Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hot off the press

Get yer tickets now for the hottest Colorado art happening, coming in May to a small town near me.

Who'da thunk you'd find me on the same schedule as Christo and Jean-Claude, eh? Check out
Colorado Art Ranch for the gory details.




Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Pre-dawn catkin pinching


As I was walking home yesterday I spotted a lovely tree covered in catkins and deliriously happy bees.

I lusted mightily for a little branch to take home to draw (the catkins were too far overhead to manage them well in situ), and was considering the perfect stem when I noticed a young girl raking leaves in the yard. We smiled at each other and I immediately felt guilty. I mumbled something inane about happy bees, and slunk away with what I hoped resembled only passing interest. Truth was, I was a woman obsessed. I wanted those catkins.

I walked past again in the early evening, but it was still broad daylight and all the windows of the house had their curtains flung wide.

They're on to me. I know it. They can see my black, tree-envying, catkin-nicking heart.

The problem is that, in addition to being an envious twig-desirer, I am also a law-abiding, property-respecting, tree-loving wimp. People have been known to cart off entire gardens without permission (just ask Snail). Me, I can't summon the courage to pinch 3 inches of twig dangling over the sidewalk.

When I woke this morning it was still dark. Damp. Cloudy. And the theme from "Mission: Impossible" was running through my head. By the glow of the computer monitor I pulled navy blue sweats over my pajamas, stuffed the kitchen shears into my pocket, and eased into the pre-dawn grey.

Faint smell of skunk musk, damp earth. Squeak of my sneakers across the wet deck. I practiced my technique on a tree at the edge of my own yard: Reach for the closest branch, snip! and into the pocket. Smooth. I headed for the target, five blocks away.

At this hour most houses in my neighborhood still slumber, although in a few the muted yellow glow behind curtains signals morning routines underway. I turn the corner.

Wouldn't you know it? The house is the only one in five blocks with a porch light blazing and all the interior lights on. But I am not to be deterred. I summon my best "casual" demeanor and reach up for the nearest branch, bracing for floodlights, sirens, and a shout from the house. I pull a twig toward me slowly, hoping anyone glancing out a window will believe I just happened to notice tree buds in the dark. Reluctant to reach for the kitchen shears, (it seems so premeditated now) I gently pinch the little cluster of catkins into my palm. I hesitate another moment in a continued attempt to look casual, then turn towards home and paintbrushes. I'm halfway there before I remember to breathe.

(I think it's safe to cross "life of crime" off my list of potential career moves.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Café escapism




Sometimes the only way to salvage the day is to take a sketchbook to the café. Bongo Billy's Salida Café, Salida.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Early spring walks: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Friday I decided it was warm enough to declare "first shorts-wearing day of the season." It was a little overcast, so the potential for my exposed pallid limbs to frighten the wildlife seemed slim. Time to take a walk along the river. Wearing shorts seemed like a good thing, and I started a mental tick list of all the fine reasons to be out walking on such a day. Before I made it back home, wearing shorts became a not-so-bright-idea-culminating-in-near-disastrous-idea.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I just came in from another fine early spring walk (no shorts, it snowed yesterday and the wind is chilly today), during which I spent a lot of time thinking about how and why I walk the same route day after day. I've no doubt it's a topic that will get greater attention soon, but for today let's just start with that list of early-season pros and cons:

Good: Red-winged blackbirds in an uproar.
Bad: Clouds of midges. Breathe only through the nose, and do not inhale deeply.
Good: The arrival of tree swallows- can everything else be far behind?
Bad: Time to say goodbye to the winter duck party on Sands Lake.
Good: Ice-free paths, so watching feet not necessary. (*See the Ugly, below.)
Bad: Defrosted dog poop hard to see on those same ice-free paths.
Good: Scolding chipmunks.
Bad: Personal temperature regulation. (Jacket on, jacket off, jacket on, jacket off.)
Good: Increased dawdling potential.
Bad: Work behavior decreases in direct relationship to rise in dawdling potential.
Good: Who wants to work all the time anyway?
Good (and probably the best): That feeling of waking winter-dormant knowledge: Whose song is that? What plant will that green sprout become? When should I look for catbirds? Where will the fox spend sunny afternoons? When will the river turn brown and muddy... and how high will it rise? Will the wild iris come up in the same place? There's a new sense of expectation to a walk just now... because the potential for surprise is high. This territory has been familiar but slow to change for the past few months, and now all bets are off.
Good.
Good.
Good.

As for the Ugly bit... that happened on Friday, and is related to Good Item #3.

