Humans Co-creating with Nature

Tamarack

Tamarack

4/24/18

I love it that what early settlers took for primeval forest here in America was, in fact, a garden. When Native Americans traveled they would gather seeds from trees and edible or useful plants and carry them back to their home territory where they would plant them. Fires were used to keep down brush and encourage the species they wanted to grow. Working with the natural world, rather than against it, they were able to create a beautiful healthy ecosystem that in turn fed them and provided them with fiber and wood. I am over simplifying, of course, but you get the idea. When I first learned of this it really captured my imagination, and inspired thoughts that led to this painting. By creating a background that almost resembles wall paper to set off the native tamarack I wished to portray, I want to convey this idea of working with nature. Think how our communities could be, if we invited nature back in and worked with her rather than banishing her to the neglected outskirts. This is happening in some areas. In many city neighborhoods gardens are appearing on roofs and on abandoned lots. They serve to provide food, slow the flow of water, and help keep temperatures cooler. Equally important they provide a green and leafy place for people to just be. In other areas the native ecosystems are being restored. Right in the heart of Chicago, for example, dunes and their native plant assemblies are being restored along the lakeshore. What a wonderful opportunity for people to see nature at work, right where they live. Who wouldn’t rather see grasses, flowers and birds than rip rap and chain link fencing as they stroll or jog along?
I hope my painting inspires you. Look around~how might your community invite nature back in, to the benefit of everyone? Can a small grocery store be inserted where people can walk to it? Could a tiny rose garden be squeezed into a parkway? Let me know what ideas you come up with. What if, instead of traveling to Europe to experience beautiful city centers, we could create them here? What if, instead of traveling to Costa Rica to experience rich forest, we could invite back our own? What if, rather than creating problems for ourselves and our beautiful planet, we created beauty?

Weaving of Colors

When I saw this stand of fresh-faced spiderwort growing at Illinois Beach State Park this spring, I thought, oooh, a pattern of color! I used a background of orange behind the colors to make them pop, with a bit of yellow washed over here and there.

A Rare Little Gem

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Imagine that you’re standing at the edge of a vast stand of cattails, about to plunge in. If, like me, you’ve done such a thing, you know what a claustrophobia-inducing experience this can be, with the added excitement of treacherous footing. That you can’t see, because  cattails are in your face. And if, like me, you are shorter than the cattails, you also can’t see where you’re headed. But a leading ecologist from the Forest Preserve District assures you there is a fen hiding in the midst of all those cattails. I am filled with awe when I think of Ken Klick venturing out the first time, knowing what should be there and seeking to find whether it was. Of course, he’s a heck of a lot more knowledgeable than I am. Plus he’s considerably taller!

So after plunging through cattails for several minutes, up to our knees (well, past mine!) in water, we felt a slight rise. Fens are wetlands that are fed by mineral-rich groundwater. As I understand it, in this doughnut-shaped area in the midst of the cattails, this water wells up from underground. The water and soil are different here, and support a suite of extremely rare plants. The cattails gave way slightly, and like a miracle, there were the plants we sought. Huh. I’m still mystified, to tell you the truth. And grateful, because had Ken not taken me out there I would have never seen these plants. To mark the occasion I’ve painted this bog rosemary, not recorded in our county for decades before Ken’s spotting of it here.

Western Sunflower

western-sunflower

Melissa Blue Fine Art

Have I told you my Swink & Wilhelm story? It begins in a wonderful little bookstore in a nature center in Peoria. This was the gathering place for all of us volunteers embarking on a new venture~habitat restoration! Professional ecologists had their offices upstairs, and they would come down to mingle with us. It felt wonderful to be included, and treated as colleagues.

One day there was a buzz about a book that had “finally” come in. “Plants of the Chicagoland Region”, by Swink & Wilhelm. I forget which edition. Wow! I thought. I love books…but this thing is a monster. If I were of a technical nature I would now go measure and weigh it but I’m an artist so I’ll just say it is about 4″ thick, weighs a ton and costs a fortune. When I peeked inside its cover, I confess I was disappointed. No pictures! Keys, and brief descriptions~frankly, it looked indecipherable to me. I put it out of my mind at the time, little suspecting what a talisman it would become for me. Back then our focus was mostly on habitat, and we picked up plant ID on the fly but it wasn’t our focus.

