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Recently, I participated in an excellent online art workshop designed and led by Ruth Armitage called Land Lines. It was a “three-day exploration of personal mark making inspired by the landscape”. The workshop offered an opportunity to experiment with using a variety of marks and lines in new ways. For the duration of the workshop, I decided to focus on my backyard garden as the art topic.

I brought my own piece of landscape art of my backyard garden to the workshop, figuring that I could use it for comparative purposes.

Backyard, oil painting

In the workshop, I tried to get a better grasp of Ruth’s techniques and perspective regarding the use of lines and marks in art, as she is a well-known artist of abstract paintings. When we received our workshop painting assignments, I chose to continue painting this same scene of my backyard garden, more abstractly, using as many aspects of Ruth’s workshop techniques as possible.

After a number of presentations and short tasks, Ruth asked us to paint, relatively quickly, several paintings using varied lines and marks. For her workshop assignment, I submitted three of the assigned paintings for review, all inspired by my garden backyard scene. The three pieces are shown below.

Painting 1, Garden Sanctuary, ink, acrylic, watercolors.
Painting 2, Winter Garden II, mixed media
Painting 3, Garden Springs, watercolor and ink

You may ask, “What happened?”

These are very different from the oil painting I carried in to the workshop depicting this same garden area. Let me explain.

The entire purpose of this exercise was to reach out into new territory. So I did.

Ruth’s focus on marks and lines at first sounded simple. But in fact, it was very challenging, and often left me wondering, what exactly is a land line? When is a mark or a line not a land line? Do lines or marks have multiple meanings in the same art project? Why do I need them at all? What if I just avoid marks and lines and work in smudges or color? What about texture? How do marks, lines, texture and color work together and when are they failures to communicate?

At times, this resulted in me being more puzzled than I was before I started. Taking a workshop can be a humbling experience. It is true of every excellent course or workshop that I have ever taken, that I leave knowing much less than when I arrived.

For her assignment, I started to describe the garden scene by using bold geometric lines using a large yellow Y shapes of sunlight to divide the chairs and table from plant life. I viewed these landscaping lines as compositional

Then I decided to add marks and lines into the painting to depict plant life, over the larger composition of light streams that I had used to shape the painting. At this point in the workshop, I started to lean on lines and marks, along with color, to express how the garden varied.

At this point, I took time out to paint a watercolor version of how the garden looked from a plant’s perspective which turned out whimsical and just plain fun. Without realizing it, I had also changed my perspective on what I was doing from the original oil landscape painting to imagining other perspectives.

This watercolor sketch that I did is painted from the perspective of looking at a plant almost from the position of the ground.

Garden Plant, watercolor

After that, I made a more complicated sketch of trees, plants, table and chair. Not particularly happy with the end result, I decided to cut it up into pieces and see how it would look in a collage. Now that was brave! But it was also a reminder to not get too serious when trying to learn something new. From that experience, I decided that I was busy making lines. However, I needed more work on the meaning of lines.


Collage made from cut up pieces of my painting

At that point, I moved to imagining my little garden as a sheltered place bordered by fences, and edged with wild flowers, tiny branches and bushes. I felt the presence of the streets surrounding our fenced in garden. I thought of the garden surrounded by city streets and at one time covered with spring snow. Hence the painting titled Winter Garden.

I moved to viewing the garden from the perspective of our bungalow home, and considered the way in which the sky and the land related to early spring. See the painting, Garden Spring.

At that point, I decided to paint the garden as an oval sanctuary, or an icon.

Pink over brush of icon

Frustrated, I brushed in a larger set of compositional lines by adding a large pink shape over the garden. It was a personal statement on my part, saying that I needed a more stable place to describe the inner sanctuary aspect of my garden.

Then, I decided, over the same painting, to bring color, texture and line into the iconic inner sanctuary of the garden using the color blue and adding marks to show the garden’s intricacy. The painting ended up being simple in line, highly textured, using acrylic, water color and ink. See the painting, Garden Sanctuary.

My conclusion is that there are many more ways to depict a little backyard garden, and many more paintings to go.

It turned out that Ruth’s assignment to paint three or four paintings simultaneously while considering lines, marks and landscapes was very helpful, reducing the need for perfection and enhancing the need for experimentation.