At Frantz Lake there are small wooden footbridges over a ditch that runs along the path. I've crossed them hundreds of times. But on Friday I was looking up, not down, when I crossed, and I didn't notice the missing board. At least not until I fell through.

Please recall that I was wearing shorts.

So now my winter-white legs are also sporting red raspberry scrapes and lovely purple bruises. But I didn't break anything, neither on my person nor in my pockets. I did, perhaps, crack my pride ("some observant person YOU are"), but it's better than cracking my head. And I certainly got a surprising new view of my usual route. Welcome spring!


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Celebrity hawks and model bovines

The problem with recounting a trip after it's over is that it starts to take on the quality of unfinished reading assignments: We're on the next book now, Sherrie. Please try to catch up. Already events of last week have taken on a dream-like quality... so I'll hustle things along and return us all to the regularly scheduled program already in progress.

Before we bid farewell to Pennsylvania, we visited with friends and bovines in the vicinity of Phoenixville. I am always touched by the generous nature of folks who are, we
ll, interested in nature, and their willingness to share their work and lives with a wandering pair toting pencils and paintbrushes.

David and Edie at
Seven Stars Farm are two such kindred souls. They opened their home, their business, and their thoughts to us... and we are better people for it. (More about Seven Stars.)

It's calving season at the biodynamic dairy. One night we worked until well after dark, and were rewarded with a look at a just-born calf, still quivering under the ministrations of its mother's tongue. (Or perhaps from the shock of an uncere
monious thump into the big, wide world.) In a few short minutes it was able to hold its head up- much faster than me on most mornings.

I also met Cindy, AKA #186. Big Jersey doe-eyes and a curious disposition. While her barnmates ruminated, Cindy watched Carroll spread the silage, watched Denis and I drawing, watched the cats, watched Sue at work. David told me later that Cindy produces fine milk with a high butterfat content, and I myself saw her strong new calf. Apparently a curious attitude about the world around you is good for everyone. (I've always thought so, and it was nice to have my supposition validated by a cow.)

In too short a time we left Phoenixville and Pennsylvania and headed north to New York. Again we were welcomed into the homes and lives of friends and colleagues, and at last Denis was able to speak French with people whose vocabulary exceeds three words.

Saturday evening it rained a bit, and on Sunday we met friend Roger in Central Park to do a little birding and sketching. New York, early on a Sunday, blue skies after rain, is a fabulous place to be: fresh and sparkling and amazingly hushed.

I think it's safe to say that Roger grew up in The Park, and he knew precisely where to take us to see its bird life in good form, even in early March. (Black duck and tufted titmouse new for me.) At my star-struck request he also directed us to the penthouse nest site of the famous Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk who set up housekeeping across the street from the model boat pond in the early 1990s. Now star of literature, screen, and television, he and his mate have a devoted cadre of hawk paparazzi and well-wishers everywhere.

Lo and behold, the hawks were home when we came calling... so we sat in the park and made some sketches. We also drank coffee and people-watched. C'mon! It's Central Park!

At the end of this day, our journey together came to a close. Denis went on to Boston, and I stayed in New York another day for meetings and visits. I was strangely reluctant to come home just yet... sorry to have spent so little time in places and with people I've only begun to know. But perhaps it won't be long before I wander that way again. As Denis and I have said to each other at every unlikely travel proposition for the past 16 years: "Why not?"

Friday, March 16, 2007

Wallflowers and such

Once upon a time I painted with a group of watercolorists in Denver. One of our usual haunts was the Denver Botanic Gardens, but no matter where we went it always took me a long time to settle down and choose my subject.

I was lamenting this fact one day to another woman in the group, and she promptly informed me that the problem was my approach. "First I decide where I want to SIT," she declared. "THEN once I'm settled I decide what to paint." It always seemed a little backward to me, but then she never got sunburned as I did.


Day Three of The Great Eastern Expedition we were at the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Audubon's first home in America. It was sunny, but cold and windy and once again I wasn't sure what I wanted to paint. Suddenly the ghost of that woman (whose name I have sadly forgotten) was standing beside me again, speaking words I now knew to be wisdom. I plunked myself down on the sheltered side of the house, looked around, and was happily surprised to find the interesting textures of winter vines clinging stubbornly to the wall.

The next day I discovered that an equally good option was to sit indoors and look out the window of a nearby home towards JJA's house on the hill. Comfy chair and tea. Not exactly field work, but some days it doesn't pay to be a purist.