A move to the northeastern corner of Illinois and a botany class later, things changed. Our wonderful instructor, and my dear friend, would exhort us to read our Swink & Wilhelm. We all laughed. It was a joke, right? And yet, something was making my fingers tingle. I looked again, and realized, it is like a puzzle, and she’d given us the first few pieces. For each plant, the authors gave a list of companions to look for. If you know one or two, you can begin to intuit another. And another. Suddenly it felt like it does when a camera lens pops things into focus. I could “see” the plant community a plant lived in, the soil conditions, etc, just by what was listed to grow with it. It was like a giant orienteering game! That book has been directing my footsteps ever since. I find the focus on my inner camera lens switching from wide-angle to take in the lay of the land to close-up to count stamens. Forest for the trees, flowers for the prairie, and back again. Kind of dizzying but exciting, too.

Journeys encompass more than one dimension, of course. You are already familiar with my struggle with myself over whether I am more scientist or more artist. It is a real relief to be able to look in the mirror and accept yourself for exactly what you are. And know that it is enough. While I’ve hiked over dunes and under oaks and splashed through wetlands, looking for the “next” one to draw, I’ve learned a great deal about myself as well.

But I can’t wait to see what the next plant will be….

Pickerel Weed

pickerel-weed

Melissa Blue Fine Art 

Pickerel Weed is such a wonderful plant, standing tall right at the edge of water where I like to hang out. Frogs lurk here, snakes sometimes slither, herons stalk while dragonflies hang in the air taunting us mud-bound creatures.

For years I have been playing it safe with my paintings. The occasional expert would look quizzically at me and ask why I was holding back. I would pretend I didn’t know what they meant. However, the more I enjoy all of the amazing blogs I find here, the more I realize that simply recording the wonders and beauty of nature can be done far better with a camera. Oh, there is photorealism, of course, but I always found that a bit pretentious. And so, it is time to take a deep breath and jump into whatever pools of creativity my heart and paintbrush can take me to. My best college professor would stand at our elbow, urging us to push ourselves, and then push further. At the time I felt it was all I could do to generate a good composition and overall image. Every canvas was like leaping into a deep lake and swimming across. I’d get to the far shore panting, relieved just to have made it, let alone worried about the style with which I got there. You don’t want to know how long ago that was! Well, you might but I don’t want to tell you 🙂 At this point I feel I may well drown, or retreat back to the muddy shore I’m so fond of. But I’m going to try being brave, pushing myself into expressing whatever it is that my soul wants to express about the natural world. It’s wordless, so don’t ask me to explain!

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” ~ Anais Nin

 

 

The Butterfly Monitors

The Butterfly Monitors updated1:12The Butterfly Monitors

My grand opening was this past Saturday. It was attended by my family and a few close friends~what a special day and thank you to all of you who came! When the dust was settled we looked at each other with wild eyes:”Did YOU take pictures???” Nope. None of us did. Ah, well. So today I am sharing a piece that hasn’t appeared here, as near as I can tell. I painted it some years back when I was still wielding a butterfly net for the Chicago Academy of Sciences and The Nature Conservancy. Ah, my glory days! We sure had a wonderful time out there with those big sweeps of sky and plants, helping keep track of butterfly populations. This is a way of monitoring land management practices~if the butterflies are thriving, we must be doing things right.

From time to time I want to include people in my paintings because I think our role in nature is an important one. I believe that if we try to remove people from our natural areas, this give rise to the push-back we sometimes see, with people rising up and trying to reverse our laws that protect our species, air and water. Rather than exclude people from the scene, I feel it is better to get them out there and teach them how to relate to the natural world that is sustaining to both. Those of us who love nature are prone to scowling at interlopers with their noise and litter….let us, instead, be teachers and leaders.

Americans are a restless bunch, and this prevents people from connecting with where they are. We see ads to travel, and become convinced that “somewhere else” is far more glamorous than “here”. How much richer our experience of daily life would be if each of us could learn the natural history of where we are, and get involved with keeping it healthy.

I know I’ve touched on this before. I hope I am not repeating myself too much.

Peace.

Chicago Botanic Garden Irises

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Here is a happy splash of color to celebrate spring. I’ve been wanting to push myself past a merely narrative style with my work, and make it more playful. Also, I have been inspired by the wonderful photographs you all share. I’ve been struck by color combinations that I wanted to try out. For this one, I wanted to let blue green and yellow green play together, as well as pushing in the direction of abstraction.