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Rollins Prairie Restoration

Rollins Restoration

Rollins Prairie Restoration

I’ve mentioned Rollins Savanna before in this blog. Here is one of my favorite stretches of the trail. You can see the magnificent white oaks in the distance. There is nothing quite like an open-grown oak, with room to spread wide its arching limbs. In the middle ground is the result of breaking drainage tiles. Right away the water came back to the land, bringing with it many birds. Success! And in the foreground is a patch of prairie. Brush cutting and prescribed burns keep this system in good health, while some judicious seeding of native forbs is reweaving the tapestry that provides food and shelter for a great number of creatures.

The farmer who owned this place before it became a preserve obviously took good care of the land. I hope he or his family are pleased with how it is turning out these days. Places like this are wonderful in their own right, but they also give me hope because of the human influence they represent. There are forces in the world that help to restore balance and healing. I believe these forces will prevail over the distortions that create fear, hatred and war.

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Painting in Progress, and a Walk

in progress

To begin a painting, I like to create an underpainting con brio. That’s fancy for “letting the paint fly”. This one is planning to be a wetland painting, with an egret in it. Let’s see if that is where it goes. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime I ran off to play hooky at Illinois Beach State Park earlier this week, and I want to share with you some of my favorite photos of the day. They will probably become paintings eventually but I’m slow.

Euphorbia corollata turned red

Here is a Euphorbia corollata, all decked out in red for fall. I love this plant for its lacy white flowers that dance over the savanna for several weeks, and then light up late dog days of summer by turning red.

Dead River TRail

We are on the Dead River Trail, heading toward Lake Michigan in a meandering sort of way. That is my favorite way of getting somewhere, so this is pretty much my favorite trail ever. To the left are older dunes, left by the retreating glaciers. They are cloaked by Black Oaks, Quercus velutina. To the right is a glorious sedge meadow wherin rises the Dead River. In the summer is it filled with fritillaries and many other butterflies. In fact, back when I was the butterfly monitor, this was a very busy spot. Woodland and Savanna butterflies on one side of the trail, wetland and meadow butterflies on the other. Swiveling my head back and forth could make me dizzy but it was worth the effort.

Ladie's Tresses

Ladie’s Tresses! What a cool find. I really like how the blooms spiral up.

DunesAnd that brings us out to the foredunes.  This photo doesn’t show it well, but blazing stars, asters and golden rod were in bloom all over the flanks of the dunes. More, in fact, than I’ve seen before. When I first started coming to the Park, the dunes were much more bare of vegetation. It has been quite interesting to watch succession take place here. By the way, I find it quite odd how the lake appears to be about to pour right off the screen. That is a bit unsettling. A check of the tree reassures me that I was not leaning, myself. Photographers, what am I doing wrong?

As you can see, it was a very good day to play hooky. At one point I looked up and could see the Chicago skyline. You can’t always, but on a clear day you can. I marvel about that~the contrast between the wildness where I stand and the city I can see.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our walk 🙂

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Dickcissel?

Dickcissel

melissabluefineart.com

Once in awhile I’m able to capture more than a blur of feathers when I’m out in the field. My policy is to click first and ask questions later, so here is my little bird. Can anyone tell me what she is? I think she is a Dickcissel. The habitat is restored open tall-grass prairie.  I really liked how she settled herself in the midst of these Compass Plant flowers like the centerpiece in a bouquet. ‘Tis the season of Sylphiums and Liatris, symphonies in yellow and purple.

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Journeying

Jim and Katie on Dune Trail

This morning I thought I’d share this painting I did a few years ago of my children.  They are sitting on the Dune Trail, gently enjoying a small snake that has come across their path.  We are lucky to live in a place where one  needn’t  fear the snakes.

I feel almost a mystical tie to Illinois Beach State Park.  When my family first moved to Illinois in the 70’s, my parents took me there to see it.  I remember seeing a young lady in a park uniform putting out flags and something like a bell went off inside me.  “That will be me one day”, I found myself thinking.  Then I forgot all about it until my life had taken me down several other roads.  Life zipped along, to the day someone suggested that I might want to monitor butterflies for the Nature Conservancy.  OH!  magic.  It became my life~nets, workshops, days on the trail counting butterflies.  My children grew up, it now seems, on this and other trails.  Now when we walk the trail we find layers of memories all along the way.  One day I remember that young lady and am startled to think, yes, that did become me one day.

