Sometimes, on my walks, I like to play a little game.
I call it Alleyway to Art Gallery.
Something catches my eye — a piece of rust, moss on a worn fence, a shattered windshield, even some crumpled paper floating in the gutter.
At that moment, in that light, it is astonishing.
That’s how the game begins.
Part two is imagining that the little piece of beauty has been magically transported from the gutter to a pristine white gallery.
The lighting and ambience are perfect. The exhibited piece is HUGE. Twenty feet high.
Perhaps sparkling wine is being served …
The colours, the textures! It’s stunning.
In some ways, the game can be a little depressing since the imaginary exhibit is far more gorgeous and spontaneous than anything I’m likely to create.
But, therein lies the fun of it. It’s an inspiration. Something to aspire to.
Plus, before you know it, I’ve been on a little fantasy VAG, MoMA, or Tate Modern trip during the course of a dog walk.
It’s my little secret. Until it wears away, blows away, or the light changes, it’s part of my own private collection.
The pictures in this blog are of a treasure I found in a local alleyway around this time last year.
As you can see in the photo above, the alleyway in question did not seem, at first glance, to hold a lot of promise. I can’t remember how exactly I came to notice it. Perhaps Geordie wanted to pee on it.
It was a large painting, done on some sort of wood veneer with thick, swirling sweeps of paint. Hard to say if was acrylic or oil paint, or what the original subject was.
I’m not sure how long it had been languishing in they alley when I found it, but much of the paint had worn off and the wooden base had started to de-laminate. Moss was beginning to colonize parts of the wood, and windy weather had caused brilliant fall leaves to pile up in front of it.
One or two other leaves had become plastered to the old painting and random, yet somehow perfect, intervals.
It was one of those overcast, damp days where the sky is a dull grey, but all terrestrial colours seem extra bright to compensate. Flecks of blue left in the painting, and the touches of red in the autumn leaves, seemed to add little jolts of electricity to the overall composition.
I visited my little secret art show several times over the next few weeks, until it disappeared under the winter snow.
I considered all the the elements that went into the accidental “installation”.
The painter and their original inspiration.
The decisions and/or circumstances that led to the painting being abandoned in the alley.
The wind, the leaves, the moss, the light.
My decision to walk that way that day.
Geordie’s sudden need to pee.
Somehow this little game brings me much joy.
More and more I’m trying to find ways to steer my mind onto calmer pathways and thinking about beauty and serendipity makes a welcome change from too much news or the never-ending “to-do” list.
I recommend it.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like, The Gift.
Let me be clear. Actual owl wrestling is definitely not something I’d recommend.
However, it does feel as if I’ve been metaphorically getting to grips with owls for the last few weeks.
One particular owl, in fact.
Since the wonderful day a few weeks ago when a barred owl appeared in front of my house, I’ve been working on distilling the magic of that day into a small set of images.
It was such a special day, I really wanted to make sure that I did that beautiful owl justice. To that end, I’ve been faffing about with this series for weeks.
First of all there was the issue of making a short list of the photographs to start working from. That gorgeous owl posed so obligingly for me, for so many hours — it made choosing the final four images quite challenging.
Then I had to decide which other images to layer the owl portraits with. Below are most of the final images that, in the end, became merged with the owl — but in the process of working on this series I tried dozens of other combinations of tree, foliage, stamp, fabric and texture images. They all ended up on the virtual cutting room floor, leaving the set of images that are now on my web site.
Lupins, cracked concrete, katsura leaves, sky, forest, an old barkcloth curtain and owls — all combined to create the atmosphere in the final set of four owl images.
Owl Dreams 1
Owl Dreams 2
Owl Dreams 3
Owl Dreams 4
Some of the other images of birds of British Columbia on my web site. Buy four or more, and save 15%.
Later this week I will have sent myself “via airmail” to my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne in northern England. I’ll be there for the opening of Spring Show at The Biscuit Factory Gallery, where a series of my bird images, entitled Correspondence, will be exhibited.
CORRESPONDENCE: letters sent or received
So many airmail letters, cards, and pressed flower collections passed between my mother and me. We wrote to each other from 1976, when I moved to Canada, until 1997, when she died. I keep many of our letters in a box under the bed.
I like to re-read them every few years because I see completely different things in them now than when I received them in my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. I guess that’s because I’m now “catching up” with my mother; getting to the same stations on life’s journey that she’d passed through decades ahead of me. Parts that I had skipped over in my youth now grab my attention and recognition in an entirely different way.
