats, has been transformed into a sold, comfortable outdoor space.
Post demolition...

It’s now a perfect spot for whiling away an evening watching the trees and gazing fondly at my little art studio across the way. And there's no longer any fear of sprains or broken bones while navigating the perfectly spaced, soundly made stairs.

This project also brings me immense joy and a massive sense of pride and accomplishment, not to mention gratitude to my skillful and enthusiastic friend who spearheaded the project.
I will never forget this summer, the projects we accomplished, and the lessons I learned working with my strong, skillful, creative female friends.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Where does the time go?

I recently realized the last time I blogged was about three months ago. When I first started blogging I thought I'd write every week. So much for that! Time has simply flown by so this post will be a quick catch-up of some of the the goings-on in this particular artist's life.

I was fortunate enough to take a trip to the United Kingdom where a week of walking on the Hampshire coast was on the agenda. One marvellous part of it was the birds and animals encountered along the way.

I and my party walked through bird sanctuaries where shorebirds abound, such as this lapwing...

In the New Forest we were treated to encounters with curious pony foals...

And herds of inquisitive heifers...

There were families of swans...

And we were fortunate to glimpse a timid and rather moth-eaten looking deer...

And on a later day trip, there was the wonder of seeing feral parakeets dwelling in the big trees of urban London. They may be considered "invasive" but they are darned cute!

Long-distance walking in the UK is a stark contrast to hiking in the Grand Canyon where I spent a couple of weeks last year sleeping in a tent and lugging a hefty back pack full of supplies. In England each day ended with a comfy bed & breakfast and a meal at a local pub. It's all quite civilized by comparison with sleeping on the ground, eating dehydrated food, and drinking water filtered from frog ponds. However, each adventure has its own kind of charm.

As many of my readers know, I now divide my time between British Columbia's Lower Mainland and Mayne Island, and as I establish my art practice on Mayne I've been starting to show my work there. I have participated in a couple of excellent group exhibitions in the historic Agricultural Hall and had a solo show in the Mayne Island Community Library, all courtesy of the Southern Gulf Islands Arts Council. I'm enjoying getting to know the art community on the island and finding my own niche. My art cards and prints can now be found on the island at EnVision Gallery.

Studio construction
My little studio on Mayne Island is almost finished! The furniture is in, the hanging system installed, and all that's left now is the installation of a problematic custom window. In the mean time, with sturdy plastic covering the empty window cavity, I've been able to make good use of the space and have found it to be every bit the perfect creative zone I had envisioned. Outside my studio door the birds call to one another in the tall trees and deer wander through the sunny meadow. There are few distractions apart from Lily requesting I throw her ball, and the lure of a walk along the nearby beach. I hope to have the studio open to the public when the finishing touches are complete so stay tuned!

New Artwork
I've been busy creating some new work and there's more in the planning stages. Among my most recent pieces is "Canadian Icon: Grey Jays" (coloured pencil), an appropriate subject in this year of Canada's 150th birthday celebration.

When I'm on Mayne Island nuthatches abound in the trees - often visiting my birdbath - so it's only fitting that one of the first pieces I produced in my new studio is this little one I call "The Acrobat" (also coloured pencil):

And I even broke out my soft pastels - a medium I haven't done much with in years, and created this piece featuring a flock of sleepy Oystercatchers resting on the rocks at Bennett Bay, a half-hour's walk from my studio. The loose quality of pastels was a welcome break from the fine detail of coloured pencil.

Fans of my silk paintings will be happy to know that I have some new silk pieces in the works, to be unveiled soon!

My next event is the annual Filberg Festival on Vancouver Island - always a favourite and one I recommend to anyone who is able to attend. I'm currently hunkered down in my mainland studio preparing, with the able assistance of Lily and her friend Roxy who is currently visiting. It's obviously exhausting work!

I'm not making any promises but hopefully it won't be quite as long before the next blog post. Till next time...

Saturday 15 April 2017

The Art of Gratitude

For much of my life, I had a particular dream. That dream was to devote myself to making art - not as a hobby, nor even as a part-time vocation worked around the fringes of a job, but as a full-time occupation. However, life has a way of forging its own path, with its various obligations and commitments and responsibilities, and years went by. I brought in a regular paycheque and was able to make art part-time. I felt reasonably content but never fully satisfied with that arrangement. Finally it seemed the moment was right and I took the plunge – leapt off the proverbial cliff by leaving my day job and giving art-making my full-on attention. It took a while but I figured out how to make a go of it. Art teaching helped pay the bills, my productivity increased, my art evolved, and – happily – sales grew. Although I never worked harder in my life, I was (and am) grateful to be pursuing that dream, and for those whose unflagging support helped make it possible.

I had another dream, one I shared with my husband. That dream was to have a little place on an island – a place we’d be able to go for much-needed breaks from our busy lives. For me, an art studio was part of that idyllic picture. In 2014 our island dream also became reality when after more than a decade of on-again-off-again searching we managed to purchase a dilapidated little yellow cottage in the woods on Mayne Island. Grateful doesn’t do justice to how that felt – it was like a miracle. We could hardly believe we’d done it!

I’m grateful my husband was able to taste that dream given just a few short months later his life suddenly ended.
A black year of solid grief was followed by a grey year of re-grouping as I struggled to figure out my solo path. My gratitude for those who helped me through those times is beyond measure. The same goes for the constant presence of my four-legged companions who got me out of bed each morning and curled up with me at night. And when life on the mainland was too hard to bear, the little yellow cottage provided refuge, a place where I could find solace among the trees, listening to the wind and birds ...

... or wander to the nearby beach, perhaps to observe a summer moon reflected on pink water ...

... or get going on some of the therapeutic physical tasks of fixing and maintenance.