Things that metamorphose in the night

Day Two, continued. After the xiphactinus and before the pachycephalasaurus, I spent a little time in the balmy Butterfly Hall at the Academy. I found a nice little bench out of the main traffic flow through the exhibit (an important consideration when drawing in places where hordes of children and clueless adults could stream past at any moment) and settled down to draw.

Lots of nice, colorful wings flitting here and there. A lovely morpho on the other side of the room. Graphic shapes, bold colors. Just the sort of thing I like to draw.
What settled next to me? Brown and subtle owl butterfly, of course.

At some point the morpho came across the room, and literally bopped me in the back of the head. (Some might say dope-slapped.) Did it settle? Of course not.

Later I moved to another bench, after stopping for a visit with the little poison dart frogs. Again, what settled nearby? Subtlety. Again, what bopped me in the back of the head? Morpho. The butterfly equivalent of taunting, I am sure. (Either that, or its favorite nectar bar was serving really fermented brew.)

Still, it was nice to have a little taste of summer in the far-from-it early days of March. I think I'll go hunting for green blades of grass this afternoon, just to convince myself the season's on its way.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Just let this one get away...

Day Two of the Great Eastern Expedition.

After Darwin's finches and after I finally appeased my blood sugar level on the first day, we were fortunate to have a chance to visit with Dr. Ruth Patrick, now 99 years young and still coming in to work at the Academy of Natural Sciences. The local paper recently called her the "Den Mother of Ecology," but I'm still not sure I feel comfortable with such a title for the first person to develop a model using diatoms to measure water pollution. And she was an upstart woman, to boot.

The next day I was twitchy to get around to other parts of the Academy... a great place to visit if you're ever in the 'hood. The "Scoop on Poop" exhibit was a must-see (dung beetles to homo saps) of course, although I must say I'm glad I witnessed it without a horde of school kids along. I walked past later when the hall was occupied by mini-mites and it was QUITE vociferous in there.

The Academy has a nice live butterfly exhibit, but first I felt a need to visit an old friend in the dinosaur hall. Not a splashy T. rex or stego... but a non-dino fish. I love this critter for its ferocious aspect, even as bone remnants. And because I just can't figure out precisely what it ever did with those protrusions other than make prehistoric orthodontists see dollar signs.

The Xiphactinus audax was a large predatory bony fish that lived in the shallow prehistoric sea that once covered what is now the central United States. (This makes it possibly a beast of my home turf, although I don't know enough about local prehistoric natives to say for certain.) The name Xiphactinus means "Sword Ray," an apparent homage to its pectoral fins.

Xiphactinus audax is believed to have grown to a length of 18 - 20 feet. Its "fangs" were as much as 2" long. (This one was nearly that big.) It was discovered in 1870 by Joseph Leidy who christened it from a pectoral spine fragment he discovered in the Smoky Hill Chalk of Kansas. Xiphactinus probably looked like an overgrown tarpon, except for the fact of those lovely protruding spikes on its mouth. A face only the mother of all bone fish could love. Or some goofy pencil-wielding itinerant artist from the west.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Honey, I'm home!

Email and phone message triage accomplished, suitcase excavated, laundry begun... I must be home at last. Yesterday was a blur of planes, trains, and automobiles. Somewhere today I misplaced my jacket. I must be warm again.

So. The first of the promised adventures of the journey: a little time with Darwin's finches at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. It was probably NOT the best idea to tackle these things fresh off the boat from Colorado, before I had a working rhythm or even thawed out fingers... but tackle them I did. Denis, of course, did a stunning piece of western meadowlarks collected by John James Audubon on his Missouri River expedition. Nice yellows, big bold stripes and spots. Me? I chose a tray of unassuming brown and gray birds. Subtlety not being one of my stronger suits, I spent a lot of time muttering to myself. But I waded through it anyway.


For starters, a little pencil sketch. From top to bottom:
Certhidea olivacea, collected 1897; a critter about which I am now perplexed, marked C. salvini ridgio and collected 1901; and male and female Platyspiza crassirostris, collected in 1937.

I did a color version, too... but it didn't have the character of this little sketch. Weaker composition, for one thing. Too close to lunch and I was hungry, for another.

While we were working, the ornithology curator was also at work, quietly showing a young woman the technique for creating study skins. It was nice to listen to them... Nate was a patient teacher and Ashley an engaged high school senior. Outside the wind howled and the cold was bitter, but inside we were a cozy scene of concentration and bird-geeky camaraderie. In all, a nice way to spend a morning.

Hey, Staci....



