A Rare Little Gem

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Imagine that you’re standing at the edge of a vast stand of cattails, about to plunge in. If, like me, you’ve done such a thing, you know what a claustrophobia-inducing experience this can be, with the added excitement of treacherous footing. That you can’t see, because  cattails are in your face. And if, like me, you are shorter than the cattails, you also can’t see where you’re headed. But a leading ecologist from the Forest Preserve District assures you there is a fen hiding in the midst of all those cattails. I am filled with awe when I think of Ken Klick venturing out the first time, knowing what should be there and seeking to find whether it was. Of course, he’s a heck of a lot more knowledgeable than I am. Plus he’s considerably taller!

So after plunging through cattails for several minutes, up to our knees (well, past mine!) in water, we felt a slight rise. Fens are wetlands that are fed by mineral-rich groundwater. As I understand it, in this doughnut-shaped area in the midst of the cattails, this water wells up from underground. The water and soil are different here, and support a suite of extremely rare plants. The cattails gave way slightly, and like a miracle, there were the plants we sought. Huh. I’m still mystified, to tell you the truth. And grateful, because had Ken not taken me out there I would have never seen these plants. To mark the occasion I’ve painted this bog rosemary, not recorded in our county for decades before Ken’s spotting of it here.

Western Sunflower

western-sunflower

Melissa Blue Fine Art

Have I told you my Swink & Wilhelm story? It begins in a wonderful little bookstore in a nature center in Peoria. This was the gathering place for all of us volunteers embarking on a new venture~habitat restoration! Professional ecologists had their offices upstairs, and they would come down to mingle with us. It felt wonderful to be included, and treated as colleagues.

One day there was a buzz about a book that had “finally” come in. “Plants of the Chicagoland Region”, by Swink & Wilhelm. I forget which edition. Wow! I thought. I love books…but this thing is a monster. If I were of a technical nature I would now go measure and weigh it but I’m an artist so I’ll just say it is about 4″ thick, weighs a ton and costs a fortune. When I peeked inside its cover, I confess I was disappointed. No pictures! Keys, and brief descriptions~frankly, it looked indecipherable to me. I put it out of my mind at the time, little suspecting what a talisman it would become for me. Back then our focus was mostly on habitat, and we picked up plant ID on the fly but it wasn’t our focus.

A move to the northeastern corner of Illinois and a botany class later, things changed. Our wonderful instructor, and my dear friend, would exhort us to read our Swink & Wilhelm. We all laughed. It was a joke, right? And yet, something was making my fingers tingle. I looked again, and realized, it is like a puzzle, and she’d given us the first few pieces. For each plant, the authors gave a list of companions to look for. If you know one or two, you can begin to intuit another. And another. Suddenly it felt like it does when a camera lens pops things into focus. I could “see” the plant community a plant lived in, the soil conditions, etc, just by what was listed to grow with it. It was like a giant orienteering game! That book has been directing my footsteps ever since. I find the focus on my inner camera lens switching from wide-angle to take in the lay of the land to close-up to count stamens. Forest for the trees, flowers for the prairie, and back again. Kind of dizzying but exciting, too.

Journeys encompass more than one dimension, of course. You are already familiar with my struggle with myself over whether I am more scientist or more artist. It is a real relief to be able to look in the mirror and accept yourself for exactly what you are. And know that it is enough. While I’ve hiked over dunes and under oaks and splashed through wetlands, looking for the “next” one to draw, I’ve learned a great deal about myself as well.

But I can’t wait to see what the next plant will be….

Pickerel Weed

pickerel-weed

Melissa Blue Fine Art 

Pickerel Weed is such a wonderful plant, standing tall right at the edge of water where I like to hang out. Frogs lurk here, snakes sometimes slither, herons stalk while dragonflies hang in the air taunting us mud-bound creatures.

For years I have been playing it safe with my paintings. The occasional expert would look quizzically at me and ask why I was holding back. I would pretend I didn’t know what they meant. However, the more I enjoy all of the amazing blogs I find here, the more I realize that simply recording the wonders and beauty of nature can be done far better with a camera. Oh, there is photorealism, of course, but I always found that a bit pretentious. And so, it is time to take a deep breath and jump into whatever pools of creativity my heart and paintbrush can take me to. My best college professor would stand at our elbow, urging us to push ourselves, and then push further. At the time I felt it was all I could do to generate a good composition and overall image. Every canvas was like leaping into a deep lake and swimming across. I’d get to the far shore panting, relieved just to have made it, let alone worried about the style with which I got there. You don’t want to know how long ago that was! Well, you might but I don’t want to tell you 🙂 At this point I feel I may well drown, or retreat back to the muddy shore I’m so fond of. But I’m going to try being brave, pushing myself into expressing whatever it is that my soul wants to express about the natural world. It’s wordless, so don’t ask me to explain!

