Mountain Snow Insects

tundra landscape

Rocky Mountain National Park – Tundra Communities Trail, June 7, 2017

One of the areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that constantly surprises is the alpine tundra at 11,000 plus feet. Each season, each day, each hour and even each minute the landscape can change dramatically and show you another facet of itself you never knew was possible. This past week I was given confirmation of that once again.

I did not expect to see much life except fellow human visitors, birds, maybe marmots and perhaps a pika but certainly not insects of any kind. However, as I began to look closely at the snow, I noticed dark specks. Lying atop and buried within the snow crystals, I discovered beetles and bugs. When I would pick one up, sometimes he or she would curl up, pretending to be dead, while others would appreciate the warmth of my hand and wake from their cold slumber to soak up the sun and take a walk.

I know for most people this probably is not or would not be something to be excited about, but to me, it was such a gift. Here in a very difficult and often inhospitable environment, these tiny animals were alive, which if ever one is looking for a sign of hope to persevere this seems fitting.

Given their size, it would appear their chances of surviving are slim, yet here they were; even after being packed under feet of snow for a winter, weeks on end. I wondered, “How did they do it? Had they gone under rocks or plants for shelter? They must have some sort of anti-freeze like chemicals in their body, right? What will happen to them now? Do they find a mate, die, then their young carry on, finding themselves in a winter’s sleep as their parents to repeat the cycle? Or do some of them live for more than a season? I also wondered what goes on inside them. How is it they do not give up? Not survive?….Yet they do and for many generations they have. God willing, they will continue for many more years to come.



When Lawn Becomes Garden

What if we made more gardens in the world? Sanctuaries for nature and the human spirit?

This is how my backyard is coming so far. 

Addie’s Garden

addies garden.jpg

“Addie’s Garden” – Acrylic on Wood, 2017 by Kristin Gjerdset

Created as a commissioned piece for my mom’s cousin, I was given the freedom to design the content but it had to have a butterfly in it and the colors maroon, purples and browns. My first choice quickly became a mourning cloak because it had all the right colors and was the desired insect.

After that, I focused on including plants Addie loved and had in her garden, as well as plants that blossom in spring, since the mourning cloak emerges after a winter hibernation. The ladybugs came later in the process, since the painting needed spots of intensity and Addie let me know she loved them as well.

The most special element for me was making the nest, as it represents a shared moment. When I had initially visited Addie to discuss the commission, we discovered a tiny nest in her backyard bushes, much to her surprise. Carefully constructed of tightly woven branches, I imagined it held hummingbirds. I thought this would be a fitting addition to the rest of the arrangement as a memory. There were no eggs in it at the time, but putting them in the image connected with the idea of new life and hope, that spring gives us.

“Crayfish Family” – discovery in the river


“Crayfish Family” – Acrylic on Wood, 2016

24″ x 24″

The painting is a result of sketching at the Menomonee River with my college art students last spring. They knew of my interest in creatures so it wasn’t long before I was called over to see the crayfish in the water. Her brilliant colors were stunning but unfortunately, she had passed. However, I suspected there was life to be found, so I began to pick up rocks and look underneath. Much to my delight, I found a dozen or so “baby” crayfish.

I chose to depict her alive with her young, as the water flows. I appreciated how the river changed from revealing forms to concealing and reflection.

More of my art can be found at


Spider Dew – a little narrative behind the work


“Spider Dew” – Acrylic on Wood, 2016

24″ x 24″

Amidst my garden plants one fall morning, I was taken by the sight of this wolf spider and her web. While many may cringe at the image, to me it represents one of my favorite memories in the yard. I was impressed then and still am at the complexity and construction of the observed space. The dew shone like jewels in the light, covering her many silk lines, with some drops congregating, some dispersed, some bigger, some tiny. I chose to play up the cascading pattern with its many circles.

I feel she was deserving of some sort of a permanent homage to her creation, despite the fact I only represent a fraction of the actual beauty.

More of my art can be found at

“Critters” Exhibition Closing Celebration Blog


“Crayfish Family” in foreground by Kristin Gjerdset; the cat images of Kathleen Mulholland and linocut by S.V. Medaris seen in background

I title this a “celebration” blog, as after viewing the “Critters” art exhibit today, I believe it was a show worthy of being recognized. The Plymouth Arts Center in Wisconsin brought together the work of fourteen Wisconsin artists, reflecting their connection to animals. Each created meaningful, respectful responses to the lives they chose to depict, whether a domestic farm animal or a wild life. I fully admit I was a participating artist so there is some bias, but I am truly honored to have shared the space with kindred spirits, whose work showed creatures as a subject worthy of reverence. I found myself contemplative, humored and inspired as I spent time in the gallery.


Upon entering I was introduced to the work of S.V. Medaris: “23 Weeks Until Thanksgiving Dinner,” a small reduction woodcut/letterpress. The print shows a turkey chick standing, facing forward with chest out, yet its neck stretched, turning its head away with beak pointed upwards. We see only one eye looking downward at its body. The white of the eye is shown, reflecting to me a type of panic (…or maybe it is my guilt reflected for eating creatures full of personality and spirit). It seems as if the chick is aware of its future final day. I found that each of Medaris’ works shared a similar insight into the psychological state of the animals, whether playful dogs or a proud rooster. She causes one to pause at our consumption of them. I also really appreciated the many lines of woodcut used for her images, giving enthusiasm to the paper’s surface.