Being there helped me in ways I can’t put into words. Even during the darkest times I understood that despite everything that had happened, I was lucky to have such a place and I was grateful.
And now phase two of the island dream is becoming reality:

When we first purchased the property, we dreamt of building a modest house and turning the somewhat scruffy little cottage into an art studio. That dream was shattered but instead a re-worked version of it is now coming together. The cottage has benefitted from some TLC, and just across the driveway a tiny art studio will soon be complete. It’s not much bigger than a glorified garden shed but it’s snug and it has windows that take in the view of the big trees to the east and the sunny meadow to the south.

Looking at it, I feel a shiver of contentment. And sometimes I can almost feel my husband beside me, squeezing my hand in approval, helping me remember to be grateful not only for what I have, but for what I had.

Monday 6 March 2017

Brainy Birds

This is my newest coloured pencil drawing which recently made its debut on line and also  at a local exhibition. I call it "Master Builders (Bushtits)".

Many who have seen it have been intrigued because the nest looks like something from a TV nature program about birds in some distant land. They had no idea there were such elaborate nests to be found right here in our local woodlands. But there are!

If you know what you're looking for it's not difficult to spot these sock-like constructions dangling among branches, particularly from late fall through early spring when there are no leaves to obscure the view. I observed and photographed this one (below), which served as the reference for my "Master Builders" drawing, at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary a couple of springs ago. At first glance it might look like just a hunk of moss but there's something artful about it that makes it more than just an accident of nature.

Even more intriguing is the fact that these intricate structures are built by one of the tiniest songbirds - plain-old ordinary bushtits which are often seen at birdfeeders. In particular, they have a fondness for suet cakes. The neighbourhood gang drops by regularly at my feeder to sample my offerings.

It's hard to imagine that these intrepid little creatures can, with just their beaks to work with, weave such large, magnificent homes. But they can! Guided only by instinct, they select the materials which they collect and transport to their building site, and then - one twig, one shred of moss, one strand of spider silk at a time - they create something amazing. Somehow they know exactly what to do and how to do it.

So the next time you see a flock of twittering bushtits consider their abilities and ponder the amount of energy and dedication it takes for them to construct their intricate nests. If you spot a nest during the spring when the birds are intent on building a home where they will brood their eggs and (providing everything goes according to plan) rear their babies, please observe from a distance. Bushtits can be put off by the presence of too much human activity nearby and can't afford to abandon construction and expend extra energy on another nest in a new location.

There are lessons to be learned in nature. Ordinary little bushtits are master builders who are pre-programmed with nest-building know-how, who have boundless perseverance, and who are undaunted by a seemingly insurmountable task.

Personally, I think they give the term "birdbrain" a whole new meaning.

Saturday 4 February 2017

Trouble in paradise

I recently took out a membership with the Mayne Island Conservancy - a dedicated group with a mandate to protect the island's delicate habitat. They educate the public, they raise and sell native plants, they count birds - in general they encourage thoughtful stewardship of the land and sea. The organization is currently working to preserve an ecologically rich tract of waterfront which, if they are successful, will then be safeguarded from future development. I admire and support the work of individuals such as these committed volunteers who recognize the precious nature of island habitats.

Last month I was able to make a trip south to another island - this one in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

It had been 20 years since I last visited Maui and I remembered it fondly. During this visit, as much as I enjoyed the sunshine and the beaches and the welcome break from winter, it served as a strong reminder about just how precarious island habitats are.

I saw and photographed lots of birds. I even had the good fortune to glimpse an owl (always a thrill). But of the many species I encountered, perilously few were native to the island. The cooing doves, kooky shrieking Frankolins (kind of like a partridge), the mobs of mynahs, the myriad twittering finches, charming lovebirds and stealthy egrets - all of them introduced from Asia, or Africa, or India, or other places with similar climates. Pets gone wild, game birds, or simply by human whim, these birds thrive.

Brazilian cardinal

Cattle egret


Not so the native Hawai'ian birds. Dozens of species are gone, others hang on by only a thread. Habitat loss, aggressive introduced species (mongoose, feral cats and many others), and diseases to which the native birds had no immunity have taken a massive toll. The only native species I was able to observe were shorebirds, both migratory and year-round residents.
Black crowned night heron

Golden plover

Many find sanctuary in the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge - a place not unlike the Reifel Bird Sanctuary back home.

Hawai'ian stilt

Hawai'ian coot

The island was a breadbasket after Western colonization, producing fruit, sugar cane, cattle and more. What were once productive cane fields are now fallow. There's not a pineapple in sight. Vast acres of former grazing lands are overgrown with an aggressive type of vine that was planted as fodder for cattle and now, without hungry mouths to keep it in check, spreads wildly and engulfs everything in its path in a thick green layer of choking foliage like something out of a sci-fi movie. Plants introduced in the interest of food production or simply for decoration thrive and run amok. Traces of the original habitat are long gone.

I found this visit to Hawai'i to be instructive. On one hand there are success stories - scores of sea turtles and plentiful humpback whales could be viewed from the shore at leisure.

And there are, of course, land areas that have been protected. The silversword plant, once virtually extinct due to overgrazing and found nowhere else in the world, has made a comeback at Haleakala National Park.

However, the losses are shocking. Dozens of the bird species who called the Hawai'ian Islands home - birds that were found nowhere else on earth - are now extinct, many during my own lifetime and some, like the po'ouli (a type of honeycreeper), since my last visit to the island. I hope the valiant efforts being made to preserve the remaining small populations of threatened bird species will work. It's a situation not unlike the Northern Spotted Owls I wrote about recently - one where human intervention and Herculean long-term conservation efforts offer the only hope.

Islands are microcosms for what's happening to our planet which is in itself an island in the Universe. We would do well to pay attention. Thankfully there are groups, such as the Mayne Island Conservancy, who already are.