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” ~ Anais Nin

 

 

The Butterfly Monitors

The Butterfly Monitors updated1:12The Butterfly Monitors

My grand opening was this past Saturday. It was attended by my family and a few close friends~what a special day and thank you to all of you who came! When the dust was settled we looked at each other with wild eyes:”Did YOU take pictures???” Nope. None of us did. Ah, well. So today I am sharing a piece that hasn’t appeared here, as near as I can tell. I painted it some years back when I was still wielding a butterfly net for the Chicago Academy of Sciences and The Nature Conservancy. Ah, my glory days! We sure had a wonderful time out there with those big sweeps of sky and plants, helping keep track of butterfly populations. This is a way of monitoring land management practices~if the butterflies are thriving, we must be doing things right.

From time to time I want to include people in my paintings because I think our role in nature is an important one. I believe that if we try to remove people from our natural areas, this give rise to the push-back we sometimes see, with people rising up and trying to reverse our laws that protect our species, air and water. Rather than exclude people from the scene, I feel it is better to get them out there and teach them how to relate to the natural world that is sustaining to both. Those of us who love nature are prone to scowling at interlopers with their noise and litter….let us, instead, be teachers and leaders.

Americans are a restless bunch, and this prevents people from connecting with where they are. We see ads to travel, and become convinced that “somewhere else” is far more glamorous than “here”. How much richer our experience of daily life would be if each of us could learn the natural history of where we are, and get involved with keeping it healthy.

I know I’ve touched on this before. I hope I am not repeating myself too much.

Peace.

Chicago Botanic Garden Irises

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Here is a happy splash of color to celebrate spring. I’ve been wanting to push myself past a merely narrative style with my work, and make it more playful. Also, I have been inspired by the wonderful photographs you all share. I’ve been struck by color combinations that I wanted to try out. For this one, I wanted to let blue green and yellow green play together, as well as pushing in the direction of abstraction.

Light Catcher

appletreespiderwebIn the back corner of my garden there lives an old apple tree. There isn’t much left of it and a wet snow this winter took down another big section of it. Still, I love that tree and enjoy the woodpeckers  who like to visit it now.  One afternoon last summer I came across this huge web~it had been spun right in the circle created by a hanging branch, and the slanting sunlight had picked out its delicate strands. I really liked how it lit up that dark corner!

Last week was pretty eventful… I found a wee gallery right in the middle of Main Street to rent. Wow! So there has been lots of running around~bank, State Revenue office for a tax ID number, business license, etc etc. Hopefully this week will be the fun stuff~moving in and making it mine 🙂 It has been a dream of mine for a very long time. To have a place where I can talk to people one on one and they can get to know me and my work. I expect it will be a place of poetry reading (not mine) and who knows, maybe I can get a paint club going. Wouldn’t that be fun? I’ll keep you updated. Can’t wait to order my signs and put them up.

 

Choosing Joy

The Oak

melissabluefineart.com

Today when I ventured out to my favorite little coffee shop I was surprised to find the TV on there, tuned to news. It seems another police officer has been shot, this time in a little town near my home. They have pretty much shut down the entire area while they hunt for the shooter. Even schools are on lock-down, and many major roads are closed off. Helicopters hover overhead. It is all very distressing. I hate it that this is happening in our country (well, anywhere)~shooters are everywhere, it seems. I grieve for the officer and his family, and I grieve for the human family that it continues to be torn by intolerance and violence.

As always, I find solace at my easel and in the woods. I cannot go be in the woods today, but I could work on a painting of one I started last week. One of the delightful features of a prairie-savanna complex is big old open-grown white oaks. They spread out their massive limbs like a giant stretching, and let them sweep nearly to the ground. Duck under them and you find yourself in a glorious, peaceful little sanctuary. I abstracted this tree out of its habitat in order to emphasize that, and the “isness” of it, from its furrowed bark to its sweeping limbs.

Painting helps me focus on what is good in the world. I hope this painting helps you feel some goodness, too.