One Spring Day at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Night Heron and Cherry Buds

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Gardens delight me.  At their best, in my eyes,  they are the hand of man working with nature.  This can lead to a lovely dance, filled with unexpected grace notes.

This painting, fresh off the easel, takes us to the Chicago Botanic Gardens.  The CBG is a wonderful place to encounter those delightful juxtapositions, because on the one hand it is a thoroughly groomed garden fit for the exacting North Shore, but it is also a research garden focusing on the ecology of this area.  As any good garden should, it has water woven through it.  In this case the designers used lagoons from the Des Plaines River (if I remember correctly; they are called the Skokie Lagoons).  So, a river runs through it, complete with wildlife.  That makes for some fun surprises, such as seeing a Night Heron lurking beneath the branches of a weeping cherry about to bloom.

When I composed this painting, I wanted to capture the liveliness of the bird against the stillness of a moment in a garden.  I was also thinking of those beautiful Japanese screens~ lovely and minimalist.

Spring Bluff Paintings

Bird on Spring Bluff Birdhouse

These two came home to me from the gallery in Chicago that represented me for several years.  It was a very enjoyable association.  The owner once told me that she would never carry abstract art, but sadly, she has been forced to as that is what people want to buy.  It is called “wall decoration”, now, not art.  I suspect this comes from HGTV, with every single show selling pretty much the same look.  Stylish, certainly, but also generic.  Paintings, if the designers use them at all, are mere smears of color, as if to actually look at a painting would require entirely too much time and effort.  Well ok.  By contrast I just watched “Monuments Men”, about the effort to save art toward the end of WWII.  Wow! What a beautiful movie.  I found it deeply moving that a group of men would risk their lives to save art.  Granted it was great art.  But I couldn’t help thinking that when Rembrandt was painting his self-portrait, he wasn’t thinking that one day it would be considered a masterpiece worthy of going to war over.  It is an intimidating thought.

unboosted SB

Anyway, when these two came home I studied them and thought they could use some tweaking.  I wanted to blue the grasses on the far side of the water and warm up the vegetation in the forerground.  Both of these were very dark before.  Now I wonder if they aren’t too bright and busy.  Hmmm.  Another thing I notice about both of them, from pretty much the same spot at Spring Bluff, is that they are composed of bands going across the canvas.  When reading a post from Rick Braveheart’s excellent blog, I was reminded that one should lead the eye into the scene.  Here I seem to be saying, “Look, but don’t come in.”

In any event they are off to another gallery tomorrow so I’ll varnish them tomorrow and move on to new canvases, bearing in mind what I’ve learned.

Garden Companions

Garden Companions

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Don’t you love the word, “companions”?  I suspect that ultimately our experience of the world is meant to be alone, one-on-one with our sense of the sacred.  Still, there is that pull for connection, and most of my happiest moments were in the company of a friend. That amazing rainbow you both spot at the same moment, the shared joke.   Most of my friendships have formed purely by chance, but my son doesn’t do it that way.  When he is in a situation he’ll stay off by himself until he spots someone he thinks would be compatible, and then he moves forward and offers friendship.  He is mindful of his friendships, too, making sure to spend time with each, paying attention, bringing them together and weaving them into a group.  I don’t know how he knew to do that but it inspires me.

Anyway, that is what was on my mind as I painted this little corner of my garden.  There’s the pot that doesn’t have its annual dose of nasturtiums yet.  And the spirea shrub that started out as part of a hedge and for some reason died back to this shadow of itself.  This dying back left a gap that (naturally) I had to fill.  So in went the lamb’s ear because it is fuzzy, and the sedum because I thought it was pretty and the mint because I like how it sprawls late in the season.  And quite by accident, there was an assembly that looked sweet together, I thought.  Like many chance friendships, you should see them now!  All stems and seedheads, all straining away from each other.  And that reminds me of me and my friend D., who is following her dream to live in Florida.  And my other friend who followed her dream to California.  I don’t know yet where my dream will take me.  I always thought it would take me to California, but since the houses I always saw myself living in go for millions, perhaps not.  Anyway, hopefully my friends and I can keep in touch.  And perhaps I’ll be watching, waiting for a new companion to share the journey.

Emotions in Art

Willow Fronds in Spring

Weeping Willow Fronds in Spring

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I’ve been reading the latest Louise Penny book, which always give me artistic pause.  Her mysteries often have art woven into the story, with the characters pondering the deep, dark meaning behind the creation of art.  Hmmm.  In this one, she has a character stating that a good piece of art begins “with a lump in the throat”, and involves destruction before creation.  There is probably a lot of truth to that,  although I have seen paintings on exhibit that probably were cathartic to make but more properly belonged in the studio or the therapist’s office than on display.

