“Critters” Exhibition Closing Celebration Blog

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“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 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.

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(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.

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

 

View of the Cabin

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“The White Cabin at Rocky Mountain National Park”

Admittedly, buildings are not one of my favorite subjects to draw or paint anymore. I enjoy the freedom nature allows creatively. No one knows the difference if an angle is incorrect or care if a line is crooked. Natural subjects are constantly changing due to light, weather or the life of the form itself. But I desired to have a record of the cabin and so I sat on the back hill behind it on a sunny August afternoon, determined to make a watercolor.

I chose to include a good deal of the environment as it is where I am most connected as an artist. In the process, however, I did let go of feeling locked into making every constructed line straight. I just wanted to make sure the main verticals and diagonals were observed in such a way so the structure would appear stable. Capturing the spirit of the place and my response to the experience became important than observing with a mechanical perfection.

I would have to say a rabbit did have an influence on taking this more laid back approach to linear perspective. As I was figuring my lines, I noticed movement on the porch. There was the cottontail who had been making regular appearances over the course of my two week stay. He appeared to look at me then groom his paws (which is why you see him slightly hunched over). I said a hello to him, as I think this is the polite thing to do when one encounters a rabbit. :)  It seemed fitting to include him.

I proceeded to work – thinking about the number of panes on the windows, how much of the recessed back room I could see, etc. Then I noticed the rabbit hopping up the pathway to where I was. I wondered, “Was he really coming towards me? Was he as curious about me, as I was about him?” He sat on a rock, not far from me, positioning himself in a dignified way, looking in my direction. I agreed he made a wonderful model and so he sat for a few minutes, very still. I was able to paint him. He then scampered down to munch on grasses in the front yard. I believe he was satisfied he contributed to the artwork (by the way, you will find him a third time in the image – left side, center space, as a tiny, black silhouette).

From that point on, I worked with the moments I wanted to remember  – blackbirds flitting in and out, the different shapes of plants present, the layered rock pattern on the chimney, where grasses clumped and the trees I saw each morning from the bedroom. It did not matter if every shingle was drawn, the exact number of wood planks of the cabin recorded or if every life was drawn to be identified, only that they were there and they were symbolized.

(This artwork was produced while I was the artist in residence at Rocky Mountain National Park in the summer of 2015.)

 

 

View from the Porch

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“View from the Porch (RMNP)”

So much for beginning my weekly blog…guess it maybe alternating weeks.🙂 At any rate, here is my second watercolor and ink image from my artist residency at Rocky Mountain National Park last summer.

Suffering from an altitude sickness kind of headache, I did not want to waste any day, so I spent the day sitting on the cabin porch, wondering what I would see. Purple thistles were the most noticeable, along with Long’s Peak – stable subjects.

The reward of waiting and observing with patience resulted in appearances from more transitory visitors – a red admiral butterfly, least chipmunks, green towhees (I believe were anyway) and voles peeking out now and then under the grasses. I think they would fit well in a pocket, if they liked it, which they would definitely not.🙂

A memorable part of the experience was a broad-tailed hummingbird male flying directly up to my face, then zipping away. He is a little tough to find in this image but he is present. Search and find. Have a seat at the porch.

 

Rocky Mountain Lakes Life

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“Rocky Mountain Lakes Life”

A new year always brings motivation to start fresh so I have returned to my blog. For the next few weeks, my weekly post will be an image from my Rocky Mountain National Park artist in residence in August of 2015 and the story behind it.

“Rocky Mountain Lakes Life” is a collection of what I saw during a day of hiking up to Bear, Nymph and Dream lakes. The sketches began with the mountain in the center. My goddaughter was feeling the altitude so we sat and waited until she felt better. In the meantime, I pulled out my pencils, watercolors and micron pens, compelled to record the colors and the curvature of the rocky formation before us. It is a small sampling of the pinks, purples, greens, and yellows witnessed.

After my godchild had filled up on water and nourishment, we were on our way. The first lake on this popular trio of lakes trail is Bear Lake, a mere feet from the trailhead. I did not see anything here to paint, plus we were anxious to begin real hiking.

The next lake was Nymph lake; appropriately named, as all the yellow lily pads and glasslike mountain reflections opens up one’s imagination to the possibility of seeing magical creatures and lilliputian beings. While we did not see any of the former, I recorded ants, water skimmers, damselflies mating and a white insect (in upper right of image), of which I still do not know the name. This white one did hold a bit of magic though, as it skimmed across the water, rolled over onto leaves then sat upon them. This process was repeated more than once. I had to use my binoculars to draw it.

The final lake was Dream Lake. Here is where trout can clearly be seen, showing off their salmon pink, red and gold. I was also drawn to a tiny yellow flower amidst the roots of a tree. It was probably only about a half inch in size. A magnifier was required to see it for all its detail. I did the best I could in capturing it but there is more to be seen then what I have here. This is always the frustration with nature, there is so much present than one can possibly record. It is also what keeps me wanting to continue to observe. One always finds something new.

 

 

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More Sketch January – bird, fish, Annie

sketch january 13 raven

On January 13, a raven from Yellowstone National Park was inspiration (taken from my photo).

sketch january 15 fossil fish

“Dreaming Diplomystus Dentatus” on January 15.

An ancient fish that appeared to me to be sleeping, lost in a dream. Worked from my photo from Fossil Butte National Monument.

sketch january 16 sleeping annie

My dog Annie was too content and cute not to draw on the evening of January 16.  All dogs should be so happy.

Sketch January Highlights

After seeing a Twitter posting on a sketch January challenge, I decided to give it a go. Here’s a sampling of favorites:

sketch january 11 copy

“Gray Jay”  – pen and graphite pencil, 2015

Taken from my photo at Rocky Mountain National Park a couple springs ago of a very friendly gray jay, who sat by me, while I painted a mountain. I made a watercolor of him, too, at the time, since he was such a willing model.

The drawing/painting was created with Faber- Castell PITT pens, which are essentially india ink in pen form. Wonderful to work with, as they act like watercolors with their layering possibilities and drawing media for the control one has with line. The other two images below were drawn with the same media, along with a white wax pencil to add highlights.

sketch january 10 magpie copy

“Magpie” – pen, white wax pencil and graphite pencil, 2015

Another friendly bird who engaged me at Rocky Mountain National Park that same spring. I got out of the car to find this bird walking about me, displaying and showing off. I did not even offer him food. A special experience it was, though it normally is with most corvids. I guess he knew I loved magpies and his relatives.  :) He was starting to curve his head down in this moment.

sketch january 8 spider copy

“Spider on Cacti” – pen, white wax pencil and pencil, 2015

I found this little orb weaver amongst cacti at the botanical gardens when I was in Dublin, Ireland a couple years ago. I did not have time to sketch at the time, so she has finally been recorded here in a fine art format.  :)

As always, your respect is appreciated so please do not copy and reproduce without permission.

Thanks and happy drawing!