Now my children are grown-ups (wonderful and awful all at the same time!)  and my knees tell me they are done chasing butterflies.  It is a difficult decision to pull away from something that meant so much to me for so many years, but it has been time to for awhile.  There is a new monitor at Illinois Beach, I am told.  I feel like the old racehorse that runs the fence when he hears the bugle, but I know it is time for me to turn my focus.

Yesterday I had a reception jointly with another artist at a gallery I joined this spring.  I feel like I’ve come home all over again~all these years I thought nature people were my tribe but I started to notice how isolated I felt.  I don’t really belong in that world.  But at this gallery the artists come and hang out together.  Hours fly by as we discuss media and method.  I found my peeps!!! Funny how that can happen almost by accident, isn’t it?

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Leading a Volunteer Workday

The Botanists 4:2015The Botanists

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Yesterday I had the good fortune to help lead a volunteer workday at a nearby nature preserve.  Almond Marsh is blessed with a large natural marsh and a nice quality upland savanna.  It is also blessed with a wet area accidentally created when a road was constructed. A low area filled with water, creating snags that attracted herons who nest there every year now.  When I arrived I saw a large bird fly right over the parking lot….a Bald Eagle!  That was an auspicious start to the day.

In a short while my charges for the day arrived~3 Brownies and their mothers.  My job was to take them out into the woods and teach them a little about what they were seeing and then have them pull garlic mustard.  I’ve done this before, but this was the first time I felt like an elder passing along knowledge.  It was really moving to see these little girls bend over, studying the Toothwort and Trillium I was showing them, and then learn to pull the garlic mustard.  Once they learned how to get the whole root they were all over it, triumphantly holding each one up for me to admire.  They were too young to be given detailed natural history lessons, of course.  I hope they loved the day as much as I did, and that they left with questions forming in their minds and wonder in their hearts.  I hope they come back.  They and their mothers were a delight.

The painting I wanted to share with you today is a celebration of the many citizen scientists it has been my pleasure to know over the years.  As I understand it, sometime in the early 80’s folks around here started to adopt parcels of land.  In some cases these were already forest preserves, but had not been managed.  In others they were parcels of land that people just wanted to save.  Organizations were formed, funds were raised, and land was purchased.  People began to study their field guides and historical records to discover what plants and creatures should be present.  Techniques were developed to restore the ecological health of prairie, wetland savanna and woodland.  Really, it has been a human blossoming as well as a natural one.  Every now and then I step back and marvel at these people from different walks of life teaching themselves botany, entomology, birdology 🙂 you name it, and then dedicating thousand of hours every year  to help restore natural processes in the land.  When I sit in stewardship meetings, I notice that all of us are growing old.  Will this have been a fluke, a passing thing that will die with us?  I hope not.  I hope it continues, and I hope it spreads to every region.  Spending a day with 3 sweet little Brownies and their wonderful moms gave me hope for the future.

To read more about this movement and hopefully be inspired to start it in your area, I recommend the book, “Miracle Under the Oaks”, by William Stevens.

May eagles soar above you, and flowers bloom at your feet.

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Turk’s Cap Lily

Turk's Cap Lily final

Melissabluefineart.com

Turk’s Cap Lily is a wonderful plant that is a great find when you stumble upon it in the field.  I usually see it growing at the edge of savanna and wet prairie.  I seldom see it bloom twice in the same spot, which adds to the delight in finding it.

The traditional way to portray flowers in botanical painting is to set them against a neutral white or grey background but this is way too restrained for me.  I wanted to suggest the time of year and a bit of the habitat where I find the plant yet still make sure the lily was the star of the show.

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Perspective

Arrowhead with damselfly

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Yesterday I went to walk the boardwalk at Volo Bog, the last open-water bog in Illinois.  It is a very cool place, and has inspired a number of my paintings such as this one.  I love to gaze into the black pools of water that wends its way between mats of plant growth.  It looks so deep and mysterious.

Recently I’ve been reading, “33 Artists in 3 Acts” by Sarah Thornton.  It makes me uncomfortable, which is why I’m making myself read it.  I’m a little disappointed by the author.  She wants to know what artists are like, so she has chosen a handful from the ART WORLD.  Like the guy who bought a shark, stuck it in a tank, called it art and sold it for millions.  humph.  These are people who went to art school with the intention of making the connections that would vault them to fame and fortune.  They consider themselves to be art, and anything they create is incidental.  In fact they mostly don’t create anything, but delegate their ideas to craftsmen.  They are openly contemptuous of those of us out in the trenches, making our own art, striving to create beauty and perhaps share a message of hope and love.