Another artist found at the beginning of the exhibit, was Rachel Durfee. Birds and butterflies are the main types of animals present in her mixed media pieces here. “Of Being in Significance” is a woodcut and watercolor, as well as a poem, of a monarch on patches of green, appearing like a depiction of stained glass. The colors are bright and vibrant but when one looks closer, the eyes bulge out, the wings are only partially open and the context is a butterfly pressed against the ground surface. The butterfly is dead. Durfee eloquently speaks in her poem about finding the monarch and how it moved her. One of my favorite lines is “embraced by a story vast and deep.” I love the fact she recognizes the individual life of even a butterfly having a history, as we as humans do.


Cathy Jean Clark is another artist inspired by Lepidoptera (the scientific word for the scale winged insects known as butterflies). I had to keep returning to “Chrysalis I, Monarch” – an etching, chine collee and litho piece. The composition is a rich combination of techniques and forms – from the carefully gold threaded edging outlining the picture to the buildup of layers found through line and aquatint. As a viewer, I just wanted to keep exploring it, for as I did I kept finding things to look at; from the many milkweed seeds and their white hairy wisps floating about the page to the muted green chrysalis with its bits of gold. The inclusion of a map type image of the U.S. and Central America gives it a scientific element in teaching one where the monarch lives.


My own work in the exhibit looks at insects and other small lives present in our world. My most recent painting made for this show, “Spider Dew” is a wolf spider I came upon one fall morning in my garden. I was drawn to the complex patterns of lines and circles, created as a result of her web. I know depicting this subject is a risk in many ways, as spiders are seen more often negatively, but I hope the viewer is convinced the spider, too, gives visual beauty to our lives.

spider-dew“Spider Dew” by Kristin Gjerdset

There are a few artists whose pieces certainly cause one to smile. Bill Reid’s delightful, whimsical sculptures of brightly painted and patterned metal animals fit that category. For this show, he presents three creatures – a “Wallabeest of Burden,” “Watermelion” and “Bat Weightings in Wings.” Within the structure of each animal are little vignettes of small sculptured animals interacting, causing our imaginations to be awakened, and making up possible narratives for what’s happening. It’s clear Reid has fun in constructing and creating, and passing that passion along to his viewers.


The 16” x 16” acrylic paintings of Claudette Lee Roseland appeal to play in a different way. Each focuses on a different animal – cats, birds, frogs, dogs, fish and cows – and how they can be placed in a linear structure as well as a more scattered, colorful space. My personal favorite among the group is “Cats.” Roseland depicts a line of red cats at the top of the image within a light yellow strip, each in a different, distinctive cat pose. Below them is an abstract expressionist style colored environment in which one sees parts of more red cats. I think the piece reflects well the natural behavior of cats.


Mary Ulm Mayhew’s plein air style oil paintings of animals are fresh, showing deftness with the media to show the proportions of each animal. The portrait of the dog “Bella” is a standout for me, as she captures the physical individuality as well as the penetrating eyes of a dog, a look those of us who have them as companions know so well.


Kathleen Mulholland’s images of cats are similar but deal with the penetrating look we get from our feline friends instead. Her two large mixed media pieces of cat’s portraits are the most compelling in this respect due to their size and the amount of textural complexity. They seem to be built up with multiple layers of lines and colors created by watercolor and other mixed media. The presence of time and effort is apparent and makes me respect them for simply the process alone.


Raymond Gloeckler’s wood engravings share in this characteristic of hard work and thought put into the development of his images. Gloeckler describes his woodcuts as “employing whimsical and satirical imagery. Often birds and animals are personified to exhibit human like characters.” “The Critics: It has been brought to our Attention, hence we dare to postulate after Due deliberation, that children’s art is great!” is one such piece that reflects the above mentioned. A female deer like being stands facing a man like moose, under which there is a child like figure, simply created of geometric forms between them. I was astounded at the amount of line work showing their shapes dimensionally and in a convincing manner, along with bringing the characters to life, showing joy as “children’s art being declared great.”


Richard Bronk’s craftsmanship with wood is apparent. While I do not know much about the creation of wood works, I thought “Bad Moon Bison Run” was a rich visual experience simply for the number of types of woods inlaid together. They all blend together so naturally and cohesively. When he says, “it can be so intrinsically beautiful that anything from it becomes an object to admire or desire,” he is successful. This piece also makes one think about the narrative – why do we see only the back end of the bison? Why does it appear to be disappearing within the surface? What is the relationship to the moon? Is this perhaps about the near extinction of the species or a hunting event or has the animal naturally met its demise? It makes you think about how to interpret it.