Although no more mail arrives from my mother; and although I no longer stick stamps on letters to her; I like to think the correspondence continues through my artwork. In my images I’m always pointing to things I know she’d have loved. I also like to think it’s the equivalent of a box of letters on the subject of “things that are important” for my children to go through one day in the distant future. At least, I’m fairly confident they will think of me almost every time they see a crow or a raven!
CORRESPONDENCE: a close similarity, connection, or equivalence:
I like to think of my photographs of birds as portraits, rather than as scientific illustrations. I try to capture a look in the eye or a pose that captures the connection between birds and people. Although they have evolved along an entirely different path from that of the human race, I can’t help but feel, especially after the hours I’ve spent watching crows, that there is much we have in common.
Worrying about our children, furnishing our nests, trying to survive … we are all connected.
Insomnia can be a drag. I don’t think I’ve actually had a really solid night’s sleep since my first child was born almost 26 years ago. First of all it’s the usual – feeding, teething, nightmares. Then it becomes a habit to wake up every few hours. After that, the teenage years come to keep you (well, me) wide awake and staring into the dark for hours at a time. Then, suddenly, you’re an old lady and everybody knows that old ladies sleep very lightly.
But, as with all problems, there are sometimes perks. I no longer lie in bed staring at the ceiling. I get up and explore. Those very early mornings have become a special time for me. It’s as if I’ve made a heist from the time bank and I have an hour or so to fritter away.
First of all, a cup of tea must be made.
The essential early morning companion.
After that, what to do? Sometimes I just wander around the house admiring the sheer artistry of the mess a family can create. Strewn clothing, the table buried in a pile of newspapers, magazines and neglected paperwork. Somehow at that time in the morning it doesn’t seem right to worry about tidying, so I can just appreciate the story of how everything got where it came to rest. I am always somewhat comforted by a quote from a Globe and Mail columnist I read years ago that said something about the homes of the most interesting people “showing signs of recent struggle”. I often think that (a) we must be really fascinating and (b) our housekeeping style has the added bonus of being a burglary deterrent. “Hmm, this place has already been ransacked — let’s move on.”
Our house is pretty chilly in the early hours, before the furnace comes on, so in winter I start the day in woollen slippers and a double layer of dressing gowns — one flannel, one fleece. This is a handy because I can slip out of the house, onto the roof deck, or into the garden, without immediately freezing to death.
Frost on the coral bark maple.
Sometimes I even venture out of the garden in my multi-layered dressing gown attire. Luckily we have understanding neighbours.
Everything at that special hour seems somehow very particular. In that little bubble of time I like to watch the birds arriving and see how they start their feathered days.
A pine siskin takes a moment in the ice fog for a little personal grooming.
Two Robins, One Starling
I like to look up at my particular little patch of hydro wire criss-crossed sky and see it changing. Every dawn is like the turning of a mini-season.
Crows enjoying the moonset as the sun rises.
Crows enjoying a rosy dawn.
Always, when I look to the east, I see the crows returning in small groups from the roost at Still Creek. They settle on the wires and enjoy the view for a while, do a little grooming, have a bite to eat — and then we all go on about our respective busy days.
Who needs Tiffany, when you have nature’s diamond necklace?
A frosty take off. Things to get to at the office …
Just a small selection of the 1,500 or so rust, peeling paint, graffiti, old china, wallpaper etc photos I’ve collected.
It’s a rainy day here in Vancouver. The first of many, I suspect. But, to quote one of my mother’s many handy sayings, “every cloud has a silver lining.” These grey, wet days are perfect for heading out and adding to my “texture” photo collection.
I think it started with the battleship linoleum on out bathroom floor when I was little. I used to stare at it and could see several distinct scenes of action. The one I remember most clearly was a lion swimming in a strong current of green swirling water. In those distant pre-internet (even pre-TV) days, I used to make up stories about the world within the lino. More recently, I was sure that this intersection of green and blue looked, if you squint a bit, like a tropical oasis.
So began a lifelong fascination with patterns and pictures in the most unlikely places – rust, lichen, water, grating, reflections, lace, wallpaper, ice, fibreglass, peeling paint. Often to the exasperation of my long-suffering family. A few years ago I was in London with my son, then eighteen. As I crouched over a rusty grating to take the hundredth photo of the day, he said, “do you hear that”. I said “what?” and he replied, “it’s the sound of my eyes rolling”. I smile every time I hunker down to take yet another picture in the gutter or on a fence. I find it best to go solo on these expeditions these days!
I just checked the “textures” folder on my computer. It contains 1488 images. I’ve taken many more times that number of this type photos, but these are the ones I’ve chosen to save. What do I do with them all? Some of them end up as images in their own right, large canvases or prints. I love the fact that some of my favourite and most striking images come from extremely humble origins.