Art, for me, is a continual process of learning, sketching, and imagining new ways to relate to my surroundings. Having painted a place, I feel much more intimately attached and familiar with it. Seeing it through multiple perspectives via this workshop has only strengthened my attachment to it. Added to this enjoyable process of painting my backyard garden, was the additional pleasure of learning new approaches and techniques of abstract art while doing it.

With respect to the workshop being conducted via the internet, I am grateful that Ruth and other artists continue to go forward with art workshops using the internet while under the current conditions of a pandemic where we are all under stay at home measures and social distancing. Under these new conditions, I found certain aspects of an online workshop very enjoyable. First, there was no commute. Second, I could walk away from the workshop and come back and continue at my own pace without interrupting anyone else. Third, there was time for thought. I was less hurried. I was also less self-conscious because if I did’t like what I was doing, I could pitch it and do it over, sight unseen.

There are some obvious disadvantages, as well to an online workshop. First, it required a quiet place in my home, without distraction, so as to not be interrupted by our regular activities of daily living. Second, I lost the opportunity to meet new artists. Third, we used text messages to speak with each other, thus losing the spontaneity of facial expressions, gestures and voice.

A Zoom meeting at the end helpfully brought us together for review of our work and allowed a more interactive discussion of each artist’s work with the instructor, while allowing other artists to observe.

Trying to use other artist’s perspective and techniques may feel awkward at first, but it leads to new understandings and broader perspectives on what is possible. I will be drawing and sketching for months to come, and no doubt will refer back to this workshop on lines, marks and landscaping, many times over.

Coincidentally, I got a Mother’s Day package in the mail a few days ago from my children and when I opened it up, it was a beautiful book, The Human Planet, Earth at the Dawn of the Anthropocene. The book highlights over 30 years of aerial photography across seven continents, completed by George Steinmetz, exploring the human imprint on climate and the natural world, with explanatory text provided by Andrew Revkin. The arrival of this book could not have been more timely. The landscape is both photographically real and artistically abstract, offering many opportunities for imagining new ways to paint landscapes from an aerial point of view, with lines.

Staying for many winters on a small and beautiful island of the Bahamas has taught me respect for water, energy and food supply lines. When the boats come in, we have groceries. When it rains, we have clean drinking water. When diesel oil arrives in ships, we generate electricity. When the sun rises, we see that it is our greatest source of energy, along with the tides and winds. Our agricultural lands are limited and our water for drinking is shallow. We view our great tradition of catching fish and crawfish to eat is a glorious luxury as our schools of fishes diminish.

We live in two places. In the spring, we return to our home where we are on another island of sorts, called North America. Although geographers would refer to it as a continent, I have come to see that we all live on islands. There are small ones, big ones, even some called continents. But they are still islands to me. They all defined by finite natural resources, limited water and food supplies. Our islands, all of them, confront the wild forces of nature, be they drought, storms, earthquakes, or pandemics.

We are students of islands.

On our little island in the Atlantic, when the wind blows, we feel our vulnerability as the waves roll wildly on to our beaches, sometimes ripping cliffs and taking them back into the ocean. When we step out at night and look up into the unlit sky, the stars and the moon literally hover over us. They are right there, smothering us with soft glow of light and opening up our world to the real possibility of imagining infinity.

Nature’s forces are abundant and everywhere, although often out of our reach.

On our huge island, or continent of North America, we do not necessarily sense this intimacy with the ocean the same way we do when we stand on a hill on our small island of the Abacos in the Bahamas and see the Atlantic Ocean in both directions, east and west. However, we feel the power and presence of the ocean as we wander along the beaches of the Pacific.

Yes, North America is in actuality, a well-defined body of shifting land surrounded by a shifting massive body of water, although its boundaries east and west cannot be seen simultaneously when standing on a hill, like we do in Abaco. If we were standing on the moon and look down on the planet Earth, however, we might see the east and waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans surrounding North America. We would also see that the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are one body of water, not two.

SONY DSC

Our islands are on a single planet. Now, that is a different matter. The planet Earth is surrounded by other things than water, holding even more possibilities of massive immensity. This whole act of thinking about who we are and what island we are on is a humbling experience.

On all our islands, we are impacted by the immediate danger of pollution from other places, as well as our own, as the plastic and detritus roll in onto our beaches and creep into our water and air. We see that abrupt shortages limit what people eat, and determine the time they must spend searching for food. We may not see it so clearly, until something like a global pandemic comes along, or droughts, or other big shows of nature that bring it to our attention very clearly, that things might change in a minute and our life lines are fragile.