Mary I. Hager shows us the lighter side of animals by selecting brilliant reptiles and amphibians as inspiration to make life size mixed media sculptures. When I dropped off my work for the show, Hager had already submitted hers. I remember having an immediate attraction to her “Chameleon” piece made up of bright blue beads for the body with green ones for the animal’s pattern. While it is abstracted in color choices, it matches the actual proportions of the species and seems to be alive due to the convincing natural pose.


Karen Robison presents works which are “part of a series called ‘Bird Skull Series.” Each is an assemblage containing a bird skull, as well as other found objects, along with utilizing painting to give a color theme, often muted. There is a fascination to the pieces in wanting to investigate what is included, then looking at the title to give a “why” as to how they look. The skulls are placed in the middle of the square composition, often in a framework. In a sense, because of the framework, the skulls seem as if they have been placed on a small altar to which we come to consider. They make me think of the reliquaries found in Italian cathedrals.


Patrick Robison mixed media and glazed stoneware pieces of animals show both his talent at creating an amusing narrative and depicting a creature that has been observed. “Tree Rat Ghost Ship” has the story element, as Robison created a ship stacked full of acorns with a “tree rat” skull placed at its prow instead of the expected carved female figurehead often found on old vessels. For his “Garden Turtle” sculptures, he made life size reproductions of them held up by metal rods, the rods attached to a piece of worn wood. These pieces are playful as well as showing how a turtle naturally swims by its leg positions.

I saved Clarence P. Cameron’s piece for last, as he carved out of soapstone one of my favorite animals, the owl. I can understand why he has been creating them in “various media for fifty years.” There is certainly no end to the number of ways one can imagine or observe them. In “The Gleaner,” the white soapstone brings out a horned owl crouching down on a branch. I was most drawn to the incised blue lines on the surface that brings out the feather patterns and contours, as well as the details such as eyes.


All in all, it was a well-put together exhibit, showing the various ways “critters” are woven into our lives. Thanks to Larry Basky and the Plymouth Art Center for organizing and inviting me to be a part of this show.


From Sketches to Final Artwork

So you make these super fantastic sketches at a local coffee shop…or the zoo…or a park…or some secret amazing spot you discovered…so what do you do next? They are cool memory images of an experience but you want to do something bigger and better with them. You want to share them (or maybe you have an assignment where you HAVE to make them into a more fancy, formal art piece.). How do you go about it? Here are some stories to help from an artist who has tried and failed and yet sometimes succeeded in this regard.

My professor in grad school really liked this miniature study I made of a window and brick wall. He said, “That would be really great if it was giant size (well, he didn’t say giant size exactly; probably said “larger”).” I worked on this one painting over the entirety of a semester (as well as other projects. I wasn’t completely obsessed). The professor and I would meet periodically when he would give advice. I would try it. It would not work. He gave more advice. It wouldn’t work again. I tried my own ideas. Those didn’t work. Nothing seemed to capture the original. When we got to the end of the semester, my professor told me that sometimes artworks couldn’t be made into bigger pieces. Sometimes they are best small. So what was the point of spending all that time into one painting that never worked? That I ended up rolling up and throwing away? What could I have possibly learned?

I learned this. Each artwork is an individual entity, whether a sketch or a final piece. We can take what we do in one and inform the other but simply recreating/copying doesn’t often work. There is something to be said of the creative act; something that happens within its borders that is difficult, if not impossible to fully redo. It is good to respect it.

To illustrate this idea, here is another story. I spent an afternoon finding insects by the Milwaukee River, drawing and painting studies of them with pencils, watercolor and ink. My goal was to make a painting for a competition. I was enjoying my time outdoors but I was disappointed how few creatures I was finding. I decided to stick my hand in the water and lift some rocks, as this is often the hiding place of larvae and who knows what else. Nothing found. This too seemed a futile effort. It was autumn so animals of this type were starting to die off or digging deep to hibernate.

But I tried again, lifting a large flat rock. When I turned it over, I was surprised and definitely delighted to see a giant water bug attached. I knew he or she would not stay long, so I quickly took a few photos and made a pencil sketch. The bug started to move so I put it and the rock back in the water. My collection of studies that day included the bug. The artwork was juried into the show and was sold as a gift to a mom for her birthday. Was this the end of story for the piece? No. I wanted to make another artwork based on this experience. I thought about copying the original or making it very similar but then I remembered my grad school window painting moment and decided it against it.

KGjerdset_Milwaukee River Walk

(Water bug in upper right)

I did think about the most memorable about that day. It was the giant water bug. The finalized painting became not about what I collected with my eyes on the river trail but what surprised me. The bug took my day from being somewhat mediocre to an incredible discovery. I had never seen one before. That’s what I wanted my viewers to know about. The resulting artwork shows the giant water bug bursting on the scene. The size of the creature and its claw like legs are emphasized. He has created a disturbance, much like he did for me.

The sketches gave me new ideas. The final artwork grew out of the studies.

Without the sketches, the painting would have never happened.

Each image, though connected by an experience, is distinct. Each developed naturally. Nothing was forced and each conveys the essence, the spirit of what happened. Each shows a part of what I wanted to share.

5 Gjerdset_Milwaukee River Walk 2 copy

(I wrote this for my college art students, hopefully as inspiration. :))