This slightly Gustav Klimt-inspired piece is actually a section of a burned out and rusted car I found deep in the woods in northern British Columbia.
This rather spectacular study of blue and orange was created by the wear pattern of a chain on a dumpster in the far corner of the parking lot of my local Costco.
Spectacular Rust on a Dumpster in our Local Costco Parking Lot
Some of the images are just fun – taken often around the house, like this one looking into a green plastic glass. I haven’t quite figured out a purpose for this one yet.
Most of the texture team play a supporting role in other images, layered to add depth (both in terms of meaning and visual interest). Every time I go back to the North East of England where I grew up, one of the things on my “must do” list is to climb up the 325 narrow winding steps of the tower at Durham Cathedral. From the top is a breath-taking panoramic view of the town and surrounding countryside. But the journey up the tower is fascinating too, as the stone walls have been embellished with graffiti – ancient and modern.
Layer upon layer of human efforts to leave a mark.
I’ve used images of the tower walls layered in some of my images of contemporary Vancouver crows. In combining the images I’m trying to keep memories of my UK background current in my daily crow-filled Vancouver life. I’m thinking about how crows are both ancient and modern and, like people, prone to mischief. I’m sure they’d be prolific graffiti artists, if only they had opposable thumbs. And maybe, if we don’t get our human act together — crows and the ruins of Durham Cathedral may perhaps outlast us all …
Some textures are used to make jewellery. One of my most popular designs is “Ribbon”. This abstract striped pattern comes from a photograph of prismatic tape I found hanging in a physics lab. It’s silvery surface is designed to reflect different light waves, creating and ever-changing combination of colour and pattern and it moves in the breeze.
Many of the images I take don’t even make it to the “textures” vault on the computer. Often they’re taken with my phone and see the light of day on my Instagram account. Lots of others flit across my Facebook page.
Still nice and cloudy out there. Better grab the camera and head out in search of some lovely rust or mouldering plywood!
The Blog Hop project is a world-wide thread in which bloggers talk about their creative processes.
As I’m pretty new to the world of blogging, I was honoured (and a wee bit intimidated) to be asked to participate in this blog hop project by Canmore artist and brilliant blogger, Linda Cote. I’ve admired Linda’s work online for a while but had the great pleasure of meeting her in person when she was in Vancouver this spring. We had a lovely morning of coffee and chat and she subsequently wrote a most splendid blog posting about the meeting. Linda is an accomplished print maker, her inspiration being the abundant natural beauty found in her spectacular part of the world. One of her works, a baby raven, has pride of place on my living room cabinet.
All of my work starts with my own nature-inspired photography. These images pass through my brain, computer and hands to become various kinds of artifacts — jewellery, tiles, prints and mixed media. I’m lucky enough to work from my home studio in East Vancouver and sell my work at local markets, through some galleries and online via Etsy and my web-site.
So, on to the Blog Hop questions
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?
Like most artists, I’m perpetually stirring a bubbling cauldron with many ingredients. I’m always, always taking photographs. That’s just like breathing for me. A quick picture of a bird in the garden, a special trip to the mountains in search of ravens, or a shot of some sunlit rust that I noticed on the way to the post office – photography goes on 24/7. I’m constantly working on new tiles, prints and mixed media to fill orders from online customers, galleries, and to have ready to sell at local markets, or directly from my studio. I also design jewellery – incorporating my images with silver and resin. My daughter, Lily, makes the jewellery in the studio, and I keep her busy with new designs.
My particular passion at the moment is mixed media and I’m working on a new line of pieces that I call the Parlour Portrait series. They are meant to evoke the formal family portraits that would, in days of old, have taken pride of place in the “best” room of the house. In my mythological parlour, a the definition of “family” is much broader, including crows, cats, robins, ravens, dogs and squirrels.
One of the elements of the Parlour Portrait series that has me so excited is putting the image on metal leaf. As a photographer, I’m acutely aware of light. I love to keep reincorporating “light” into my work even as the original image is morphed into various objects. I design my jewellery so that the light bounces off the silver behind the image, giving it the illusion of being lit from within. I’m excited to have discovered a way to achieve this effect in my mixed media by using metal leaf behind the images. It’s something like alchemy, because you never quite know how—or if — it’s going to work until it’s done. And that’s addictive to me – I just can’t wait to get out to the studio and try it again to see what happens.