Monday, March 12, 2007

DNA trail

Well. It's been a solid week without internet access that didn't cost me a dollar a minute, so aside from one quick adventure in emptying the accumulated spam from my email box I have been living in a de-blogified zone. The good news is that I've collected stories and made sketches suitable for blogging. The bad news is that I'm not in a space to scan the sketches or edit the adventure just yet. I'm still on the road! In New York for one more day, then back to Philadelphia for the trip west. It's been colder than... (insert suitable expletive here) on the East Coast, and the chisme from home says it's been 60 and fabulous there. Ain't that always the case?

Potential trip topics-to-come: Darwin's dead finches, Audubon's dead buntings, monster fossil fish from the inland sea, a man with "a Frenchie aspect," organic dairies, sour silage, gorgeous jersey cows, the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, generosity among strangers, bad apples, chickens in the mist, more cars in one parking lot than exist in my home county, birding Central Park on a Sunday after a rain, weak coffee, strong tea, head-bashing butterflies. Let's see.... what else?

A list of known places I've left DNA scraps in the form of broken fingernails in the last 8 days: a NWA jet (wrestling my bag into the overhead bin), a hostel in Philadelphia (cracked on the bed frame), the Academy of Natural Sciences (no idea, they just disappeared), a just-tilled farm in Pennsylvania (probably fending off the muddy cat who insisted on crawling over me, my backpack, and my drawing papers), Central Park (climbing across a rock to draw a pond), the New York subway ('nuff said). And the wastepaper basket of the New York apartment in which I am presently holed up.

You must understand that my nails are typically short and unadorned to begin with. Ordinarily I wouldn't even notice, but this morning's snap represented a new record: on this trip absolutely every single nail across both hands has been mangled for the sake of art and nature and mucking about in the big wide world. I realize it's not the USUAL sort of suffering for one's craft, but for now it's the best I can do. I'm having too much fun otherwise.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Sun, twigs, and celebrity dead finches

A glorious day in the heart of the Rockies... clear blue skies, NO WIND, and according to the local weather bug it's close enough to 50 degrees to round up and call it good.

The house finches seem most enthusiastic about this turn of environmental events-- when I walked downtown this morning they were raucous in their vocalizations. Flickers are calling, too, which will make neighbors with metal chimney flashing unhappy in a few more weeks. Territorial and flirtatious drumming sounds SO much better when one can crank up the volume on tin.

En route to a pot of tea and a gratefu
l stopover at the home of friends who will deliver the now-completed tax documents to my accountant for me tomorrow, I found this interesting little gem. It comes from a tallish shrub at the corner of the courthouse lawn... nothing I ever noticed in its green stage, but today in its lovely mahogany spikiness it was a show-stopper. Or at least a walk-pauser.

I carted this pilfered twig off to Susan's for her expert opinion, and she immediately identified it as Shrubbus courthouseus. It's good to be able to rely on one's friends at times like this.

Later this afternoon I'm off on that promised trip east, to meet with colleagues at
Audubon and the Academy of Natural Sciences (with its current scintillating exhibition "The Scoop on Poop") and generally muck around with an artist chum from France. There's always some sort of silly adventure to be had when the two of us get together. Hopefully I'll be able to check in from the road, but it's possible the stories will have to wait. The thing I am MOST excited about? The Academy has in its collections some of the very finches collected by Our Boy Chuck Darwin, and I am twitchy to draw them. How cool is THAT?

When "normal" people travel they pack clothes and a toothbrush. Me? Clothes, toothbrush, paintbox, portfolio crammed with paper, sketchbook, pencil box, brushes, journal, binoculars, camera.... but you'd better be impressed to note that I've got it all squeezed into one carry-on suitcase and a daypack. It's now T-minus 90 minutes to departure, so I'm going to make one last run around the house, drop off a few more flyers for the upcoming Breeding Bird Atlas meeting, and spend a few lovely minutes soaking up some vitamin D on the porch.

And, oh. I finished those linocuts from last week. You'll have to settle f
or the not-very-revealing prints-on-rack shot again. Not quite ready to reveal the full effect yet. But at least now I can leave town without print guilt, tax guilt, illustration guilt OR blog guilt. Phew.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

In good company

Blog guilt. Google it.

Something in the next 24 hours, I PROMISE. I am leaving for famous winter meccas Philadelphia and New York tomorrow... with big plans for much bloggable material. But today it's wrap up jobs and finish my taxes. Isn't that punishment enough without "about 1,400,000 entries for blog guilt"?

Make that 1,400,000 and 1.