I mention all of this because it takes me so by surprise and I don’t really know how to process it.  While I didn’t attend college for art (I have a BS in biology), I did look into it.  I had the impression that the point of attending art school was to learn how to make art. It never occurred to me that they were, in fact, grooming the next artist personalities, not the next artists.  So now we have a population of super-stars whose idea of art is dreaming up the obscene and making other people construct it.  Odd.  And the sad thing is, as you read what they have to say for themselves, you get the sense that they are lost.  They have been taught that they must participate in the conversation where it was when they came on the scene.  They must not paint, because painting is dead.  Had they all been born a few decades sooner, they would have been able to join the conversation at an earlier point. Say, before painting had been declared dead.  According to this line of thought, all painting that happens today is derivative.  Hmmm.

This isn’t the only area where I come across this.  Back in the early 80’s when I got involved with nature restoration, the field was wide open.  People were excited and hopeful and creative ideas were sought after, not squashed.  Nowadays, just try to suggest that another method of restraining exotics like buckthorn might work better than an escalation of herbicides and watch people blow their tops.

What do you think of this?  Is it valid to say that in any given endeavor, say art, or nature conservation, that there is such a thing as an ongoing conversation?  Are there a small group of “leaders” who get to decide what is right?  It seems rampant, to me. In so many areas of human thought and endeavor things gallop along into a blind alley.  Then, instead of pausing for reflection, the ones pushing for this line of thought harden it into dogma that must not be questioned.

Or is it necessary for the conversation to be interrupted from time to time…  I hope next time Sarah Thornton wants to know what an artist is she goes out and talks to painters and ceramicists and photographers and all of the other creative souls who call themselves artists.

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Painter’s Joy

Ruebush Mountains

Usually, my life is pretty quiet.  Not this week, though… it has been a whirlwind of appointments and varied urgencies.  What a relief when I could slip down to my studio and lose myself in a painting.  This one in particular has been a delight.  It is a commission from someone whose blog I have been enjoying for some time now.  I have been lucky here in blogland, “meeting” some wonderful people that I would never have gotten to meet otherwise.  Being trusted with a special memory is such an honor and I really wanted to get it right.

Today was the day.  To my delight, my client wanted me to meet him and his wife at the Oregon IL. library, a halfway point for both of us.  The library there is a very beautiful old building, with an art gallery in the upstairs.  How great is that?  The area was once the site of an artist colony, and the library would host their events.  In return the artists donated work to the library, and these are the works that are on display.  I was amazed to find paintings and sculptures worthy of a major art museum tucked into the upstairs of a library in rural Illinois.  I am not doing justice to the story, but if you are ever in the area I strongly recommend a visit~it is wonderful.

We arrived at just about the same time, and introduced ourselves.  In the library we were shown to a room where we could visit and the painting could be revealed~ he had commissioned it as a gift for his wife.  I was holding my breath as the wrapping came off, I can tell you!  Her reaction was everything I could have hoped for.  It was a very moving moment, and I am so grateful to have been a part of it.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart, my two new friends.

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Shifting Light

November Forest

“November Forest”

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More commissions are in progress in my studio, but I wanted to share this painting with you.  I started it quite awhile ago and it just needed a few touches to finish.  The inspiration came from a new forest preserve here.  It isn’t very high quality right now.  The task the preserve district now faces is restoring habitat in all of the land they have bought over the past several years.  But lots of land has been saved from the greedy developers, so whew!

Although this preserve as a whole is pretty degraded, it does possess this regiment of oaks taking their stand on a hill.  Walking along that day, I was struck by the beautiful soft light coming through the trees as the afternoon drifted to evening.  I could whine for quite awhile about November, and its cold dry air making my skin and hair miserable and my feet cranky in boots when they’d rather be bare.  But just look at that light!  It is a gift to be savored for sure.

For this painting I started out with that light in my mind, and painted the background with wild abandon.  Just color, with a hint of land form.  Then I began adding and subtracting trees until it felt right to me.

I hope, as we roll on into winter, that you are showered in gifts like good health.  And Light.  Lots of light.