Knowing this makes me appreciate my life even more. I am surprised and awed by the fact that I even exist, midst all the other options available. These chemicals and cells comprising me could instead be part of an apple tree, or buried in sands, or drifting in a large body of water.

I could have died before I was a year old. I might survive as a person for twenty more years.

Right now, I am living on an island, as is everybody else.

Our challenge this week was to make a birdbath that looks completely natural, as though it evolved from wind, water, sand and rock.

Can you find our beautiful birdbath? undefined

How about now? undefined

This birdbath is made of cement, using the imprint of a leaf, and has been left unpainted so that it looks really natural. It gets its texture from the dirt upon which the leaf was placed before we put on the cement. Here is how we did it.

We started by gathering up as many things for our project as we could find on the beach or amongst our belongings. Because we are on a small island, we try not to use imported items for our local art projects. Instead, we work with items that might easily found on the beach or are readily available in local stores.

Things we used for our project:

Some rubber gloves and a teapot for carrying water

Additional items:

Bucket found on the beach used for mixing cement, sand and water
Yes! We got lucky and found a bag of unused Portland Cement sitting in someone’s shed and they kindly shared it with us.
Scissors and a garden trowel
Plastic bag found on beach that we used to cover up the cement while it cured

The recipe for making the concrete is as follows:

Recipe

  1. Portland Cement
  2. A shovelful of garden dirt
  3. A small bucket of beach sand
  4. Water
  5. Some pretty leaf or leaves of your choice

Instructions:

If you have ever made mud pies as a kid, then you are going to love this project. Mix Portland Cement and sand using a ratio of 2 to 1. In the project shown below, I used about a total of 12 trowels of Portland Cement and 6 trowels of sand for the birdbath.

Measure the cement and sand and mix well in the bucket, using the trowel to mix it. Then add small amounts of water and continue mixing the cement, sand and water with the trowel. Make a mixture that is sticky and easy to pick up in your hand and squeeze into a small, messy mud ball. You do not want the cement mixture so wet that you can pour it. The less water used, the better. Mix some more.

There, your cement is ready to go!

Making the Concrete Bird Bath

Put a shovel full of garden dirt on the bucket top and mound it upundefined

Place the leaf (or leaves) of your choice on top of the mounded dirt. When doing so, try to imagine how it might look when it leaves its imprint on the cement . undefined

Place mixed cement on top of leaf and mound of dirt, using your trowel, and then your gloved hands. Smooth the cement until it reaches the edge of the bucket top while keeping cement approximately 2 or 3 inches thick. It ends up looking a lot like a Shephards Pie, made of cement, of course. undefined

Leave it in a shaded place for 24 hours.

Splash water on a plastic bag and use it to cover the cement and leave it for another two or three days.

Gently flip the cement over, remove the leaf, hose the cement down and take a look at what you have. Surprise! It is really beautiful. undefined

Mistakes we made thus far: On our first attempt, we left the cement out in the sun to dry and it dried to quickly and cracked. The second attempt, which is the one you are looking at, we left the cement in a shaded, cool place so that it dried more slowly and it came out really well.

Things to Remember: This project is for artistic fun. Please have fun and if it doesn’t work out the first time, try again adjusting it a little bit. If you start with a small project like this, it really doesn’t take much cement to make a beautiful birdbath. Even if you make a mistake, you won’t lose much if you have to do it over. Besides, it is enjoyable to play with cement. Have fun, and innovate! Let us know how it turned out.

Community Spoons

The art of crafting started thousands of years ago using readily available materials such as grasses, bushes, branches, trees, rocks, pebbles, sand and the like. We can still see ancient crafting and art projects displayed in natural history museums such as the American Museum of Natural History.

Recently, our South Abaco island High Banks Arts and Crafts Group has tried to find ways to do arts and crafts on the island of The Abacos using readily available natural materials. Large parts of this island and many of its people were injured by Hurricane Dorian. Access to a variety of stores is now limited. Many things islanders use for arts and crafts are from materials, shared and exchanged with neighbors. Part of the challenge on an island is searching for the material to work with. Instead of going to stores, we often head for “the bush” and search for more readily available materials found in the nearby natural coppice.

