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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.

We had an afternoon to share, my granddaughter and I. She said, “Grandma, how about art?” I said, “Sure.”

We gathered up some watercolor paper that is cut for making cards, brought out our brushes, inks and acrylics. We covered my kitchen table with an old plastic shower curtain that I use to protect my good table. We grabbed an empty and cleaned up peanut butter jar to use for water, and started to work.

She used some shells and a sand dollar we had picked up at the ocean for her inspiration. I looked out our kitchen window at all the angles. She decided to play with the starfish and then shifted the shapes and began to ink them in. I played with lines and angles, thinking about some of the wonderful drawings my artistic neighbors did when in the Abacos as they drew lovely, simple, angular paintings of island homes.

At some point, we spilled the water and also knocked over the blue ink. But it mopped up easily, given the plastic shower curtain we had used as protection. We cleaned up the mess and kept right on painting.

Several hours later, we took turns walking into in the other room and holding up the other person’s painting for them to see, more objectively.

We got hungry, ate lunch together and talked.

It was a perfect day.

The Author as a Child

It started out as an attempt to write my life story and has instead become a fictional novel about the end of the world. Writing my memoirs has turned out to be a journey, first in truth telling, then into fiction, and finally into the unknown.

Writing my memoirs seemed like a simple and rewarding task. I believed that I had the proper writing skills although it was not really the same kind of writing to which I was accustomed. Up to this point, my published writings were scientific, written with objectivity and largely data-driven. The subjects in my studies were anonymous; my memoirs would be deeply personal. I was writing about my family and me, in the first person, in a highly subjective manner.

Yes, I figured it wouldn’t be that hard to write my memoirs. It was after all, it is still a writing assignment. In fact, it sounded pretty simple and far less data-driven than what I usually did. It sounded like fun, an adventure of sorts. It seemed like just the type of thing I wanted to do to celebrate my retirement. I was looking forward to being free of objective methodology, constricting datasets and footnotes, and to write more freely.

A memoir seemed in order. But in fact, the struggle to put down my life story on paper has continued to plague me for a number of years. In the process, I have learned to blog, write poems, tell stories, make illustrations, sketch doodles and work in other art forms such as watercolor and oils , even basket weaving. But my memoirs are still not yet fully written.

I continue to work on them, from time to time, and will probably continue to work on them for as long as I can, primarily because it is too enjoyable and rewarding to ever stop writing them.

When I first started writing my memoirs I had just retired from decades of research and travel with most of my career spent working on survey research in the social and economic and environmental sciences. While doing so, I wrote and published on a regular basis.

Working in international statistics for the United Nations was very exciting. I traveled to numerous countries in many regions of the world while collaborating with the statistical offices of governments. In the process, I took on tasks and followed trails that few have ever taken. My work in demography and statistics was exciting, personally rewarding and humbling. There was so much to do, and so little time. Although my readers were highly specialized and my audience limited, I loved working with these incredibly interesting teams of statisticians on problems of survey research methods and was deeply engaged in the work. Those decades of working and traveling in numerous countries, while married to a great guy and together bringing up three wonderful children, could not have been more complicated or rewarding..

Upon retiring from the UN, I considered my next steps. Without knowing what to do for certain, I decided to start looking at the world from a completely different perspective. I decided not to take an emeritus role in my field, but to reach out to new subjects instead, to find a different voice.

One thing I had wanted to do since I was a young woman, was more personal writing. At my retirement party, my now adult children gave me a book on how to write a memoir, and a blank book to go with it. They were great gifts, encouraging me to start writing about some of the many things I had experienced over the years.

I started writing my thoughts about my childhood, only to discover that the deeply personal nature of the task prohibited me from going forward and posting it up for others to read. I thought about all the other people, mainly family and friends, who might be affected by my making their lives public along with mine, and decided to take another approach.

I started over, this time by writing fiction. I decided that precision of history was not what I wanted to write. Rather, observations about life were becoming more important than complete objectivity in telling my personal story. It made more sense to let fictional characters do the talking.

I am finding writing to be so powerful of a tool when using fictional characters, where one may explore new areas and experiences. Moving to fiction actually frees me up to say what I want more readily.

Writing in fiction leads me into thinking about so many things while pondering directions to take. For example, should the story be written from the perspective of one person? Or should I let a multitude of characters speak for themselves? How would this affect the story?

Why am I writing this fictional book?

I am still trying to address that question. Do my ideas flow, is my text clear? Are my main characters evolving, is the plot thickening?

About that plot.

My first fictional book has stubbornly stayed on telling my main character’s story about her survival after an apocalyptic event. Her story reverts back to her childhood through her thoughts about the times when she begins to realize that numerous species of flora and fauna are disappearing, and the destruction of clean waters and air are happening, right in front of her eyes.

Now, back to the plot.

What is the plot, if my main character is the last person on earth? How complicated can the story get? Does this mean that there is no plot, but futility?

Oh yes, I do have a plot. I’m still struggling with it, but think that a book focusing on these last days of human existence on the planet earth remains a worthy task. My main character is free to say what she wants. After all, it appears that most others are already gone, disappearing in the extinction process. There is no one is left to be hurt or insulted.

Perhaps it is because my main character is telling her story, I am free to listen to her and to see the world through her eyes in all its beauty and complexity. Through her actions, I experience the shock and fragility of being an almost extinct animal.

Through my main character’s wonderful descriptions of loss, a love of life and all its abundance emerges. Through her descriptions of the remaining environment as it begins to evolve into some sort of healing process, and her joy of discovering the beauty of what remains, leaves me hopeful for life on the planet, even if humans are no longer a part of it.

My main character’s ability to weave her own memoirs into the telling of her story, brings me freedom, as a writer, to consider the joys, tragedies and hilarity of my own life.

Plot, characters, text, wording, illustration. I love the potential of them all and hope for them to stay with me on this journey to the end of human existence on our planet, plainly seen through the eyes of my fictitious characters.

You may be wondering at this point, what does this have to do with writing memoirs?

The old adage, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” rings true. I am not yet ready to write the last chapter of my memoirs, nor can I. Because I am still here, alive and changing.

Fiction is offering me many more possibilities to express my thoughts, as long as there are some people alive to read it. Without interested readers, what will remain will be simply small etches in the sands of time.

It is my hope that we people will continue to exist in some sort of form, for hundreds of thousands of years into the future. Perhaps we won’t, given the slippery slope we are now on.

But I think it is worth wondering what the world would be like if we were almost extinct, if we became as rare as some other species have recently become.

In the story that I am writing, I focus on the days when most everybody disappears on earth, but for a few struggling characters. Fiction offers this opportunity.

Then I ask, what if I actually knew this one character intimately and could write about her while she and her partner confront the end of human existence on the planet earth?

What would I learn from telling her story? I am about to find out.