For the most part, when I paint, the love and joy I wish to share is the starting point, and beyond that I am reaching for beauty and to avoid trite.  Sure, anyone paying attention must be feeling dismay at things like California running out of water, or escalating hatreds leaping up in the world like wildfire.  And yes, I could paint that but I choose to look for the beauty that is here.  I guess I feel that whatever we turn our attention to will expand, so I choose beauty and love, not out of a polyanna wish that bad things would go away, but because they exist.  It is my reply, if you will.

What about you?  What do you look for in a piece of art?  Often what I see actually sell at galleries is nothing more than washes of color, and I wonder what that means.  Are people exhausted, and simply wanting the equivalent of white noise on their walls?  I think this may be the case.  We are asked to understand so much, these days.

Oil and Water

Lake Michigan Willow

“Lake Michigan Willow”

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Well, here it is, my first oil painting.  I’ve got to say, it wasn’t easy to force myself to make the change but every time I read another book about the environment and what we are doing to it, I found it harder to live with painting with acrylics.  For my first one I  thought the lakeshore would be an inspiring choice.  I wanted to catch the wonderful color of a weeping willow just as it is breaking bud in the spring, and the subtle colors of the sky meeting the lake.  Even so, this painting languished in my studio for months while I wavered.  Happily, the good people at Earth Paint added a gorgeous purple to their line and that was the inducement I needed.  I ordered a pound of the stuff, which ought to keep me happy for quite awhile.  The pure pigments are mixed with walnut oil, and I use no chemical additives at all.  The pigment is completely archival, and I’m told that walnut oil will neither yellow nor crack with age.  So, off I go on my next painting adventure.

Fritillary on Monarda

Fritillary on Monarda

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There is a group around here that turns up at meetings and events, carrying posters about Monarchs.  They are alarmed, and they want everyone else to be alarmed, too. I’ve been biting my tongue.  My problem with this misty-eyed, poster-waving group is that in focusing on one species they are missing the larger point.  Plant milkweed in your yard, they seem to be saying, and everything will be fixed.  Well, ok.  I have a river of swamp milkweed running through my garden (smells divine!) and I actually see Monarchs in about the numbers I would expect.

In the area that I monitored butterflies for 20 years, there are over 40 species of butterflies, and don’t get me started on moths!  You might have to get close to some of them to see it, but each of these creatures is gorgeous and worthy of protection.  Each one has complicated life histories, and each one faces challenges from the way humans do things.

And not just butterflies, of course.  The bullfrogs who sang out all through my childhood…where have they gone?  I don’t know, but I can tell you that the pond I so enjoyed now sports a ring of mcmansions, all with perfect Chem-lawn green skirts. Perhaps most distressing to me of all is that NO ONE else has noticed.  Not even the naturalists I talk to.  When I point out that you don’t hear bullfrogs anymore they scoff. Then they cock their head to listen.. Then their face goes still…. oh.

One of the big problems is habitat fragmentation.  I’ll give you an example.  There is a strip of dunes that a group fought to save, many years ago.  Those dunes are the heart of Illinois Beach State Park.  They are tricky to care for, because if you run fire through, the creeping juniper dies.  If you go in and hand pull invasive exotics, you disturb the fragile sandy soil. And, I’ve been watching succession take place.  This is as it should be, but it is also heartbreaking.  As organic material accumulates in the older dunes, more species of plants are supported.  So grasses and forbs are moving in, and even trees.  The patches of juniper and bear- berry shrink.  To monitor butterflies is also to monitor the plants they depend on, and by extension, the ecosystem.  When succession proceeds, some of those species will wink out.  If the park weren’t surrounded by towns and pavement, the rare plants and their butterflies could still find refugia further up along the shore.  Sadly, though, this very specialized habitat is boxed in.  There is nowhere for these species to go.

What can we do?  Find locally, responsibly grown native plants.  Native to YOUR region.  If everyone dedicated even a corner of their yard to a native shrub or two and a handful of native flowers, those corners would start to connect up, creating rivers of habitat running for miles.  Think what a difference that could make.  Know ahead of time that native plants can be unruly.  But they don’t require water or chemicals to thrive.  You’ll notice it feels different, in that corner.  The air has a different energy to it, the soil will be more springy.  And you’ll start to see wonders.  I am constantly surprised by new creatures calling my yard home~yesterday I saw a southern flying squirrel!

Another thing we can do: fight Monsanto!  Pay attention to how much control over our food supply they have taken, how they have reduced the access farmers have to diverse seeds, providing seeds that require inputs of chemicals to grow.  This is bad news for the farmers, bad news for butterflies, bad news for us.

So, yes, Monarchs deserve our attention.  But it is a mistake to try to save the world one species at a time.  I believe our world can weather global warming -ahem- if we pay attention to the forest, and not just the trees.