Nearby Coconut Palms
Basket hand woven from part of a coconut frond

We take a single frond from a Cabbage Palm, or from a Coconut Palm, leaving the palm intact and ready to make more fronds. Or we find a branch on the ground, or get a piece of wood from someone who has just trimmed a tree, leaving the tree alive and growing. We cut a small branch off a bush. Or we cut a few tall grasses to use for weaving. These are the materials for our art projects.

Cabbage Palm Frond
Basket woven from Palmetto Palm Fronds

Carving your own spoon is a very basic and purposeful activity. Making your own beautifully carved spoon from a branch found nearby, while asking a friendly neighbor to help cut the branch into a useful shape before you start carving, is artistic, social and fun. Carving spoons and then presenting some of your newly carved spoons as a gift to the neighbors who helped prepare the wood, is pure satisfaction.

And it is what we call a Community Spoon.

Future community spoons
Buttonwood branch cut and shared by a neighbor
Cut with a saw into a spoon shape by another neighbor
Being hand carved by a wood carver, not yet finished

Stay tuned for more arts and crafts adventures.

After the Storm. Watercolor on paper

Living on a small island for part of every year leads an artist to think about ways to use local and natural resources, rather than trying to purchase and import all our art supplies. It has become even more imperative now that our island has endured a terrible hurricane. We wish to do no more harm and perhaps even in the process, replenish available natural resources.

We all are thinking about solar energy. Most of us don’t want to replicate the energy uses of the mainland onto our fragile island. In addition, many of us are using these moments of reconstruction to think of ways to do our arts and craft more naturally, using locally available materials. Must we always import supplies?

What does this island have that we might use as a natural resource for our crafting and art work? Can we take it, use it for art and then have it some day return to the soil without causing any more damage to this exquisite and ephemeral island?

Poised to Sail. Water color on driftwood taken from the beach

Cement Art

Plant potter, made out of cement

How much do I love cement? Let me count the ways.

First, it is readily available and not terribly expensive. We can find it in hardware stores and often have it sitting available in bags in our garages and sheds.

Second, it is easy to mold. Pour wet cement into a small prepared mold and in a matter of a few minutes, it is hardened. This has both upsides and down sides. It does not pay to be indecisive or not yet have your mold ready when you are about to pour the cement. Molds must be planned well ahead of time.

Third, when it dries it is unbreakable. What can I say? Cement is hard!

Fourth, once hardened, it provides a smooth surface for painting. Shown in the photo, as an illustrative example, is a cement plant pot that I painted with a small brush using acrylic and permanent ink.

Fifth….is the unknown asset yet to be discovered when crafting with it. Which is why I am writing this blog. I think this would make a great project for our little island art group to work on together.

Carving My Own Spoon

Recently, I took a piece of crudely chopped maple wood and carved out a spoon that is now a happy member of my kitchen wooden spoon collection. It is the one and only spoon that I have ever personally carved out of wood.

Newly carved spoon hanging out with older kitchen spoons

I learned how to do this when I took an introductory class, a Wood Spoon Carving Workshop taught by Emilie Rigby at Assembly PDX in Portland, Oregon.

Rough wood

Having carved my first spoon under Emilie’s auspices, I now imagine numerous ways to use a block of wood and a carving knife for all kinds of projects, including carving more spoons.

Tools

Base on this introductory workshop, I have learned a few things about wood carving.

First, carving provides excitement and danger. One must be brave to use knives this way. We are warned about the many possible ways to injure ourselves if we do not use our carving knives carefully. We practice holding the knife so that fingers are out of the way. We learn to stay clear of our partners and to properly sheath knives when not in use. We wear a protective glove on the hand holding the wood block. At first I carve, holding my breath, hoping the knife makes it to the base of the wood without hitting anything other than the wood in front of us. As I gain some experience, I breathe more normally.

The second thing that I learned is that the process of carving is like a form of meditation. The slow movement across the wood, the emergence of the spoon out of the wood, has a sort of ephemeral quality about it.

Third, wood is a flexible and beautiful medium to work in. It has a lot of character that emerges as you carve.

Beyond that, I am too much of a beginner to say much more.

However, I did purchase my first hook knife which is used for hollowing out spoons and for many other things, so clearly I do believe that there is a future for me in wood carving.

Hook Knife for working on curves

Below, is an introductory video of spoon carving, for those who might be interested to try it.