Of course, I do need to sell my work to survive, so I spend a certain amount of time on shameless self-promotion. I do enjoy being on Facebook, and writing my blog and periodic newsletters – not so much for the self-promotion, but to share my excitement at the amazing things I’ve just seen and the fun projects I’m working on. I’ve just done my last summer market and am now gearing up for a studio sale in another week. These are really fun events, and customers I’ve known for years come over, as well as new ones, and we enjoy some drinks and snacks — and they get a sneak peek at what’s going on behind the walls of the studio. The other great thing is that it forces me to clean and tidy up in advance. A necessary push, because otherwise I’d just start one project on top of another until you couldn’t actually get in the building any more!
HOW DOES YOUR WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS?
If I had to think about what my “trademark” aesthetic is, I guess it would include, in no particular order:
a sense of each image, be it a leaf, a cat, or a crow, being a portrait – in that it seeks to convey the particularity and “soul” of the subject
love of colour, particularly blue (which I use so much I almost consider a “neutral”)
a worn, nostalgic atmosphere
a sense of humour
I’ve never attended art school full-time, and most of my art techniques are self-taught. I think I take after my dad in this respect. He was a blue collar guy/bloke living the north of England, and he liked nothing more than spending time in his beloved shed, figuring out how to make a variety of things from ships in bottles, to marquetry to rocking horses. My mother was a keen gardener (although she didn’t actually have a garden until she retired) and she taught me to look at the details of nature. Although I’ve been influenced by many fellow artists (living and dead), I feel that my parents were the most profound teachers. I learned from them to make the most of the material and subject matter at hand, and, if you don’t know how to make something, figure it out!
WHY DO YOU CREATE WHAT YOU DO?
When I first started to write on this subject I was a bit stumped, but the more I thought about the question, the more reasons came to mind. This may be “too much information”, but here we go …
Not being a religious person, I have found the close observation of nature to be a great help to me in times of personal loss and stress. Even on an average, cheerful day, the sight of a chickadee or a crow can raise my spirits and lower my blood pressure by several notches in a few seconds. I hope to share at least a bit of that joyful feeling through my work.
In many ways I feel like a super-enthusiastic cub reporter, burning to share my latest “story” with the world. On my Facebook page and in my newsletters I often post pictures I’ve just taken that very day, sharing my enjoyment of the natural world and Vancouver in that way. In my image compositions I spend much more time choosing and combining images, and in a way that I hope tells a story about the subject matter in the image and, perhaps more ambitiously, expresses my world view.
On the other hand, in my more pessimistic moments, I envision fragments of my tiles being unearthed by some archeologist in a dystopian future, where they will be puzzled over. What could these impossibly beautiful creatures — crows, sparrows, chickadees — have been like before they became extinct?
I have always been partially motivated to make art in order to break rules and thwart expectations. As long as I can remember I’ve been asking “why” things have to be a certain way. I remember discussing with my mother, at a very young age, the validity of the “blue and green should never be seen” rule. As well as “little children should be seen and not heard”. Later I began to wonder why certain subject matter and art media were considered more “arty” than others. Black and white photography for example was always considered more refined than colour. I remember my first “photo shoot” at age nine with my brand new Kodak Instamatic camera. I was on a school field trip with my elementary school at the Flamingo Park Zoo in exotic Yorkshire. I had taken “amazing” shots of peacocks, tigers and (of course) flamingos. But back then there was only black and white film, so I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed in the results. When colour film was available I never looked back!
My very first art objects were snow globes. In my twenties, I somehow started collecting snow globes and became dissatisfied with the “rules” that determined what was worthy to be immortalized in the wonderful shrine of snow-globedom. I figured out how to make my own so that I was free to enshrine my local favourite coffee shop and bookstore in the manner I felt they deserved. In a way, all of my work is a continuation of this: taking something that may not be generally revered by society and using my work and images to shine the spotlight upon it that I think it merits.
And finally, this is perhaps not such a good analogy, but here goes. Many years ago I had a friend who really, really loved the music of Jimi Hendrix. He took it a personal challenge if someone did not share this passion, and would make them listen to a Hendrix song over and over again, very loudly. The only reason he could see for someone not to love Hendrix was that they weren’t REALLY LISTENING! I hope that my way of persuading people to notice and love the details of nature is a little less abrasive, but I do identify with my old friend’s evangelical instincts!
HOW DOES YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS WORK?
Because I feel that I’ve used so many words already, and because I have a variety of different processes on the go at any one time: I’ve made a diagram:
It is my great pleasure to pass on the blog hop torch to wonderful Edmonton artist (and fellow descendant of Geordies) Sydney Lancaster. I can’t wait to find out more about her work and process by reading her coming blog hop post.